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Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Opportunity to Learn With Others: A Question of Equity

By Contributing Blogger — October 12, 2018 3 min read

This post is by Wendy Surr, Senior Researcher; Kristina Zeiser, Senior Researcher; and Kimberly Kendziora, Managing Researcher. American Institutes for Research.

Many personalized learning models equate personalized learning with individual learning, emphasizing the use of technology to customize learning activities to students’ individual needs. However, these approaches often ignore the reality that for many students, the opportunity for social support and exchange while they are learning is necessary for them to stay engaged, grasp and refine their understanding of concepts, and feel sufficiently challenged. Findings from a new study suggest that this may be especially true for students of color, indicating that having the opportunity to learn with others may have implications for equity.

For our new study--Learning With Others: A Study Exploring the Relationship Between Collaboration, Personalization, and Equity--we examined the social dimension of personalized learning within four high schools that had an explicit focus on personalization, offered regular opportunities for collaboration, and served a diverse student body. This study looked at racial differences in experiences and benefits associated with collaboration. Our findings suggest that having the chance to engage in high-quality collaborative activities may help boost academic success for Black students.

The study defined “high-quality” collaborative opportunities using the following elements.

Elements of High-Quality Collaboration

Structural Quality Elements

■ Student-centered, culturally responsive activities

■ Activity requires group interdependence

■ Balanced group composition

■ Group norms and task clarity

Dynamic Quality Elements

■ Responsive, respectful, and inclusive interactions

■ Constructive exchange

■ Shared leadership and decision making

The Relationship Between Collaboration and Academic Performance for Black Students

The study compared the experiences of Black and White students to explore potential differences. Findings showed that for both White and Black students in the study, high-quality collaboration was associated positively with perceptions of the classroom environment and with higher levels of engagement, intrinsic motivation, and self-efficacy.

Relationships between collaboration and academic performance, however, differed across these two groups. For the White students in the study, opportunities for high-quality collaboration were not related to math and English grades once we accounted for their grades from the previous school year. For the Black students in the study, opportunities for high-quality collaboration were associated with higher grades. This was true even after we accounted for grades from the prior year. In other words, Black students who had greater opportunities to learn with others were more likely to show a slight boost in their grades compared with how they had performed academically in the past.

Recognizing the Potential of Collaboration for Ensuring Equity

At a time when teachers are under mounting pressure to close the achievement gap, collaboration may be viewed as an approach that is less valuable for ensuring student success. Results from our study offer an alternative view.

For Black students in our study, having the chance to engage in high-quality collaborative activities helped boost academic success. This suggests that opportunities for high-quality collaboration could be among the factors that help Black students engage more positively in classroom experiences in ways that improve their academic performance. Rather than collaboration being an approach to use after students have covered the academic content, it may be an important means for Black students to engage with and master that content.

If the current trend in personalized learning continues to emphasize individual learning and limit opportunities for collaboration, will we shortchange the learning needs of those students who are already at a disadvantage? Our findings suggest that school leaders and educators who are striving to ensure equity through personalized learning models also should recognize that opportunities for collaboration could be among the factors that contribute to positive changes in the academic outcomes of Black students.

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