Use peer learning to create a welcoming, high-impact learning community

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It is not difficult to understand why underrepresented and first-generation students often struggle in classes that rely heavily on traditional teacher-centered lecturing. When class meetings revolve around the instructor demonstrating or describing complex ideas and processes, students have little opportunity to test out their own thinking or to make a meaningful connection to the material or the discipline. Students in these classes are put in a passive role that can be at turns both threatening and boring. Sitting silently in a classroom as an expert expounds may leave students worrying how they will ever understand all the information they’re hearing; alternately lecture-centered class meetings can bore students or lull them into a false sense of security because what they hear does seem to make sense (although after class they might not be able to articulate what they heard!) And ultimately, students have no role to play in a teacher-centered class, no opportunities to build relationships to their peers, and no emotional connection to the course. Boredom, fear, and antipathy are not a good foundation for learning! Thankfully, we have a powerful alternative to this approach to teaching, and one that is usually more pleasant and easier for the instructor: peer learning.

Underrepresented students and first-generation students thrive both academically and emotionally when they collaborate with other students in class meetings to do meaningful, disciplinary work. This work can take the form of solving problems, predicting the results of research, evaluating a solution, making choices about a key process, and so on. The social and intellectual excitement of doing real work with peers is one benefit to peer learning. The other benefit is that students (rather than the instructor) attempt the key work of the course and the instructor can provide feedback in relation to that practice. Peer groups for learning work best when about six students work together, as this ensures a diversity of ideas that students can share and explore. Encountering new ideas or having a peer explain a tricky concept is cognitively productive, so groups also need to work well together to ensure that everyone shares their ideas.  

Not all peer learning is effective in these ways. There are three key principles that can help you make the most of this approach to teaching.

Key Principles of Effective Peer Learning

  • Peer learning works best when students co-create and take seriously expectations for productive group work.
  • Peer learning should involve activities that are relevant to your course and your discipline.
  • Peer learning works best when activities are well-structured.

Putting these Principles into Practice

Practice #1: Take time at the beginning of the semester to help students set goals for the interactions they will have as they work with peers. During the first week of class, structure a conversation with students that requires them to collaborate with each other to create a set of community expectations for productive and civil interaction in class. Begin this conversation by sharing some basic ideas about what good class citizenship might entail. For example, you might suggest that you think students should expect themselves and each other to (1) come prepared, (2) ask questions, and (3) respond thoughtfully to classmates. Write these three ideas on the board as an initial framework, and then have students work in small groups using this framework to begin a discussion about what they think will really help them learn from and with others. Tell them they can edit or revise these initial ideas or add to them with their own suggestions. When students are ready, each group should share their ideas, and you can edit your initial framework in response to these ideas. The final set of ideas for good class citizenship or community expectations should be made readily available to students as a handout or in Blackboard. Because students helped structure these expectations, they will feel ownership of them and will be more likely to monitor their own and others’ interactions to assure that these shared expectations are being upheld.

Practice #2: Take time to articulate clear goals for the learning you want students to do in each class meeting. It’s difficult to design a motivating, productive peer activity if we don’t know what kind of thinking or problem-solving we want students to do. Instead of asking what content to cover in any given class period, begin by considering the disciplinary thinking you want your students to practice in that class. Articulating your goals for yourself and for your students can help you stay on track by giving a clear sense of direction. It is helpful for you to commit to your learning goals for each class and to share those with your students so you (and they) can make sense of their progress. These goals should be directly related to your larger course goals and the major assignments students will be asked to complete. For example, in a management course, the goal for a class meeting might be articulated like this: Goal – By the end of this class period, students will be able to identify the most effective mode of conflict management in a given situation and use the appropriate strategy to manage and resolve conflict. (Before this class meeting, students have been required to read a book chapter that explains three key modes of conflict management: defensive mode, compromise, and creative problem solving.)

Practice #3: Use a structure that ensures all students will be involved in peer learning and take the time to scaffold activities using those structures. All too often, we think that a good group activity or discussion involves having students simply discuss a problem or a reading. The result is that one or two people dominate a conversation that has little focus or that drifts outside of the disciplinary thinking we want students to practice. If you have a goal for a class meeting, you have a much better chance of focusing students on that goal, but you still need a structure so that all students have the time to observe a problem, make some decisions about it, and then share their ideas and interact in a cooperative way. When we slow down student work by structuring an activity into these phases, all students can have a voice in the peer learning activity. Here is an example of a structured activity that could be used to reach the goals for the management course class meeting described above:

  1. At the beginning of class, students read a brief, complex scenario describing a workplace conflict.
  2. Students are given five possible strategies for responding to that conflict. (These strategies represent features of the three key modes of conflict management from their reading but none is an exact match with a single mode.) Students first work on their own to choose which of those five strategies would be the best way to manage the conflict and work toward resolution and write down their answer.
  3. Students then work in groups of about 6 to compare individual answers and come to consensus on which strategy they think would be the best for responding to the conflict described in the scenario. After they have arrived at a consensus decision, groups are asked to simultaneously report their answers by holding up a card (options A-E) and then explain their reasoning. Disagreements and different ways of thinking surface; the instructor makes notes regarding the differing rationales and asks questions to probe students’ thinking.
  4. After the groups have thoroughly explained the thinking that guided their decisions, the instructor provides a 10-minute mini-lecture that responds to the issues that were raised by the task and discussion and ensures that students see connections between the strategies they chose and the three key modes of conflict management.
  5. Students write for 5 minutes in response to the following prompts.
  6. How has your thinking about conflict management strategies changed as a result of what you learned from this activity?
  7. What do you understand now about the three key modes of conflict management that you didn’t understand before?
  8. What do you still not understand about conflict management? In what ways are you still uncertain about how you would apply these principles in a workplace setting?
  9. Students are given another brief scenario to read. This scenario incorporates new complexities that point to the reading they will complete for homework.

Resources about the value of peer learning

  • Kinzie, J., Gonyea, R., Shoup, R., & Kuh, G. D. (2008). Promoting persistence and success of underrepresented students: Lessons for teaching and learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 115, 21-38.
  • Theobalda, E. J., Hilla, M. J., Trana, E., et al. Sweta Agrawalb, E., Arroyoc, N., Behlingd, S.,  Chambwee, N., Cintróna, D. L., Coopera, J. D., Dunstera, G., Grummera,J. A., Hennesseya, K., Hsiaoa, J., Iranonf, N., Jones II, L., Jordta, H., Kellera, M., Laceya, M. E., Littlefieldd, C. E., Lowea, A. . . . Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.

CATLOE can help!

As you develop your plans to structure peer learning in your class meetings, you may have questions or need some guidance. Please feel free to reach out to CATLOE for a one-on-one consultation with an instructional consultant.