What is peer learning and why is it important?

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What is peer learning?

A ‘peer’ within a school environment is a fellow student who does not have a position of authority over the other. Peer learning in a school is a two-way process whereby students learn from each other by sharing ideas, knowledge and experience.

Peer to peer learning has been described as ’… a way of moving beyond independent to interdependent or mutual learning…’ (Boud, 1988).

The advantages of peer learning

Peer learning is still a fairly new concept within a school or tutoring setting, but there are many benefits to this way of learning, as students can accelerate their learning by discussing their ideas with other students and taking part in peer to peer activities.

Student engagement can be vastly improved as students become active learners rather than passive.

When taking part in peer learning, students will often have the opportunity to:

  • Learn leadership skills
  • Increase their confidence
  • Gain personal insight in self reflection and discovery
  • Discuss and challenge class topics
  • Develop skills in organising and planning
  • Develop social skills
  • Work with others
  • Learn to give and receive feedback positively
  • Evaluate their own learning
  • Learn how to cooperate with others
  • Learn how to be sensitive to their peers’ feelings

There are also many advantages of peer learning for teachers and tutors, including:

  • Improved student engagement
  • Students may progress faster with accelerated learning and a deeper understanding
  • There is less time spent on marking by utilising peer assessment
  • Peers offer some advantages unavailable to teachers and tutors, as students may be more likely to relax with a peer, especially if they are shy or lacking in confidence
  • It can be financially efficient, as an alternative to hiring more staff members

Peer learning in the classroom

Peer learning in the classroom requires sophisticated teaching expertise. As educators begin to realise the advantages of peer learning they can improvise and mistakenly adopt it without much planning and consideration. This can cause students to become confused and key opportunities to develop skills can be missed.

Peer learning needs a formalised, systematic approach so that students can learn how to learn – this is not something that necessarily comes innately as different pupils learn in different ways. Some may prefer visual learning, others can benefit more from auditory learning but the point still stands that one size does not fit all in a classroom environment.

What is peer assessment?

One of the ways in which you can encourage peer learning is known as ‘peer assessment’, where students mark each others’ work. While this may seem a questionable idea at first, there is much research to highlight the numerous benefits of peer assessment. To avoid any negative issues, peer assessment must be monitored very closely by the teacher or tutor and it is imperative that the teacher creates an environment where negative comments are forbidden.

Tips on how you can make peer assessment work for constructive learning include:

  1. Creating small groups or pairs of students
  2. Ensuring that students adhere to set marking frameworks
  3. Involve the students in creating the marking frameworks
  4. Carefully pairing and grouping students of similar ability
  5. Teaching your students how to provide feedback
  6. Anonymous marking

Examples of peer learning

There are numerous models for different types of peer learning, including:

  • Students in the same class learning from each other
  • Students from different year groups learning from each other – known as cross-age peer tutoring
  • Discussion groups
  • Buddy systems
  • Study groups
  • Homework groups
  • Counselling groups
  • Peer assessment
  • Pair and share activities
  • Collaborative project work
  • Mentoring

There are also many ways to use peer learning in the classroom, including:

  • Peer assessment frameworks

An example of a peer assessment strategy is the ‘feedback sandwich’ whereby the teacher or tutor gives a framework for students to follow – one positive observation and one piece of constructive criticism sandwiched by another positive observation.

You can also teach your students how to use words thoughtfully and positively so as not to jeopardise their peers confidence in learning and their own abilties, such as:

‘This is great….but have you considered this…?’

‘What made you decide on this answer….?’

‘The best part of this essay /painting / project is….’

  • A reward system

Teachers or tutors can reward their students for providing feedback, or students can reward each other when they think a peer has worked hard. Rewards could be pin badges, medals, books or pens – or even writing a student’s name on an achievement board.

  • Modified jigsaw technique

To do this, the teacher or tutor gives each peer learning pair a sub-topic to discuss, and they can then present their knowledge to the rest of their team. The rest of the team then present their different sub-topics. Collectively, the students will have learnt about one whole topic. This teaches students that individual contributions can help a larger group as a whole.

  • Written prompts

The teacher or tutor can provide students who are teaching others with written prompts, in case they are nervous.

  • Intervene if needed

If the teacher or tutor sits alongside the peer group, they can help out if needed, or fill in any gaps.

It is clear that the advantages in peer learning outweigh any reservations – but careful planning and consideration is needed by teaching staff before implementing. When managed well, peer learning benefits both teachers and students – a win-win!