Peers play a crucial role in any educational journey that we embark upon. The teachers, the content, and the learning materials are all equally important, but the classmates and friends that we pick up on the way can ultimately determine how we look back upon an experience.
But as well as forming the friendships that may last for life, the peers we encounter during our education can have a significant impact on our overall learning experience. Peers can drive us forward, push us to succeed, and encourage us to continue to better ourselves. And, of course, it’s also true that they can sometimes do the opposite.
So how do peers impact our education? And what are some of the best ways that we can get the most out of working collectively with our peers?
In this article, we are going to take a look at how our peers influence our learning.
How do peers influence learning?
Peers can influence learning by sharing their knowledge, teaching one another, and providing alternative viewpoints. Learning from other peers, or “peer learning”, enables students who are able in certain disciplines to share their knowledge with students who are better suited to other disciplines. Ultimately, this benefits both students.
Peer learning can boost the confidence of students, improve their critical thinking, increase their retention rate, encourage group processing, and create a positive learning environment. Many educators consider peer learning to be a crucial component of pedagogy.
So let’s jump in and take a look at what exactly peer learning is.
What is peer learning?
Peer learning sees students interact with other students to attain collective educational goals. It is a process whereby students learn together for a period of time without the direct influence of a teacher. Students are encouraged to pool their knowledge on a subject and learn from one another. This may be done through workshops, break-away study groups, presentations, partnerships, and other methods.
Research shows that peer influences and peer group learning have a positive impact on a student’s academic achievement whether they are elementary school students, students enrolled at university, or adult learners.
Here, we will take a look at just a few established peer-learning methods and the ways in which they should benefit students.
Think-pair-share is a peer learning technique that asks students to consider a question or problem on their own and perhaps write down some quick thoughts on it. They then join another student in a pair and exchange any ideas and discuss the question. The whole group is then brought back together and the pairs can take turns or volunteer any ideas they discussed.
This method encourages independent thinking, knowledge sharing, and public speaking. Students may find that they feel more confident in different phases of the exercise, so teachers may choose to pair students who will complement one another’s preferences. For example, a student who works well in solitude may be paired with a student who has the confidence to talk in front of the rest of the class.
This is a dynamic learning method whereby one group of students form a circle facing out and another group stand around them facing in so that there are two circles of students facing one another. They then have an allotted time period, say two minutes, to discuss a question or problem with the student they currently face. Then, after the two minutes has elapsed, the outer circle all move clockwise to face another student and they then discuss the same issue with them.
Circle learning invites quick thinking and discussion. Students are quickly exposed to a whole range of different ideas and they must think on their feet as they respond to them. It is also good for students who are less confident as it encourages talking to one person whilst everyone else is also talking. This should spur them on to talk freely and have none of the fear they would if they were talking in front of the whole class.
Team games, sometimes formally known as Student-Teams-Achievement-Divisions (STAD), see students placed into teams and working together against other teams. Students are then be tested on topic trivia, graded on a group presentation, or some other collective efforts. The teams are graded as a group so no individual can take the blame.
This, of course, encourages students to work collectively and understand that they are better as a group with a range of knowledge than they are as an individual.
Students are divided into groups and each group member is assigned a topic to research. The group then splits and the individual members go to learn with members from other groups who have been assigned the same topic. The topic groups research together and then return to their original groups to bring back their own learning and the knowledge they acquired in their topic group. This may culminate in a presentation, quiz or write-up.
Jigsaw tasks encourage different skills such as independent learning, group sharing, and presentations. They also instil the efficacy of teamwork and the notion that effective delegation can be the best way to problem-solve.
The teacher splits students up into groups and asks them to present on a topic. This may be a topic chosen by the teacher or by the group. The teacher may also choose to put certain limitations on the presentation, such as a time limit, a speaking limit per person, or decide on a particular form for the presentation.
Presentations can develop students’ confidence and public speaking skills, they also encourage students to distil complex research into comprehensible chunks that they can teach to their peers.
What are the benefits of peer learning?
There are many benefits of peer learning, but here we will take a look at just a few of them.
Improves critical thinking
When students work in groups and/or pairs they typically perform better on critical thinking tests. Instead of passively listening to a teacher talk to a full classroom, group work encourages students to become active learners who discuss, share, and critique ideas as they consider them.
Sharing answers and ideas also work as a means of encouraging students to think more deeply. As students respond to an answer or idea, the original sharer will see the various ways of thinking about a question or problem that they may not have initially considered themselves.
Increases learning retention
Studies show that active learning, whereby students teach one another, significantly increases the learning and knowledge retention of the students involved. This is because teaching a topic requires a comprehensive understanding of that topic. As peers actively question and challenge one another, the students must process and examine their own learning which makes it far more likely to be retained.
Improves confidence levels and communication skills
Research in educational psychology shows that peer learning builds confidence and communications skills in students. Students improve their communication skills by sharing their findings with the class or group, and their confidence is built by the positive feedback of their unique contribution to the wider project.
Interdependence ensures that all students participate and play a role in the success of a group’s output. While more able students can support less able students, everyone must play a role and contribute something to allow the group to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Puts students at ease in the classroom
Peer learning encourages students to work and collaborate with other students whom they may not already know. In small groups, students should then be able to share and contribute to a discussion or problem in an environment that is free from judgement. This puts students at ease with one another and within the classroom in general.
Encourages group processing
Group processing occurs when the members of the group understand, or process, which members were helpful in contributing to certain actions that benefited the group. This then clarifies what was and wasn’t effective and offers long-term lessons on how to succeed in a group.
What to be aware of in peer learning
There are also certain pitfalls to be aware of in peer learning. Students and teachers should be aware of them if and when they occur so that the students involved can be best supported.
Different students will have different abilities. For example, some will be great communicators, and others will be better researchers.
Group members should play to their respective strengths and their differing abilities should be understood and respected. If one student is struggling, then their peers should be encouraged to assist them.
Occasionally, students can feel hesitant, shy or unconfident when they are in groups or pairs. They may feel inferior to their partner or that they have little to offer their group. It is important that students who feel hesitant are encouraged to be confident in themselves. This may mean that they are delegated a different task, but one that still contributes to the overall success of the group.
Leadership is an integral part of peer learning, but the group’s work should also be divided fairly. Students should have an even workload and there should not be one student forcing their control onto the group.
Individuals within a group must also know what their responsibilities are and what the specific learning outcomes of an exercise are. It is vital that, in order for the group to complete a task, all group members contribute and take responsibility for an element of the task’s completion.
Once the task is complete, any negative feedback or poor results within the culmination of the group’s effort should be shared amongst the group and no one team member should be made to feel responsible.
Peer groups play an important role in a student’s education. While peer influence can be both positive and negative in a social sense, studies consistently demonstrate that peer learning is overwhelmingly beneficial to most students.
So, if you are a student, why not think about starting a formal study group with some classmates? Or, if you are a teacher, consider trying some of the methods we outlined above to get your students active, involved, and learning from one another.