Plusses for performance when picking partners

One male, one female student, studying together

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No matter the stage of education, students most often work with a partner when carrying out practical sessions.

The logistical reasons for this are clear. Working together saves money and space, and decreases preparation time. Educators also often consider paired work safer than working individually. But could working in pairs for practicals also have learning benefits for students?

In a new study, researchers in the US have investigated the benefits of peer learning during a practical, specifically focusing on mathematical skills.

A sound mathematical foundation is important to lab work. Students need to work out reaction stoichiometries, prepare samples and analyse data.

The researchers investigated peer learning in an existing sequence of undergraduate lab sessions. Applying the maths needed for each practical and calculating accurate experimental results were primary learning outcomes of these sessions.

The perfect pair

The model of peer learning used in the study is simple to use: it’s relatively unstructured and you don’t have to assign roles. It relies on the conversation that will happen when working collaboratively. This is in contrast to peer instruction, where one student has the primary role of peer leader or teacher.

However, in this study’s approach to peer learning, an important consideration was the wide range of maths abilities that any student cohort has. The researchers considered risks such as a lower-achieving student failing to fully engage in activities or learn from a higher-achieving student. Despite this, the study focused on pairing students with dissimilar maths skills.

Students were split into two groups: one group self-selected their pairs; the other group were placed in assigned pairs. For the latter group, students’ SAT maths scores were divided into quartiles and laboratory partners were assigned so that 1st and 4th quartile scorers were partnered together, as were 2nd and 3rd. This way, students working in each partnership differed in maths skills.

Peer performance

Students were given the same maths assessment at the beginning and end of the semester to analyse learning gains. This assessment included fractions, exponents, percentages, scientific notation, significant figures, basic operations, algebra, unit conversions and graphing. Students’ maths skills were also monitored by their midterm and final exams, lab notebook and lab reports.

Students across both groups performed better at the end of the sequence of labs than the beginning. Top performers in the pre-test performed similarly, regardless of who they were partnered with. This demonstrates no negative effects of the pairings.

Crucially, the largest increase in maths assessment score was from the bottom maths performers who were paired with top maths performers.

As about half of the students were not given a choice of who they worked with, the researchers wanted to look into how all participants in the study viewed working collaboratively. Interestingly, students assigned a partner showed a statistically significant positive shift in attitude toward collaborative working. Those who chose a partner did not.

This study suggests it may be worthwhile spending time deliberately pairing up students of different abilities.

Given that most educators already have students working together, this peer learning strategy can be easily implemented to maximise the benefits of student collaboration. Some things to consider:

  1. The pre- and post-test used in this study to assess the increase in mathematical skill is freely available as supplementary information on the research article [PDF]. It is appropriate for senior secondary school students and could easily be adapted for junior students.
  2. You can adapt the same test to ascertain students’ prior mathematical abilities before assigning pairs.
  3. Although the study was confined to practical work, the benefits of the peer learning approach are likely to apply to other areas. You could use the same assigned pair strategy for working on calculations, without the practical context.
  4. You don’t just have to pair students based on mathematical ability. Assigning pairs based on differences in other skills could lead to maximised learning gains in those skills too.
  5. You could also use a peer learning strategy in other sciences, or general science classes.