"At a time when university resources are stretched and demands
upon staff are increasing, it [peer learning] offers students the
opportunity to learn from each other."
Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#418 WHAT IS PEER LEARNING AND WHY IS
The posting below looks at a still underutilized resource, students
learning from other students. It is from Chapter 1, Introduction:
Making the move to peer learning, in Peer Learning in Higher Education:
Learning From & With Each Other, edited by David Boud, Ruth
Cohen & Jane Sampson. Published by Kogan Page Limited 120 Pentonville
Road, London N1 9JN, UK and Stylus Publishing Inc. 22883 Quicksilver
Drive Sterling, VA 20166-2012, USA. http://www.styluspub.com/
Copyright © David Boud, Ruth Cohen, Jane Sampson and individual
contributors, 2002. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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WHAT IS PEER LEARNING AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Peer learning is not a single, undifferentiated educational strategy.
It encompasses a broad sweep of activities. For example, researchers
from the University of Ulster identified 10 different models of
peer learning (Griffiths, Housten and Lazenbatt, 1995). These ranged
from the traditional proctor model, in which senior students tutor
junior students, to the more innovative learning cells, in which
students in the same year form partnerships to assist each other
with both course content and personal concerns. Other models involved
discussion seminars, private study groups, parrainage (a buddy system)
or counseling, peer-assessment schemes, collaborative project or
laboratory work, projects in different sized (cascading) groups,
workplace mentoring and community activities.
The term 'peer learning', however, remains abstract. The sense
in which we use it here suggests a two-way, reciprocal learning
activity. Peer learning should be mutually beneficial and involve
the sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience between the participants.
It can be described as a way of moving beyond independent to interdependent
or mutual learning (Boud, 1988).
Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others
and by participating in activities in which they can learn from
their peers. They develop skills in organizing and planning learning
activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving
feedback and evaluating their own learning. Peer learning is becoming
an increasingly important part of many courses, and it is being
used in a variety of contexts and disciplines in many countries.
The potential of peer learning is starting to be realized, but
examination of the ways in which it is used in existing courses
suggests that practices are often introduced in an ad hoc way, without
consideration of their implications. When such practices are used
unsystematically, students unfamiliar with this approach become
confused about what they are supposed to be doing, they miss opportunities
for learning altogether, and fail to develop the skills expected
of them. Much peer learning occurs informally without staff involvement,
and students whoa re already effective learners tend to benefit
disproportionately when it is left to chance.
Formalized peer learning can help students learn effectively. At
a time when university resources are stretched and demands upon
staff are increasing, it offers students the opportunity to learn
from each other. It gives them considerably more practice than traditional
teaching and learning methods in taking responsibility for their
own learning and, more generally, learning how to learn. It is not
a substitute for teaching and activities designed and conducted
by staff members, but an important addition to the repertoire of
teaching and learning activities that can enhance the quality of
It is important to consider who are the 'peers' in peer learning.
Generally, peers are other people in a similar situation to each
other who do not have a role in that situation as teacher or expert
practitioner. They may have considerable experience and expertise
or they may have relatively little. They share the status as fellow
learners and they are accepted as such. Most importantly, they do
not have power over each other by virtue of their position or responsibilities.
Throughout the book we will be discussing the role of students who
are in the same classes as those from whom they are learning.
Peer teaching, or peer tutoring, is a far more instrumental strategy
in which advanced students, or those in later years, take on a limited
instructional role. It often requires some form of credit or payment
for the person acting as the teacher. Peer teaching is a well-established
practice in many universities, whereas reciprocal peer learning
is often considered to be incidental-a component of other more familiar
strategies, such as the discussion group (see, for example, Brookfield
and Preskill, 1999). As a consequence, until recently, reciprocal
peer learning has not been identified as a phenomenon in its own
right that might be used to students' advantage.
Reciprocal peer learning typically involves students within a given
class or cohort. This makes peer learning relatively easy to organize
because there are fewer timetabling problems. There is also no need
to pay or reward with credit the more experienced students responsible
for peer teaching. Students in reciprocal peer learning are by definition
peers, and so there is less confusion about roles compared with
situations in which one of the 'peers' is a senior student, or is
in an advanced class, or has special expertise.
Reciprocal peer learning emphasizes students simultaneously learning
and contributing to other students' learning. Such communication
is based on mutual experience and so they are better able to make
equal contributions. It more closely approximates to Habermas' notion
of an 'ideal speech act' in which issues of power and domination
are less prominent than when one party has a designated 'teaching'
role and thus takes on a particular kind of authority for the duration
of the activity.
We define peer learning in its broadest sense, then, as 'students
learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways'.
The emphasis is on the learning process, including the emotional
support that learners offer each other, as much as the learning
task itself. In peer teaching the roles of teacher and learner are
fixed, whereas in peer learning they are either undefined or may
shift during the course of the learning experience. Staff may be
actively involved as group facilitators or they may simply initiate
student-directed activities such as workshops or learning partnerships.
According to Topping's review of literature, surprisingly little
research has been done into either dyadic reciprocal peer tutoring
or same-year group tutoring (Topping, 1996). He identified only
10 studies, all with a very narrow, empirical focus. This suggests
that the teaching model, rather than the learning model, is still
the most common way of understanding how students assist each other.
Although the teaching model has value, we must also consider the
learning process itself if we want to make the best use of peers
as resources for learning.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to recognize that peer learning
is not a single practice. It covers a wide range of different activities
each of which can be combined with others in different ways to suit
the needs of a particular course. It is like peer assessment in
this regard (Falchikov, 2001) and it is unfortunately similarly
misunderstood as referring to a particular practice.
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