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 arguments?
1. Powerful theoretical underpinning
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. Stephen Pinker sang her praises in The Blank Slate, 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).
2. Massively scalable
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 those problems.
4. Encourages critical thinking
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 side effect
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 participation.
6. Dramatic drops in drop-out rates
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.
7. Higher attainment
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 groups.
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.
Aropa 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 work.
Peerwise 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 Adrift, 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.