Peer Learning: Getting students to work together meaningfully

peer learningWe may all have memories of group projects gone bad … you’re the only one who does any work, one person freeloads, the group can’t agree on a direction, and so forth.

Our students have these memories, too, and as a result can be reluctant to engage in group work.  But there are so many potential benefits of learning together – including improved problem-solving and critical thinking skills, enhanced understanding, improved communication skills, and social benefits like increased empathy and reduced competitiveness –  that it’s worth the effort to make peer learning happen well.

Structuring the peer-learning environment effectively means ensuring that all students are meaningfully engaged in their group’s work. Often, students are not well prepared to do this, and so spending some “training time” upfront will save time and frustration later.  For instance, discussing with students what a good group experience looks like, and having them develop guidelines and group goals not only provides shared groundrules, but also increases students’ personal investment in the project.

Assessment is another tricky area in group work. If students are truly working collaboratively, it’s impossible to pull out any individual’s work in order to assess and grade it. One very popular, and useful, practice is to have each member of a group assess all of the other members’ work – as well as their own.  Instructors will need to provide rubrics that address the expected behaviors of group members (for instance: to what extent did this person contribute useful ideas to discussion/help you clarify your own ideas/meet group deadlines/etc.). Teachers can also use “debrief” kinds of assignments – for instance, reflection papers or “lessons learned” papers – to suss out what each student took from the group experience.

Sometimes, teachers are reluctant to use peer learning in the classroom because they feel it’s a cop-out on their part – they’re not teaching if the students are doing all the talking. In reality, though, designing effective peer-learning environments and activities takes a lot of planning, creativity, and hard work – probably more than the standard lecture prep – as any teacher who has tried and tried again with peer learning can tell you.

Image: Fabi Fliervoet,
Marina Micari is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. She is co-author of Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2013).

What are the potential pitfalls of peer learning? What have you tried and succeeded (or failed) at?  What works well? What possibilities do you see?

About Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching

This is the official blog for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University.
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