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The pandemic turned education on its head for more than two years. That isn’t new news but many instructors and students are still trying to navigate changes to classrooms, campuses, and attitudes after the disruption.
Peer learning in particular was something that was made harder during the pandemic. Group activities, peer tutoring, and the organic conversations that happen before and after class were suddenly lost. Even with students back on campus and great innovation in fully online classes, many instructors say that students are noticeably less interested in engaging with their peers.
Yet peer learning is a proven active learning technique that can strengthen student understanding and help them develop valuable communication and collaboration skills. Peer learning, sometimes called collaborative learning, is an umbrella term for activities and approaches that require students to work jointly in groups of two or more to teach, learn, and review information. It can be an effective approach for educators regardless of the subject matter they teach.
In this article, seven educators teaching psychology, biology, history, chemistry, and English share their experiences with peer learning in the classroom as well as what they’ve found works best.
“I can see the dissonance when students have different explanations, and I can see a shared acknowledgment when the correct answer is explained.”
Robert Feissner, Biology Educator at SUNY Geneseo
During the pandemic, I made some observations about how restrictions guided students away from peer learning opportunities. Students went from working together in person to suddenly working alone in their bedrooms at home. Upon return to campus, many seemed to have lost the risk-taking drive to initiate collaborative work, discussions, or peer-led opportunities. Almost like exercising in the New Year, peer learning is something that is desired, but is hard to start. It takes time to see success and requires dedication to push through the hard spots (for both students and faculty). The pandemic was an extended period of solitary learning that short-circuited our attempts to foster peer learning.
So many of the metacognitive strategies that help students understand their own learning require peer input. It is so easy to convince oneself that we know and understand a concept, but without discussing our reasoning or sharing a product of some sort with another, how can we be sure we are right? What about those upper-level Bloom's Taxonomy skills like evaluating and synthesizing? Students build their conceptual understanding by identifying and explaining when things go wrong.
I provide opportunities for students to work in small groups, often in pairs for very short periods of time in my freshman lecture courses. These are typically large (more than 100 students). So group work can be difficult to manage. Think-Pair-Share in combination with iClicker works great. Students explain their thinking to each other, come to a consensus, and respond anonymously. I can see the dissonance when students have different explanations, and I can see a shared acknowledgment when the correct answer is explained.
I am the campus coordinator for Supplemental Instruction, so I encourage all students to attend voluntary sessions led by upper-level students that focus on active learning and peer collaboration. Like the exercise analogy above, the more students are able to maintain a routine, the easier peer learning gets and the greater the gains.
“These connections often help students to persist and succeed throughout their academic, personal, and professional journey.”
Gina O’Neal-Moffitt, Psychology Educator at Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College
I foster peer learning in my courses by having students review the draft submissions of other students' research papers. The 18-page paper is due at the end of the semester, but students have submission points at 3, 5, 10, and 15 pages.
As papers are submitted at each checkpoint, a different student is assigned to review each submission. This means that each student gets comments and suggestions from at least four other students. While this is something that can be accomplished even in remote classroom settings, it really helps to build community in our in-person classroom.
Students often set aside time outside of class to go over each other's notes. The collegiality is infectious — students then use those relationships to set up times to study for exams and work on other projects, and occasionally, that relationship persists into other classes and outside of the academic setting. These connections often help students to persist and succeed throughout their academic, personal, and professional journey.
“Sometimes a student can provide their peer with an explanation that makes more sense to the student who is struggling than I can.”
Christin Monroe, Chemistry Educator at Landmark College
All of the college chemistry students I work with are neurodiverse and I find peer learning to be very important for this population of students. Sometimes a student can provide their peer with an explanation that makes more sense to the student who is struggling than I can.
I also find it empowering for students to work together because I have students who can take on leadership roles in the classroom. Using the flipped classroom model and having students work through problems together during class is a great way to help students identify topics they may need additional support on.
I find Achieve very useful for peer learning because students can focus on the questions they need the most help with and know right away the content they have already mastered. Students can then work together on the problems they are struggling with.
“Content aside, I'm always pleased with how quickly the students begin to form a community.”
Suzanne McCormack, History Educator at Community College of Rhode Island
At a community college with no dormitories, students are often very isolated. By working in small groups from the start of the semester — using ungraded, Think-Pair-Share activities — I give them the opportunity to get to know their classmates.
I require students to introduce themselves and then have one person introduce each group member to the class — this works well in my 28-person intro classes. Content aside, I'm always pleased with how quickly the students begin to form a community. They notice people from their other classes who they haven't spoken to and make connections that help them to be more successful over the course of the semester. It gives them someone to share notes with, study with, etc.
“Peer learning breaks the static of 50 minutes of lecture and makes the students responsible for learning and understanding the material.”
Jennifer Ripley Stueckle, Biology Educator at West Virginia University
I teach large 250-seat lecture courses. We do group work almost daily but it is counted as participation instead of graded for accuracy. I use this time for students to form connections with their peers in what is a large class at a large University. It also gives them an opportunity to interact with me as I walk around and visit the different groups.
Peer learning breaks the static of 50 minutes of lecture and makes the students responsible for learning and understanding the material. The sense of community goes a long way for the entire learning and classroom experience.
“Regardless of their career path, students need to know how to express their ideas to others and how to critique, redirect, and collaborate with colleagues.”
Jennifer Duncan, English Educator at Georgia State University Perimeter College
As a writing instructor, I see teaching students to interact with their peers as an essential college-to-career transition skill. Regardless of their career path, students need to know how to express their ideas to others and how to critique, redirect, and collaborate with colleagues. Writing only for an instructor is an artificial activity and it makes sense that students find it frustrating.
The question then becomes how do we teach them this skill? First, we have to provide them space and time not just to create their own ideas and work but to think about the things their classmates have written and how to best respond to them. Sitting in a circle and providing instant responses to the work of a classmate can be daunting and usually isn’t productive. Instead, let students take their peers’ work with them (physically or electronically) and make reviewing and offering feedback an out-of-class activity. This gives them time to process the best way to respond.
Second, teach them how to ask the right questions of their peers. What about asking students to end a research essay with a question of their own? Encourage them to ask their classmates about what they’ve written, to raise another point of view, or to identify an effective strategy they’ve used.
Finally, encourage them to think of their work as public writing (unless, of course, it’s a journal). What can they do with their work after this class? Where could they send it to affect change? If we ask them to think this way from the assignment’s start, they can view their classmates as colleagues rather than just other bodies in the room.
“Students trust, respect, and value the experience of their fellow students who are dealing with similar pressures, academic challenges, and course loads."
Marissa Dahari, Biology Educator at the University of Guelph
I have coordinated a class of over 1000 students a semester for a few years and I cannot stress the importance of peer learning enough. Students trust, respect, and value the experience of their fellow students who are dealing with similar pressures, academic challenges, and course loads.
When peer learning is encouraged in smaller class settings, such as seminars or tutorials, students have the opportunity to teach each other and promote understanding of important concepts. Students can also learn from each other and gain meaningful insights not enforced in the classroom.
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