Johnson, E. (2017). The Effect of Symmetrical and Symmetrical Peer-Assisted Learning Structures on Music Achievement and Learner Engagement in Seventh-Grade Band. Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 65(2), pp. 163-178.


The study examines the effect of two different reciprocal peer-assisted learning (PAL) arrangements on music achievement and learning engagement in seventh-grade band classrooms. Using a quasi-experimental design, students from six seventh-grade bands from across a metropolitan school district were randomly assigned to one of two treatment conditions: symmetrical PAL, where students of similar ability were paired together, and asymmetrical PAL, where students of divergent ability were paired together. Students worked in pairs over the course of four weeks and took turns being the learner and teacher to improve sight-reading ability and music theory knowledge. Student pairs were allowed to determine their own rules for interaction, turn taking and the amount of material to be covered in each session. Three pretest and posttest outcome variables were assessed: sight-reading performance, music theory knowledge and learner engagement. Additionally, individual socioeconomic status (SES) and motivation orientation were compared as potential moderating variables. Hierarchical linear regression analyses indicated that regardless of PAL pairings, there were significant gains for each of the outcome variables. Moreover, interaction effects were found between learner engagement, the method of instruction, and SES.

Key Findings:

The researcher found that, overall, students made significant gains and improved their sight-reading ability and music theory knowledge regardless of treatment condition. Regardless of PAL, level of socioeconomic status or degree of mastery orientation, students still made gains in their sight-reading performance and knowledge of music theory. Concerning learner engagement outcomes, students with a high and average level of socioeconomic status experienced decreases in learner engagement while students with lower socioeconomic status experienced increases in learner engagement as a result of an asymmetrical PAL, whereas all students in the symmetrical condition experienced gains in learner engagement regardless of socioeconomic status. The results of the study suggest that PAL can be successfully integrated alongside teacher-led large ensembles. Informal teacher observations indicated that PAL might be even more successful if experiences were reduced in frequency and spread out over a more extended period.

Significance of the Findings:

The study successfully explores the impact peer-assisted learning has on student outcomes in band instruction and sets up further study of the effects of peer-assisted learning may have on secondary students. While it is clear that peer-assisted learning has a positive impact on student achievement in a middle school band setting, the findings suggest that further exploration of blended models and the amount of time spent using peer-assisted learning should be examined further. The study sets a foundation for further research of the impact peer-assisted instruction has on student achievement and learning in a secondary music classroom.


The study consists of 262 seventh grade band students from six schools. The schools were selected based on four criteria; 1) students in a band class were grouped by grade, 2) the school only had one seventh grade band, 3) the school had non-charter status and 4) the band teacher had been in their current position for more than one year.

Each of the six bands was assigned randomly to one of two groups. The bands were either assigned to a symmetrical peer-assisted learning group, meaning students of similar ability were paired together, or an asymmetrical peer-assisted learning groups, meaning students of divergent ability were paired together.

Within the designated method group, pretests were used to determine the student’s ability for peer grouping. The assessments were used to evaluate the student’s knowledge, skill, engagement and motivation throughout the study. Sight-reading was evaluated using two 16-measure researcher-composed etudes electronically scored using the SmartMusic assessment feature. The pretest and posttest etudes were taken directly from the seventh-grade band curriculum in the sample school district. Music theory achievement was measured using a written pretest and posttest on order of shops and flats, identification of major key signatures and knowledge of the circle of fifths. Student engagement was assessed using an engagement vs. disengagement scale based on Wellborn’s (1991) survey. The survey measured student behavioral and emotional engagement in classroom activities. Student motivation orientation was measured by a 12-item questionnaire that measured each of the four motivation orientation domains. The students responded using a 5-point scale. At the conclusion of each session, students completed content and engagement assessments.

Within the study, student’s socioeconomic status was measured using a self-reported questionnaire. At the beginning of the study, students were asked their father’s employment, their mother’s employment, father’s education, mother’s educatio, and whether or not they received school lunch subsidy. Based on their responses, students were assigned a score ranging from 0 to 3 with the higher number indicating higher socioeconomic status.

After completing pretests in content and engagement, all students received 240 minutes of PAL instruction over a four-week period. Over the course of the four-week period students engaged in 12, 30-minute in-class sessions. At the conclusion of each session each student completed assessments, as outlined above, that measured their content knowledge and engagement.

The data collected from the assessments were analyzed using a Hierarchical linear modeling technique to examine the effect of the method of instruction on changes in achievement and engagement. By examining the random and fixed effects, variation between students within schools and between schools can be observed. Thus the hierarchical multilevel model examined variation in the outcomes between individual students and variation in the outcomes between schools.

Limitations of the Research:

Limitations of the study include a narrow range of asymmetrical arrangements within the sample, the relatively small sample of schools concentrated in one geographic area, and the lack of examination of psychological factors that potentially impact interaction among middle school students. In addition to not considering psychological factors, the study does not consider social factors such as race and gender. The research design did not consider a control group for comparison and evaluation of the effectiveness of PAL models. Finally, the study is based entirely self-reported behavior of students and teacher reports as opposed to documented observations.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The study presents a strong examination of the impact of PAL in a secondary band classroom, but questions remain. Potential questions include:

  • How would the use of peer-assisted learning mixed with teacher-directed instruction impact student achievement in sight-reading and music theory?
  • How would the use of peer-assisted learning mixed with teacher-directed instruction impact student engagement?
  • What impact do factors such as gender and race have on the achievement and engagement of students under a peer-assisted learning model?
  • How would the performance of a control group not receiving peer-assisted learning opportunities compare to students who are receiving peer-assisted learning opportunities?