Being a firm believer in independent collaborative learning, I invited students to adopt the role of “peer teachers” on a new English Language module (EL3204 “Discourse Structure”) that I offered for the first time, last year.
I explained the rationale for this experiment to students using a “meal” metaphor. In the traditional “guest-host” model, the host is responsible for planning, preparing and serving the meal as appetizingly as possible. In contrast, at a potluck meal, everyone contributes a dish, making for a less onerous and richly-varied meal.
The students clearly understood the metaphor and the benefits to be gained from adopting the potluck model in our class. Instead of being limited by the teacher’s preferred learning style, they could enjoy a variety of teaching-learning styles and formats, by taking turns, adopting the role of “peer teacher”.
I began by asking students to form affinity groups comprising five members each, during the first seminar. Next, in order to give them some time to get to know one another, I volunteered to facilitate the first five seminars. In Week 6, instead of our usual seminar, students had “dedicated time” to meet and discuss their teaching objectives and learning strategies in readiness for the second half of the semester. In Weeks 7 through 11, two affinity groups adopted the role of peer teachers, running the seminar for roughly an hour each, on either side of the 15-minute class break (leaving roughly 15 minutes at the end of class to tie up any loose ends).
As “peer teachers”, affinity groups were responsible for explicitly articulating two to three key learning objectives, and preparing the learning resources (materials and activities) to achieve these objectives. As I explained to students, their goal was not to “tell” the class what they as “teachers” knew, but to help the class discover this knowledge for themselves.
I should highlight that some peer teachers kept calling their task a presentation, a genre that our students are familiar with, given their prior educational experiences. It took me several iterations to successfully explain the difference between ‘presentations’ and ‘discussion facilitation’. In presentations, the spotlight tends to be on the presenter who dispenses “useful” information. The audience typically learns by listening. In contrast, discussion facilitation is “other-centred”. Granted, it may encompass a brief presentation, but the main goal is to engender active experiential learning by inviting as much quality input as possible from the class (learning by doing).
Perhaps because the class comprised mostly third- and fourth-year students, i.e., senior undergraduates ready for something new, all ten affinity groups rose to the challenge of peer teaching with great energy and enthusiasm. Each week, peer teachers uploaded learning materials to the IVLE Workbin a day before the seminar, and “food for thought” questions to encourage further discussion of the topic on the IVLE forum after the seminar.
To ensure that we had a log of ongoing learning, affinity groups also took turns uploading weekly IVLE learning logs (i) highlighting the concepts and skills they had found most useful or stimulating; (ii) raising further questions about the issues discussed; and, (iii) providing constructive feedback to the peer teachers on the teaching-learning methods and materials used.
At the end of the semester, I held an informal debrief during the final seminar, asking students for feedback both on the content (“What ‘one thing’ will you take away from this module?”) and the teaching-learning methodology used. Ninety eight percent of the students said that they had learnt the most about the topic they had “taught”. As all teachers know, we learn best when we have to teach others—a “truth” I wanted my students to discover for themselves. In keeping with the ethos of the potluck meal, students also said that they had enjoyed the huge variety of learning materials, formats and teaching styles employed by the different groups of peer teachers. Given the generally positive response, my goal is to incorporate peer teaching as a central ingredient in other modules that I teach, in a continued bid to encourage students to take ownership of their learning.