Number. 37 © CDTL 2003
Peer Learning
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate, School of Design & Environment / Associate Director, CDTL

Many institutions of learning now promote instructional methods involving ‘active’ learning that present opportunities for students to formulate their own questions, discuss issues, explain their viewpoints, and engage in cooperative learning by working in teams on problems and projects. ‘Peer learning’ is a form of cooperative learning that enhances the value of student-student interaction and results in various advantageous learning outcomes.

To realise the benefits of peer learning, teachers must provide ‘intellectual scaffolding’. Thus, teachers prime students by selecting discussion topics that all students are likely to have some relevant knowledge of; they also raise questions/issues that prompt students towards more sophisticated levels of thinking. In addition, collaborative processes are devised to get all group members to participate meaningfully.

Peer Learning Strategies

To facilitate successful peer learning, teachers may choose from an array of strategies:

  1. Buzz Groups: A large group of students is subdivided into smaller groups of 4–5 students to consider the issues surrounding a problem. After about 20 minutes of discussion, one member of each sub-group presents the findings of the sub-group to the whole group.
  2. Affinity Groups: Groups of 4–5 students are each assigned particular tasks to work on outside of formal contact time. At the next formal meeting with the teacher, the sub-group, or a group representative, presents the sub-group’s findings to the whole tutorial group.
  3. Solution and Critic Groups: One sub-group is assigned a discussion topic for a tutorial and the other groups constitute ‘critics’ who observe, offer comments and evaluate the sub-group’s presentation.
  4. ‘Teach-Write-Discuss’: At the end of a unit of instruction, students have to answer short questions and justify their answers. After working on the questions individually, students compare their answers with each other’s. A whole-class discussion subsequently examines the array of answers that still seem justifiable and the reasons for their validity.

Critique sessions, role-play, debates, case studies and integrated projects are other exciting and effective teaching strategies that stir students’ enthusiasm and encourage peer learning. Students thus have diverse opportunities to experience in a reasonably ‘safe’ and unconstrained context (while perhaps being evaluated by another group and/or the teacher), reactions to complex and ‘real’ problems they may face later in their careers.

Successful Peer Learning

For peer learning to be effective, the teacher must ensure that the entire group experiences ‘positive interdependence’, face-to-face interaction, group processing, and individual and group accountability. ‘Positive interdependence’ emphasises the importance and uniqueness of each group member’s efforts while important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics are quietly at work. As students communicate with one another, they inevitably assume leadership roles, acquire conflict-managing skills, discuss and clarify concepts, and unravel the complexities of human relationships within a given context; this process enhances their learning outcomes. Thus, students’ learning extends far beyond the written word and even the given task.
However, peer learning may encourage the presence of ‘freeloaders’—team members who fail to fulfil their team responsibilities, but are awarded for assignments or presentations the same (high) grade as their more responsible teammates. Freeloading may be minimised by using peer ratings to assess individual performance of team members, or conducting a ‘post-test’. There will then be two levels of accountability: the individual and the group.

Conclusion

Research indicates that peer learning activities typically result in: (a) team-building spirit and more supportive relationships; (b) greater psychological well-being, social competence, communication skills and self-esteem; and (c) higher achievement and greater productivity in terms of enhanced learning outcomes. Although peer-learning strategies are valuable tools for educators to utilise, it is obvious that simply placing students in groups and telling them to ‘work together’ is not going to automatically yield results. The teacher must consciously orchestrate the learning exercise and choose the appropriate vehicle for it. Only then will students in fact engage in peer learning and reap the benefits discussed above.

 

References

Felder, R.M. ‘Active and Cooperative Learning’.
http://www2.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Cooperative_Learning.html (last accessed: 18 June 2003).

Johnson, D.W.; Johnson, R.T.; & Holubec, E.J. (1993). Circles of Learning. Edina, MI: Interaction Book Company.

Kaufman, D.B.; Felder, R.M.; & Fuller, H. (June 1999). ‘Peer Ratings in Cooperative Learning Teams’. Proceedings of the 1999 Annual ASEE Meeting, ASEE, Session 1430’.
http://www2.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/kaufman-asee.PDF (last accessed: 18 June 2003).

Nelson, C. (1999). ‘Critical Thinking and Collaborative Learning’. Tomorrow’s Professor Msg. #173. Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University.
http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/postings/173.html (last accessed: 23 June 2003).

Shaftel, F. & Fair, Jean (eds.). (1967). Effective Thinking in the Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies.

 
 
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