Many institutions of learning now promote instructional methods
involving ‘active’ learning that present opportunities
for students to formulate their own questions, discuss issues, explain
their viewpoints, and engage in cooperative learning by working
in teams on problems and projects. ‘Peer learning’ is
a form of cooperative learning that enhances the value of student-student
interaction and results in various advantageous learning outcomes.
To realise the benefits of peer learning, teachers must provide
‘intellectual scaffolding’. Thus, teachers prime students
by selecting discussion topics that all students are likely to have
some relevant knowledge of; they also raise questions/issues that
prompt students towards more sophisticated levels of thinking. In
addition, collaborative processes are devised to get all group members
to participate meaningfully.
Peer Learning Strategies
To facilitate successful peer learning, teachers may choose from
an array of strategies:
- Buzz Groups: A large group of students is
subdivided into smaller groups of 4–5 students to consider
the issues surrounding a problem. After about 20 minutes of discussion,
one member of each sub-group presents the findings of the sub-group
to the whole group.
- Affinity Groups: Groups of 4–5 students
are each assigned particular tasks to work on outside of formal
contact time. At the next formal meeting with the teacher, the
sub-group, or a group representative, presents the sub-group’s
findings to the whole tutorial group.
- Solution and Critic Groups: One sub-group
is assigned a discussion topic for a tutorial and the other groups
constitute ‘critics’ who observe, offer comments and
evaluate the sub-group’s presentation.
- ‘Teach-Write-Discuss’: At the
end of a unit of instruction, students have to answer short questions
and justify their answers. After working on the questions individually,
students compare their answers with each other’s. A whole-class
discussion subsequently examines the array of answers that still
seem justifiable and the reasons for their validity.
Critique sessions, role-play, debates, case studies and integrated
projects are other exciting and effective teaching strategies that
stir students’ enthusiasm and encourage peer learning. Students
thus have diverse opportunities to experience in a reasonably ‘safe’
and unconstrained context (while perhaps being evaluated by another
group and/or the teacher), reactions to complex and ‘real’
problems they may face later in their careers.
Successful Peer Learning
For peer learning to be effective, the teacher must ensure that
the entire group experiences ‘positive interdependence’,
face-to-face interaction, group processing, and individual and group
accountability. ‘Positive interdependence’ emphasises
the importance and uniqueness of each group member’s efforts
while important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics
are quietly at work. As students communicate with one another, they
inevitably assume leadership roles, acquire conflict-managing skills,
discuss and clarify concepts, and unravel the complexities of human
relationships within a given context; this process enhances their
learning outcomes. Thus, students’ learning extends far beyond
the written word and even the given task.
However, peer learning may encourage the presence of ‘freeloaders’—team
members who fail to fulfil their team responsibilities, but are
awarded for assignments or presentations the same (high) grade as
their more responsible teammates. Freeloading may be minimised by
using peer ratings to assess individual performance of team members,
or conducting a ‘post-test’. There will then be two
levels of accountability: the individual and the group.
Research indicates that peer learning activities typically result
in: (a) team-building spirit and more supportive relationships;
(b) greater psychological well-being, social competence, communication
skills and self-esteem; and (c) higher achievement and greater productivity
in terms of enhanced learning outcomes. Although peer-learning strategies
are valuable tools for educators to utilise, it is obvious that
simply placing students in groups and telling them to ‘work
together’ is not going to automatically yield results. The
teacher must consciously orchestrate the learning exercise and choose
the appropriate vehicle for it. Only then will students in fact
engage in peer learning and reap the benefits discussed above.
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