The Power of Peer Learning (and How to Promote It)

Peer learning can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge and skill through
active helping and supporting among status equals or matched companions. It
involves people from similar social groupings who are not professional teachers helping each other to learn and learning themselves by so doing…many schools might think they are implementing [peer learning], when all they are really doing is putting children together and hoping for the best (Topping 2005, 631-32).

Last week, I had the privilege of witnessing the power of peer learning firsthand in my daughter’s math tutoring session. It was the first week that she was being tutored with a fellow tutee (a classmate). By sheer luck, perhaps, the two appear to be a perfect match for learning together. With the expert guidance of their tutor, I look forward to the progress that both girls will makes this year in school (believe me, this is a relief, as math has been a mostly tearful experience up to this point).

Peer learning does work, but as Topping infers, it must be well-designed and well-implemented to be successful. There are also a variety of ways in which peer learning takes place.

Peer tutoring is a formal approach, where a more advanced student serves in the expert role as tutor to a tutee. In the library world, a good case study of this comes from Grand Valley State University, where qualified students become peer consultants, helping their fellow students with academic research. I think this is a great idea that solves the problem of limited reference staff (not to mention freeing up librarians for the many other duties that are demanded of them today). However, I do wonder how this method impacts the social dynamics between peers. Does social status change when a peer is designated as an expert (and often trained and paid as such)?

The other common way that peer learning takes place is the collaborative learning so common in classrooms today. This is where Topper’s criticism comes in of “putting children together and hoping for the best.”

So, what does well-designed and well-implemented peer learning look like? That’s really beyond the scope of this post, but I do recommend taking a look at Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other (Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 2014). There’s plenty of good information in that book that is equally applicable to K-12.

I am going to talk about the basic elements that are needed to design environments (e.g., classrooms, libraries) that promote a culture of peer learning, so that formally implemented approaches to peer learning can be successful.

First of all, what factors might cause peer learning (as collaborative learning, for example) to fail? Here are my thoughts:

  • Forced participation. Some students are loners when it comes to learning. Some students don’t want to look “stupid” in front of their peers. Some students are really shy. Some students are going to rebel against anything that does not include choice. Bottom line, you can’t force participation and you can’t force peer learning.
  • Mismatched peers. Mismatched teaching and learning preferences. Mismatched personalities. Mismatched levels of knowledge or expertise. The right dynamics make peer learning successful.
  • Lack of guidance. Scaffolding is a crucial component to peer learning, otherwise you may end up with “the blind leading the blind.”

Logic tells me that by designing environments opposite to the problems above, a culture of peer learning will naturally emerge, creating a greater chance of success at formalized peer learning. So:

  • Instead of forced participation, offer choice in participation. In any given classroom, opportunities and spaces for individual learning are just as important as opportunities and spaces for group learning. With both quiet study and group study spaces, most libraries already promote a culture of choice. Classrooms should do the same. Over time, you may find that by promoting a culture of choice in the participation of peer learning, more students will eventually gravitate toward groups (after all, learning is a social activity).
  • Avoid mismatched peers by letting peers match themselves (with a little help). There are many ways to go about doing this. Surveys that help students get to know each others’ learning preferences, personality quirks, and strengths and weakness can help them self-match. An app, like Classkick, allows students to discreetly communicate with their teachers and help each other anonymously. An app, like ClassAction Study Partners, allows students to locate other students (like in the library) who are currently studying for the same class.
  • Scaffolding, scaffolding, and more scaffoldingPeer learning is student-centered learning, and student-centered learning requires scaffolded instruction. Scaffolding is also an important element in the Universal Design for Learning framework.




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