There are many ways to uplift teaching and learning, and peer learning is a teaching method that encourages collaborations in the classroom. Although this is an educational concept that has gained traction in recent years, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the topic. What is peer learning exactly? What are the benefits of using peer learning in the classroom? What are the drawbacks?

Keep reading for a complete breakdown to learn more about peer learning and how it can be used to make teaching easier for educators and for students.

two elementary school girls engaged in peer learning

Peer Learning: The Definition

Peer learning is defined as a process in which students acquire knowledge and skills by actively helping and supporting their peers. In peer learning, rather than teachers instructing students, students educate their peers as part of a two-way learning activity to help each other try to understand the curriculum.

Peer learning can take many forms — some classrooms use older students to teach younger students while other classrooms rely on a buddy system. Some classes might ask students to form groups and create a presentation to lecture on a certain topic. Peer learning essentially transforms the lesson from a one-way lecture into a conversation.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Peer Learning

Peer learning has been gaining traction over the years as an educational concept as it brings new benefits to the modern classroom. However, just like with any other teaching model, there are drawbacks to consider against the benefits. Let’s take a look at the advantages vs. disadvantages of peer learning:

Benefits of Peer Learning

  • It Makes Learning Active — One of the key advantages of peer learning is that it changes learning from a passive to an active activity. Rather than just processing information, students are now tasked with having to lecture, teach, discuss, debate, and answer questions about the material. With peer learning, students who are educating their peers can identify gaps in their comprehension and gain a better understanding of the subject matter.
  • It Develops Social Skills — Students will develop social skills as they learn how to collaborate and interact with their classmates. Rather than passively absorbing lectures, students will have to work with one another to pass along information to their peers. In certain models, peer learning can also develop a sense of community and cooperation as students work together towards a common goal.
  • It Builds Confidence — Students who are relatively shy in a large group setting may feel more comfortable interacting in a one-on-one scenario. By working with someone they can identify with, they can more easily ask questions, work through challenging problems, and develop confidence in their skills.

Drawbacks of Peer Learning

  • Inexperienced Student Instructors — One drawback of having students teach each other is their inexperience in teaching. Figuring out the best way to convey information in an easily understandable way is a skill that takes practice. Their inexperience may cause students who are teaching to give wrong answers, unclear feedback, or confusing instructions.
  • Different Learning Outcomes — Another drawback is the fact that the teaching process is not something that can be completely monitored. Since educators are not actively teaching, some students may receive better educational outcomes than others due to a wide range of teaching abilities and understanding of the material.

Best Practices for Incorporating Peer Learning into the Classroom

While peer learning can be a messy process even for experienced educators, there are certain strategies teachers can employ to ensure that the peer learning experience is active, effective, and beneficial for everyone involved.

Here are some quick tips to make peer learning more effective:

1. Explain How to Provide Feedback

Because most students model teaching based on adult role models or the way they were taught, getting students to provide constructive feedback can be tricky. Before splitting students into peer learning groups, it can be helpful to go over how to provide constructive feedback and what criteria students should be looking out for. A rubric can help provide students with a document to refer to when critiquing their peers.  Additionally, feedback should be as specific as possible and given within the context of achieving the goals of the assignment. Teach students to provide feedback that’s either positive (“that looks great!”) or constructive (“I’m not sure that’s correct. How about we try again?”) and to stay away from feedback that’s rude or demeaning.

For students who are better able to articulate themselves through writing, it may be helpful to give students the option of presenting their feedback in a written rather than verbal form.  Teaching students how to provide feedback can also have the added benefit of sharpening their social skills and teaching them to be more empathetic towards each other.

2. Foster Reciprocal Peer Tutoring

Rather than having one student teach the entire time, have students trade off on teaching one another as they move down a list of topics. This has the effect of enhancing both their teaching and listening skills. This also emphasizes on students learning simultaneously and making equal contributions to each other’s learning.

3. Create Huddles for Peer Learning

Forming and maintaining peer learning groups is one of the ways to make this teaching model work. Clear instructions need to be given to guide students on how to work collaboratively and cooperatively. Teachers will also need to prepare the types of problems the students will solve together to maximize this teaching model. There are a few ways to facilitate peer learning with the following groups:

  • Active Learning Groups: Break students into small groups and assign them a topic. With active learning, the goal is for students to gather information, share questions but also to generate concrete actions towards solving a particular problem or achieving a goal. Active learning groups are especially great for STEAM topics like building a trebuchet or a bridge with popsicle sticks.
  • Committees: Break students into small groups and provide them with a topic. Ask students to make decisions or generate recommendations to share with students outside the committee or the rest of the class. While the focus isn’t exclusively on learning, having students separate into committees helps promote autonomy, problem-solving, and collaboration.
  • Debates: Debates are a formal activity where students try to convince their peers of their viewpoints and can be done in both small and large groups. Positions are either self-selected or randomly assigned. Debates are done within a structured format with each side being allotted a certain amount of time to make their point. The competitive nature of a debate encourages students to study up on a topic and to use their critical thinking and logic skills.
  • Dialogue Groups: Pair students off into groups and have them engage in sharing their thoughts on a topic. With dialogue groups, the emphasis is on sharing one’s own opinion rather than tackling the viewpoints with others. Students are encouraged to ask questions to clarify and deepen their understanding of their partners’ viewpoint. Usually, dialogue is done with students paired off into groups of two, though it can be done with larger groups.
  • Discussion Groups: Unlike in dialogue groups, discussion groups put an emphasis is on having students actively engage with their peer’s viewpoints. Separate students into groups and have them take turns discussing a topic. Discussions are not as formal as debates, but students are free to provide feedback to others as they discuss. Discussion groups are usually two or more students.

4. Use Technology to Support Peer Learning

Another way to execute peer learning is to use technology to enhance the curriculum. Students can teach each other by making video lessons, explaining concepts in a language that makes sense to their classmates. By presenting the concepts themselves, it also strengthens their own understanding of the topics at hand.  Students can also make use of interactive displays or touchscreen monitors to help teach and learn from one another. These screens have touch capabilities that allow students to write their ideas down and problem-solve together in real-time. They can also share their knowledge and notes with one another by sending one another documents and multimedia content.

For educational spaces using hybrid classroom arrangements, some platforms such as myViewBoard’s Digital Whiteboard allow teachers to create digital huddles for students to come together to collaborate. Students can communicate with their classmates and engage in peer-to-peer learning no matter where they are physically. The teachers can also assess all the groups from a remote location by asking for feedback on the same platform.

Summing It All Up

When it comes to peer learning, few other educational strategies are more interactive than having students directly engage with their peers. It brings students a sense of belonging as they must depend on each other to maximize their learning experience. Peer learning also encourages important cooperation behaviors and social skills, giving peers the opportunity to take on mentor roles in subjects they excel in.

Although there are certain drawbacks to peer learning, they can be overcome by preparing suitable lesson plans, forming appropriate groups, and using technology to facilitate peer learning. It is also important for teachers to monitor every group’s work and interactions, and only intervene when help with teamwork is needed. Overall, the benefits of peer learning will deliver a richer and more interactive learning environment!

(From the editor: This article was originally published on ViewSonic Library.)