Sunday, October 16, 2011

7 compelling arguments for peer learning

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.
Peer tools
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.


Seb Schmoller said...


The best examples of online distance learning, Mitra's work with school children in the NE (not to mention the "Hole in the Wall" experiments), Swedish Study Circles, TUC education for trade union representatives, all of these involve peer learning and in some cases peer assessment; and some of them go back a long way.

I got smitten by peer learning in 1979 when I was first briefed by Alan Grant and Doug Gowan on how to be a TUC tutor. Through peer-learning I learned more in that one week about how to design and run courses than in one year on a full time PGCE course.

I'm currently enrolled on (and am reporting from/on) the big free "Stanford" online AI course.

Here, no central attempts have been made to set up or organise peer learning - the course is in several respects extremely conventional in its organisation; but a big "peer learning substructure" started to develop within a few days of the course starting. There are pointers to parts of the substructure in this summary by Rohan Aurora.

The key point as you say is that this approach can run at very large scale; and the Web provides the infrastructure(s) to underpin it.


PS - Eric Mazur will be speaking at the 2012 ALT Conference next September in Manchester.

Steve Smith said...

A couple of points: did I not hear (via Dylan William) that lecturing is one of the best ways to transmit knowledge? Secondly, how would peer learning work to any large degree in language teaching where large amounts of high quality foreign language input is needed?

Donald Clark said...

Hi Steve
If Dylan claimed this then it's at odds with the rest of his work on formative feedback. The evidence would suggest that lectures are not effective.

Good point on language learning. My own view is that language learning in UK schools is a tale of large-scale failure. All try - few succeed. Why - the classroom is no way to learn a language. You learn a language by speaking with others who speak that language - perhaps the most effective example of peer learning I can think of. I've seen it with my own son - his friendship with a French student and trips to Nimes have taught him more french than years of classroom work.

Ollie Gardener said...

Great post Donald!
I think the most powerful aspect of peer-to-peer learning is its affect on critical thinking. Bringing in the diversity of perspectives that exists within a network makes for a much richer learning experience.
My own primary school in Norway did an experiment into the power of peer-learning that would brake down most of our assumptions about learning (they later became part of the European Network Of Innovative Schools).
The timetable and the school bell went out the window, and the majority of the school's physical walls were torn down. Teachers became facilitators as students took more responsibility for their own as well as their peers learning.
Their results were impressive, both in terms of engagement, happiness and academic results.
Kids could learn at their own speed and also learn subjects from the perspective that reflected their own interests. Self organised study groups appeared. The students that normally fell behind where supported by those that were usually bored in a particular subject - and these roles typically rotated.

I think there is definitely a case for getting out of the way of learning. Technology can enable teachers (as well as trainers and managers!) to do so with more confidence and adopt a more facilitative approach to learning. Being scalable should be the bare minimum ;)


John Rogers - Learning in Practice said...

I'm interested in peer learning too. I've been following up on some work done by Prof Tom Bourner at the Centre for Management Development, University of Brighton on self-managed action learning. He applied a peer led process to action learning with 400 people in a health service organisation between 1999 and 2003. Interestingly, the driver for a peer-led approach was pragmatic as the organisation couldn't afford the costs of long term facilitation. So not just scaleable but cost effective too.

IK said...

Language learning is perhaps the best example of all. As an Australian, language education in the classroom is virtually useless as there is little or no opportunity to practice. My son has just returned from 9 months in Colombia and Ecuador and he is now fluent in Spanish. I can only assume that his Colombian girlfriend also learnt a lot of English! My wife on the other hand has been learning French for years, and frankly on the rare occasions when we have been to France, I have thought to myself (certainly not expressed aloud) that perhaps her tuition fees could have been better spent. At least I know she hasn't been sleeping with a Frenchman!!

I have been piloting a social media marketing course this semester using Google+, open content on FolioSpaces, and Moodle just for some assessment submission. The use of Google+ for students, myself, and also interested invited guests has been fantastic as it has provided a veritable treasure trove of perspectives, ideas and additional resources.

My previously mentioned son turned down a scholarship to an American university. I was disappointed, but realised (when he told me) it was my dream, not his. The biggest challenge I see as an ageing higher education teacher is that education is stuck in a time warp. Whilst peer education should be seen as an exciting opportunity, it is (in my circles at least) too often seen as a threat. It is an irony that institutions have become so focussed on 'work ready' graduates, teaching facts that can be easily Googled, surely the time is right to again celebrate education for educations sake.

andy tedd said...

As always an informative post so thanks.


... "Mucking about?!" you almost make it sound pejorative :)

I would argue that mucking about is an essential part of forming peer bonds without which peer to peer learning cannot take place.

When you and I talk, we spend a lot of our time chatting, gossiping, and if its talking about MTB then literally mucking about. It builds trust and understanding, so we learn from eachother quicker.

Sorry I don't have a citation for that.

Steve Smith said...

Just a point about language learning (writing as a teacher of French here): success is strongly related to motivation and time spent hearing the foreign language. The classroom offers insufficient time and students often have no choice in the matter so motivation is often low. Immersion is bound to produce more success. The peer learning elemnt is important since interacting in real situations rather than in a classroom or via recordings should lead to better outcomes.

Donald Clark said...

Totally agree Steve. This leads to an interesting conclusion - that the current approach to language learning in the UK is doomed to succeed i.e. we will persevere with a system that builds-in failure. More immersion and exposure is clearly the answer.

arided said...

Dear Donald:

I wonder if you could spare the time to comment on a new Wikipedia article on "Peer Learning" that I've been working on.

Here's the link:

Joe Corneli ("Arided")