Number. 13 © CDTL 2003
Peer Learning: Enhancing Student Learning Outcomes
Professor Matthew C.E. Gwee
Department of Pharmacology & Medical Education Unit, Faculty of Medicine / Associate Director, CDTL

“…learning with and from each other is a necessary and important aspect of all courses. The role it plays varies widely and the forms it takes are very diverse, but without it students gain an impoverished education.” (Boud, 2001)

The use of instructional strategies that require students to be more actively involved in the learning process is now strongly advocated for primary, secondary and tertiary education in Singapore. Peer learning provides such an educational strategy.

What is peer learning?

Peer learning essentially refers to students learning with and from each other as fellow learners without any implied authority to any individual, based on the tenet that “Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers” (Boud, 2001).

Reliance on the traditional lecture as the main mode of student learning has been criticised as:

  • moulding students into passive recipients of information transmitted by the teacher and making them highly dependent on teachers for much of their learning needs;
  • promoting rote-learning that involves mainly memorisation, recall and regurgitation of facts; and
  • acquiring abundant inert knowledge often difficult to apply in the work environment, whereas “What matters…is not just what students know but what they can do with what they know. What’s at stake is the capacity to perform, to put what one knows into practice” (Meyers & Jones, 1993).

Today, information technology (e.g. computer programs/databases, Internet facilities) has provided “students with excellent opportunities to learn without requiring a teacher to transmit the available information” (Bohuijs, 1998), thereby necessitating a shift in paradigm from the highly teacher-centred to learner-centred education (e.g. peer learning) in which students are expected to take greater initiative and responsibility to manage more of their own learning and educational/personal development.

In peer learning, students will construct their own meaning and understanding of what they need to learn. Essentially, students will be involved in searching for, collecting, analysing, evaluating, integrating and applying information to complete an assignment or solve a problem. Thus, students will engage themselves intellectually, emotionally and socially in “constructive conversation” and learn by talking and questioning each other’s views and reaching consensus or dissent (Boud, 2001).

Peer learning is optimised when incorporated as an integral component of a curriculum, paying special attention to:

  • Creating a conducive learning environment: Students must build mutual respect for and trust and confidence in one another, so that they “feel free to express opinions, test ideas, and ask for, or offer help when it is needed” (Smith, 1983). Peer learning can be further enhanced if the “environment of mutual help…continues over time and beyond the classroom” (Boud, 2001). Thus, students are individually and collectively accountable for optimising their own learning and achievements.
  • Learning in small collaborative groups: Many of the key elements for effective peer learning are often incorporated in the design of small collaborative learning groups, and “research shows that students who engage in collaborative learning and group study perform better academically, persist longer, feel better about the educational experience, and have enhanced self-esteem” (Landis, 2000). Furthermore, “the peer support…is a powerful psychological ballast to critical thinking efforts” (Brookfield, 1987).

Expected beneficial outcomes

In addition to content knowledge acquisition, peer learning, especially in small collaborative groups, nurtures and fosters the development of:

  • self-directed learning skills, and thus lays the foundation for life-long continuing self-education;
  • critical thinking and problem-solving skills;
  • communication, interpersonal and teamwork skills; and
  • learning through self, peer assessment and critical reflection.

Peer learning also strongly motivates learning often attributed to the fun and joy of learning in small groups. The outcomes of peer learning ultimately depend on the design strategy, outcome objectives of the course, facilitating skills of the teacher, and the commitment of students and teachers.

In conclusion, peer learning is learner-centred education that transcends content knowledge acquisition. Peer learning optimises student learning outcomes and provides a more holistic, value-added and quality-enhancing education that will better prepare students for the needs of the workforce in this millennium.


Bohuijs, P.A.J. (1998). ‘The Teacher and Self-Directed Learners’. In Jolly, B. & Rees, L. (Ed.), Medical Education in the Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 192–198.

Boud, D. (2001). ‘Introduction: Making the Move to Peer Learning’. In Boud, D., Cohen, Ruth & Sampson, Jane (Ed.). Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning From & With Each Other. London: Kogan Page Ltd, 1–17.

Brookfield, S.D. (1987). Developing Critical Thinkers. Jossey-Bass, San Franciso.
Landis, R.B. (2000). ‘Academic Success Strategies’. In Studying Engineering: A Road Map to a Rewarding Career (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Discovery Press.

Meyers, C. & Jones, T.B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning Strategies for the College Classroom. San Fracncisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, R.M. (1983). Learning How to Learn. U.K.: Buckingham Open University Press.


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