by Eric Chow
In high school, I relied heavily on peer learning for my academic success. I would actually argue it was vital to my academic success as a nearly straight A student for four years (I got 2 B’s).
I would often do math or Physics homework alongside friends in a collaborative context. I found having them around motivated me to keep working, rather than putting off and procrastinating on assignments. Of course, peer learning also helped me to learn and understand the material at a far higher level.
When it came to more creative and brainstorming contexts, rather than problem-solving, such as for essays, debates, and discussions in classes like AP English, I noticed that the most insightful ideas often came when a student bounced their thoughts off of another person.
What Is Peer Learning?
Peer learning involves working in groups or pairs to discuss and solve problems or ideas, allowing students to actively engage with material. In other words, peer learning is by definition and by structure, active learning.
Side note: There is plenty of research and support for the idea that students retain far more information when they are actively learning, rather than passively consuming, evidence that I will not go into in this post. While it is an important idea, it is not necessary for the points made in this article.
Westchester University defines Peer Learning as “when students are learning from each other” and draws a distinction between collaborative and peer learning. Collaborative learning is where “students are learning alongside each other” whereas peer learning “allows students to learn from one another.”
Westchester also defines Active Learning as putting “engaging students in activities that promote higher-order thinking, such as discussing, debating, writing, and creating” and “any type of instructional strategy that goes beyond the traditional lecture and requiring students to memorize information.”
Note that discussions and debates require multiple people, suggesting peer learning, while writing and creating are often done not just for oneself to look at, but for others. As a result, this definition of Active Learning implies the use of peers.
The distinction between collaborative and peer learning is a careful one made by the University, although it seems to be one of mere diction. In fact, the University of Tennessee Knoxville, argues that it doesn’t really matter and that the terms can be used interchangeably. Nevertheless, this definition of peer learning involves peers participating and engaging in activities like discussing, debating, presenting, teaching, etc. Collaborative learning as well, or any sort of group work, is also by definition, active.
When I collaborated with my friends on my work, I found three general scenarios occurred. First, I would understand a concept better than my friends, and would be given an opportunity to explain. They would then ask questions to clarify their confusion, and then would work through problems themselves before checking with me. In asking questions and challenging me, they were getting personalized clarification. As the “teacher” however, I was also benefiting by being challenged to understand the material well enough to explain it! Therefore, I also gained greater understanding.
Second, I would be the person confused, giving my friends the opportunity to take the teacher-like role of explaining to me. Finally, neither of us would understand the topic, but by discussing it together and bouncing off of each other’s ideas, we would come to insightful conclusions that enhanced both of our knowledge. In many discussions, both in small groups and in full class discussions, I noticed that the best ideas were often the ones that added onto thoughts previously shared.
I found that all three scenarios often occurred in my work sessions. This active style of learning, switching from a sort of “peer-tutoring” model to a “peer-collaboration” model to “peer discussions” falling under the larger umbrella of “peer-learning” demanded participation by all parties, and was mutually beneficial.
Researchers from the University of Ulster identified 10 different models of peer learning. This included models like “senior student tutor junior ones, […] students in the same year forming partnerships to assist each other with both course content and personal concerns. Other models involved discussion seminars, private study groups” and so on.
A report from Stanford University, which cited the above research at Ulster, stated that
“Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and
by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers.
They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities,
working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback
and evaluating their own learning.”
It’s as I stated earlier – I learned as I taught, and as it turns out, my experience is backed by research. Peer learning has tremendous benefits when it comes to one’s ability to not only understand ideas, but also to think through them and build critical thinking ability. Plus, anyone that has ever had experience teaching knows that teaching and explaining a concept is a totally different level of understanding than simply being able to know or apply said concept. Building the skill of teaching is powerful for that reason, but also because, as the Stanford report stated, builds skills in planning & collaboration & evaluation.