It’s not new, it’s not radical and it doesn’t consist of any one single approach. But as universities move away from a model where academics are seen the sole authority, peer learning has become part and parcel of any dynamic online or offline learning environment.
At its best, peer learning cultivates student independence, academic curiosity, self-efficacy and deeper engagement with learning. Still, not everyone is convinced of its value and misconceptions abound.
Misconception 1. It’s not valued by students
Problems can arise when students, typically first year undergraduates, are unused to a culture of peer learning. They feel more comfortable learning passively from a ‘sage on the stage’ and don’t understand the value of learning with their peers.
It’s therefore useful to outline expectations from students at the outset and explain how they will benefit from participation. Sometimes it’s helpful to mention that in a world of increasing interconnectedness, the ability to work collaboratively has become a highly sought-after employability skill.
While some resistance is inevitable, universities find that when peer learning is purposeful and well-managed, it’s valued highly by students and staff alike.
Misconception 2. It’s not fair
Sometimes there will be team members who are happy to let others take the workload while they take the credit. This understandably frustrates conscientious students and is something to be acknowledged.
To ensure accountability, some faculties use Web-PA; a system whereby each student grades other group members on their individual contributions to a peer learning project. Others encourage groups to assign a leader to delegate tasks, or suggest they try a free project management app, like Trello, to allocate tasks.
Misconception 3. It assumes all students are the same
Many universities now offer timetabled programmes such as Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) and Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) programmes that connect students across different year groups.
Formalised programmes are typically modelled on vertical tutoring, with second and third year students trained as ‘peer learning leaders’ to coach first years. However, even students from the same cohort will bring vastly different understandings and perspectives to a peer learning session.
Misconception 4. It's a hassle
Setting up a formalised peer learning programme takes time, consideration, timetabling, rooming and training. But it is a long-term investment that should result in improved learning gains and reduced dependency on time-pressed academics.
Moreover, high-quality digital learning tools now allow students to collaborate at their own convenience, making peer learning easier than ever. For example, students with access to Kortext’s personalised learning platform and digital resources can work together at any time and from any location to co-author documents, share notes, annotate extracts from textbooks and plan peer learning projects. Since Kortext is linked to popular social channels like Twitter and Facebook, students can also ask each other questions, discuss learning and arrange meeting times
Misconception 5. It’s only for struggling students
Effective peer learning can enhance, support and extend student learning at all levels. This might take the form of specialist help for less confident students or advanced questioning to challenge the most able.
And the benefits are not just academic. Research from the Higher Education Academy finds that peer-assisted learning schemes foster ‘a greater sense of belonging and improved academic confidence’ which assists in the transition to higher education and precarious first year when risk of drop-out is highest. Some universities, like the University of Exeter, even train peer mentors to provide pastoral support.
Misconception 6. It uses students as teachers
Peer learning programmes exist to support students in discussing topics, lecture material and reading in a less pressurised setting. They might practise using equipment or ask questions resulting from lectures. The aim is not to teach content, but complement and reinforce formally taught sessions.
Peer learning can take many forms: vertical tutoring, student-led seminars, formally assessed group projects and of course, peer review. It takes time to establish a timetabled peer learning programme, but with the potential to improve student confidence, outcomes, retention and even graduate employability, it’s an investment worth making.