Cooperative learning (CL) is an instructional method in which students are divided into small groups to work on common tasks. In some situations, each student is individually responsible for a portion of the task, while in others, the entire group works together without formal roles being assigned. A vast body of research has found that CL can lead to both academic and social gains for students when they interact with others to achieve common goals.
As part of an ongoing study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), researchers from the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) and the Michigan State University (MSU) are investigating the effectiveness of CL in preventing behavioral problems among 1,460 seventh-grade American students (52 percent male, 76 percent white) in 15 public middle schools in rural Oregon. After a year of investigations, preliminary results – which will appear in a series of papers – indicate that the CL interventions may be working.
The first of these results, published in the journal Child Development in December 2017, found that due to the positive impact of group-based learning activities, students in seven test schools showed significantly lower growth in “deviant peer affiliation and actual alcohol use,” compared to their peers in eight control schools. Further, students showed a lower willingness to try alcohol.
Positive social interactions reduce alienation and associated negative outcomes
The researchers selected middle schools for the study since this was where peer influences made students more vulnerable to adverse behaviors. They focused their initial investigations on alcohol use due to the seventh-grade students’ higher exposure levels and propensity to experiment. Such behavior typically increased the risk of academic issues, substance abuse problems, cognitive impairments and other diseases, and reduced work capacity.
During CL interventions, students were randomly placed in small groups for short-term assignments. The emphasis on individual accountability, personal connections and the growth of collaborative skills fostered positive social interactions. This reduced alienation and prevented situations of students feeling left out or of one student doing all the work. Co-author Cary J. Roseth, an associate professor of educational psychology at the MSU, said, “Our findings suggest that cooperative learning can address some of the peer processes that can contribute to escalations in alcohol use and related behavioral problems.”
Various studies have established an association between higher adolescent alcohol use and the influence of peer networks. According to lead author Mark J. Van Ryzin, a research scientist at the ORI, by applying collaborative, group-based learning in school, an attempt was made to increase students’ interactions with “prosocial youths” who had a lower risk of abusing alcohol. The aim was to prevent socially sidelined students from clustering into groups of deviant peers. Students were given the opportunity to develop new friendships with peers who had a lower likelihood of alcohol consumption, thereby reducing alcohol use in middle school.
Addressing peer influences contributing to underage drinking
According to Roseth, the findings suggested that CL could address some of the peer influences which contributed to higher adolescent alcohol use and its associated behavioral problems. Teachers could be trained to incorporate CL in their curricula; besides serving as a prevention program for adolescent behavioral problems, it could also be considered as a form of professional development for teachers. Van Ryzin mentioned that since CL also promoted academic achievement and learning, it could be considered a “low-risk, high-reward” approach in preventing alcohol use among middle-school students.
Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug by the American youth. Although underage drinking is prohibited by all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (D.C.), 7.3 million people aged 12-20 years (19.3 percent of the age group) reported past-month alcohol use in 2016, including 4.5 million (62.5 percent) binge alcohol users and 1.1 million (14.7 percent) heavy alcohol users. Past data showed that excessive drinking was responsible for 4,385 deaths among underage youth annually.
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