Learning lurches between extremes: the formal v informal,
didactic v discover , self-paced v social, teaching v learning. But is there a bridge
between these extremes, something that cleverly combines teaching and learning?
Over the years, starting with Judith Harris’s brilliant (and shocking) work on
peer pressure, then Eric Mazur’s work at Harvard but also through several
presentations at a recent JISC E-assessment conference, I’ve been smitten by
peer learning. The idea is to encourage learners to learn from each other. Compelling
The bible for ‘peer’ pressure, and why parents and teachers
should know about this stuff, is Judith Harris’s wonderful The Nurture Assumption,
the work for which she received the George
Miller Medal in psychology.
Pinker sang her praises in The Blank
, and claimed that she had turned the psychology of learning on its
head. I think he’s right. In a deep look at the data she found something
totally surprising, that far from parents and other adults, like teachers, influencing
the minds of young people, she found that 50% was genetic, just a few per cent
parents and a whopping 47% peer group. The initial evidence came from
linguistics, where children unerringly pick up the accents of their peer group,
not their parents (I know this from experience).
Given the massification of education, here’s an interesting
argument. Peer learning may actually be better with large classes, as you have
more scope in terms of selected peer groups. As many struggle with the
challenge of large classes, here’s a technique that amplifies both teaching and
learning. Peer reviewing and learning works because it is scalable, especially
when good web-based tools are used.
3. Learning by
teaching is probably the most powerful way to learn
Unsurprisingly, to teach is to learn, as peer learning
involves high-order, deep-processing activity. In fact, the teacher may
actually gain more than the learner. In any case, the peer’s voice is often
clearer and better than teacher’s voice as they are closer to the mindset of
the learner and can often see what problems they have, as well as solutions to
You can easily see how peer learning produces diversity of
judgement. It is this enlargement of perspectives that is the starting point
for critical thinking and complex reasoning, the very skills that Arum found
lacking in his recent research in the US.. It also increases self-evaluation.
5. Group bonding a
In addition to enhanced social and communication skills,
peer groups bond. In one nursing case study at the University of Glasgow, the
students started off a bit sceptical but soon demanded and volunteered
6. Dramatic drops in
In all the case studies I saw, higher attendance and lower
drop-out rates were claimed. This is not surprising, as continuing failure and
disillusionment are often the result of isolation and a feeling of helplessness
in learners, especially in large classes and courses.
Mazur has recorded some startling improvements, not only in
the core understanding of physics, but in general measured attainment through
summative assessment. The peer learning was, in effect, the result of clever
formative assessment. In a nursing course, they experienced better note taking
and higher attainment and in a psychology course with 550 students, reciprocal
peer critiques also led to higher attainment.
Do students muck about? Apparently not, in the case studies
I’ve seen the groups self-moderate. Indeed, the peer pressure prevents
disruptive and non-participatory behaviour. It becomes cool to participate.
How do you know they’re not feeding each other false things?
There’s certainly the danger of the blind leading the blind, but overall, the
case studies show that real growth occurs. There’s real peer pressure in terms
of not being exposed and not bullshitting the others. The approaches and tools
help overcome this danger through the clever selection of mixed-ability, peer
Of course there’s a difference between peer marking and peer
review. Some advise against peer marking as it can be seen as a step too far,
peer review, with constructive comments, however, seems to be more powerful.
You don’t actually need any tools to get started. As Mazur
has shown, simple coloured cards that allow students to respond to the
teacher’s diagnostic questions can be enough to spark peer group learning. He actually
uses clickers, with histograms appearing on the screen, but mobile phones are
increasingly being used for this function. However, for more technology-driven peer
learning, Aropa, Peerwise or Peermark can be used.
is an open source tool from the University of Glasgow
that allows teachers to set assignments then set up peer reviews between
students. You review other students’ work, then receive reviews on your own
is a free tool from NZ that flips assessment and
allows students to create questions, share and see answers, a sort of
peer-based, formative assessment generator. I like this angle as building good
questions really does make you think in depth about the subject. It’s used by
hundreds of institutions.
Peermark allows instructors to write assignments, from
turnitin, the plagiarism folks. You set dates, can see how many assignments
have been submitted, set how many students you want to review each assignment
and whether you or the students choose what to review, pair up students, add
review questions, reorder them. There's a nice video demo here
I’m really convinced that this moves us on. We have to
bounce teachers and learners out of that mindset that sees teaching as one to
many and adopt the wisdom of the network. Pamela Katona at the University of
Utrecht showed that students are less than satisfied with the teaching and
feedback they receive. So many learners wait too long for feedback, receive
cursory feedback, don’t have access to the marking scheme and often don’t see
the final marked paper.
Arum, in Academically
, has presented good research to show that critical thinking, complex
reasoning and communications skills are all too lacking in our universities. So
here’s a technique that moves us on, combing the best of teaching with the best
of learning. All it takes is just that first step towards student interactivity
and participation. And, to repeat, it’s SCALABLE, indeed, the more the merrier.