Helping At-Risk Students Meet Standards: A Synthesis of Evidence-Based Classroom Practices

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NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 6 describes the following:

Title | Helping At-Risk Students Meet Standards: A Synthesis of Evidence-Based Classroom Practices

Authors | Barley, Z., Lauer, P.A., Arens, S.A., Apthorp, H.S., Englert, K.S., Snow, D., & Akiba, M.

Source | Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

Year Published | 2002

Teachers need access to research-based practices that target children who are low performing or at risk of failure. This research synthesis addresses the research question: What are effective instructional strategies that can be used in classrooms to assist low-achieving students? To answer this question, the synthesis looks at evidence supporting the use of 5 strategies to help low-achieving students meet standards: cognitively oriented instruction, heterogeneous grouping structures, tutoring, peer tutoring, and computer-assisted instruction. This section of the report (Chapter 6) synthesizes research on the “peer tutoring” classroom strategy.

Peer tutoring* is an intervention that has been widely studied as a means of helping low-achieving students meet standards. Given the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that all children attain standards, this strategy becomes one of importance. Peer tutoring involves pairs of students working with each other in the learning process. It may involve students of equal ability trading roles of tutor and student, or an academically stronger student paired with an academically weaker student. When students are in or close to the same grade level, the method is considered peer tutoring; when 1 of the 2 students is in a significantly higher grade level, then it is considered tutoring. Two previous meta-analyses have been completed on peer tutoring, specifically on mathematics. However, these had some methodological limitations; researchers were not precise about the amount of the learning increase or about the conditions under which positive effects are likely to occur (Cohen et al., 1982).

Research Questions
The purpose of this synthesis was to describe and discuss relevant findings of 4 peer-tutoring strategies that occur within the scope of the regular classroom teacher. They were divided into four subcategories: Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT), Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (RPT), and studies that explored variations on CWPT.

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | N/A
  • Number of Subjects | N/A
  • Years Spanned | 1982-2001

Research Subjects

  • Low-achieving students
  • Language learners
  • Low socio-economic status (SES)
  • Students with a broad array of handicapping conditions

Age/Grade of Subjects
K-12. The majority of the studies were on elementary level and some on high school level.

Specified Disability
Students with a broad variety of disabilities.


  1. Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT). Pairs of students work together in learning basic information within a subject area. The teacher prepares materials for the pairs to use, assigns students to pairs, trains students how to serve as both tutor and tutee, prepares assessments materials, and monitors the tutoring sessions. Only 2 longitudinal studies and a follow-up study used standardized measures with a no-treatment comparison group. The rest used weekly teacher-derived tests.
  2. Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS). PALS expands the original CWPT to engage students in reading activities. Students are paired within the classroom and complete a tutoring routine. Pairs earn points and are assigned to teams. The winning team is announced at the end of the week.
  3. Reciprocal Peer Tutoring in Elementary Mathematics (RPT). RPT is designed to enhance learner control and cooperation between peers. Students are given the opportunity to alternate between student and teacher roles. A structured peer-tutoring format is used to guide the learning process, and students help design and evaluate a cooperative reward system that they use to manage their own reinforcement procedures.
  4. Six additional peer tutoring studies were included in this synthesis. Four were further examinations of CWPT, and one was a further development of CWPT called CSTT. The other one was designated as peer tutoring.

Duration of Intervention

  1. Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT) takes approximately 30 minutes each day, or for 2 to 5 days of the week for pairs of students.
  2. With Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), pairs are assigned to teams weekly.
  3. With RPT and the other peer tutoring studies, the duration of intervention was not reported.


  1. CWPT was effective for low-SES and low-achieving elementary students in spelling, reading, and math. Well-developed materials were available to support teacher use.
  2. Preliminary evidence supported the effectiveness of PALS with elementary school children with learning disabilities* in math and reading. Results were positive, with large effect sizes for PALS, plus teacher-provided, advanced mini-lessons on new material.
  3. The studies on Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (RPT) provided conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of peer tutoring for elementary children identified as low achieving in math.

Combined Effects Size

  1. CWPT: Effect sizes were reported only for the longitudinal studies and the follow-up study. In the 1991 study, effect sizes were: 0.36 (1st grade reading) and 0.33 (language). Comparing the treatment group to a control group of students with similar socioeconomic status (SES) the effect sizes compared to control were 0.71 and 0.48. The follow-up study at 6th grade showed effect sizes of 0.55 (reading), 0.23 (math), 0.40 (language), 0.22 (social studies) and. 49 (science).
  2. PALS. Effect sizes were: 1.22 (word identification), 1.14 (word attack), 1.37 (basic skills), and 0.50 (passage comprehension). For low-achieving and students with disabilities, effect sizes on a math readiness measure were 0.46 and 0.41, respectively; on a primary mathematics measure, effect sizes were 0.22 and 0.31, respectively.

There is evidence that peer tutoring, when it is well developed and supported, can improve the performance of low-achieving students. The following bullet points summarize important elements in this strategy:

  • Teachers will need training and logistical support to initiate peer tutoring.
  • Tutoring activities are highly structured.
  • Teachers carefully monitor tutoring behaviors.
  • Tutoring participants receive specific training.
  • Students are well prepared for the tutoring role, and during tutoring sessions, teachers monitor the tutoring activity and provide feedback on proper procedures.
  • Materials must be developed for weekly use, including tutoring materials such as flash cards and assessment materials.
  • Time and process for the tutoring sessions must be established and pairing arrangements planned.


* Terms Defined

Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

Peer Tutoring | Interventions involving students taking on an instructional role with classmates or other students.

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