Understanding the impact of peer-assisted learning strategies

Elementary school children reading a book, photo by Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

RAND Europe evaluated the impacts of peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) in England. The evaluation sought to understand the impact of PALS on reading attainment but the assessment was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the issue?

There is a compelling case for the benefits of peer tutoring – particularly for improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. PALS-UK was identified by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) as a peer-tutoring programme with strong potential, particularly given its structured approach to building high-quality interactions. The available evidence for PALS from the US, and the wider evidence on peer tutoring, suggests that it is particularly beneficial for pupils with low prior attainment. However, to date it has not been independently evaluated in a UK context.

How did we help?

RAND Europe was selected as the independent evaluator and sought to build evidence by conducting a randomised controlled trial (RCT) across 80 schools in the North East and the Midlands. The trial aimed to understand the impact of PALS-UK on reading, including fluency, comprehension, and self-efficacy. As well as looking at free school meal (FSM) students as a sub-group, we also aimed to look at how PALS-UK affected high- and low-attainers given previous studies that identified the benefits for peer learning programmes for students with low prior attainment.

We complemented the impact evaluation with an embedded implementation and process evaluation (IPE) that sought to understand the extent to which PALS-UK was delivered with fidelity during the trial, alongside any barriers and facilitators to delivery, and business as usual in schools assigned to the control arm.

Project delivery took place as planned, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic testing was delayed by six months and the reading fluency and comprehension test could not be completed.

What did we find?

Disadvantaged students in schools who took part in PALS-UK made the equivalent of one months’ additional progress in reading, on average, compared to disadvantaged children in the control schools. This result has low security given the small sample size and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the trial. In contrast, in general children who took part in PALS-UK made the equivalent of one month less progress in reading, on average, compared to children in the control schools. Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the trial, there is uncertainty about whether this trial can provide a generalisable estimate of the impact of PALS-UK.

Observations of programme delivery suggest that most schools implemented PALS-UK with excellent fidelity. Teachers surveyed and interviewed as part of the process evaluation felt that PALS-UK had positive effects on pupils’ reading confidence and reading fluency and, to a lesser extent, on reading attainment.

What can be done?

Future research could increase the focus on understanding and assessing programme effect on the specific groups of pupils, including pupils eligible for free school meals, where an effect was detected in this study despite being underpowered.

Given that PALS-UK was well received and that most teachers indicated that they would like to continue delivery if the programme was available in the future, we suggest that there is merit in conducting a re-trial of PALS-UK. However, based on findings from the IPE, we acknowledge that some minor tweaks to elements of the programme may be beneficial for future implementation of the intervention—for example, how to inform pupils on how to work well in pairs in the pupil training, or how to inform teachers to select appropriate reading books for pairs in the top-up training.