Using Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies to Increase Response to Intervention in Inclusive Middle Math Settings

Article excerpt

Katie, a seventh grader with an identified learning disability, was extremely social. Her friends were her life, and school gave her access to her friends. Friendships were important to her; she was good with people. At the start of the year, Katie wasn't interested in math-she rarely participated. Her stock response to her math teacher was, "Who cares?" As the year progressed, math increasingly engaged her attention and interest. Katie explained, "I like PALS because you can help people understand and if I'm confused about something, or I didn't know what I was doing wrong, my pal would help me." Later in the year, she even prepared a PowerPoint presentation on peer-assisted learning strategies to assist her teachers in a regional middle school educator conference.


Early in the school year, two middle school teachers asked themselves, if one student's attitude about mathematics could be changed, which would it be? They reasoned that the greatest barrier to learning was a student's claim that he or she, no matter what, would never be successful in math. To challenge a mindset of perceived helplessness, both educators sought to locate strategies that increased student response to intervention in mathematics.

This article describes how the addition of a teaching and learning strategy, peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) in mathematics, had multiple influences on the teachers and students in a middle school mathematics class (see box "Review of the Literature" for additional resources). The plan to use peerassisted learning strategies, although not the only method of instruction, positively influenced student attitudes about mathematics. The classwide peertutoring approach permitted teachers to address a challenging mathematics curriculum and simultaneously attend to a wide diversity of math skills in the classroom. The strategy supported extensive engagement among all students on the team, and facilitated the practice of coteaching. Finally, peerassisted learning strategies supported the use of appropriate social skills in a natural setting.

Educators are challenged to teach mathematical thinking and mathematical sense-making in increasingly complex classrooms with students of widely diverse math abilities. To accomplish such a mission, it is critical that teachers use flexible instructional strategies that engage student interest and learning on multiple levels. Two middle school teachers collaborated on a project that explored peer-assisted learning strategies in order to increase response to intervention and engagement to counter the risk factors found in their math classroom.


The Middle School Context

This project took place in a large middle school near a large city in the Midwest. The middle school was marked by diversity, more in terms of socioeconomic status and culture than in racial characteristics. A team of 150 seventhgrade students with diverse mathematical abilities engaged in a project to learn PALS skills in order to regularly assist one another in mathematical problemsolving. PALS was not the only method of instruction but served as a remediation tool for areas where students demonstrated difficulty with the mathematical concepts. What the teachers found was that negative attitudes and a learned failure response decreased over the course of the project. Working together, Beth, a general education math teacher, and Steve, an intervention specialist, developed strategies that would build on meaningful mathematical knowledge. It is not necessary to have two teachers to carry out PALS-a teacher without an intervention teacher can accomplish this as well.

The middle school team consisted of 150 students, about 14% of whom were identified with a disability. Six of the students with IEPs had behavior plans. Two of the students were identified with Asperger's syndrome. Most of the students with IEPs were identified with specific learning disabilities in math and language areas. …