Peer Pressure

I should be convinced about peer teaching but I’m not. Educators who I respect and who advocate the benefits of peer-tutoring, Peerwise and well, general peeriness, have demonstrated improved grades where lecturers use one of a multitude of peer activities. In what follows, I consider peer teaching to be one where students take some or all responsibility for teaching content to each other. I don’t include group work or discussion work, which is teacher led and maintains the academic input of the teacher.

I accept that peer teaching has a role at early undergraduate level, where peers working with each other have some chance of being able to learn from or to teach one another. For example, a student with prior knowledge of chemistry may be able to bring an informed understanding of a topic to a peer teaching scenario, and as the old saying goes, the only way to learn is to teach. A think-pair-share in a first year lecture could work well. Great.

My problem is that once we move beyond basic topics, I can’t see how peer teaching will work. A student going away and learning about a topic and coming back to tell his group about it is all very well; but wouldn’t it just be easier, and frankly more academically rigorous, if the lecturer teaches and the student learns? This situation doesn’t mean we have to default to the traditional lecture.

Maybe I’ve a narrow view of what peer teaching is. But when I see improvements in exam scores, I wonder if it is just because the students interacted in some way, any way, with the material one or two more times before they were assessed on it.

Perhaps my worry is that the laudable ideas of peer teaching don’t stack up when you implement them in the classroom. There’s the story about the guy who wrote the book on problem-based learning but never actually taught that way himself. It sounded good on paper though. But for example with Peerwise, I’ve heard people speak at conferences where they say they are not sure whether the students are writing questions or copying them from elsewhere. I’d love to see a study where a Peerwise group was compared to a group that were given weekly quizzes. And peer teaching in groups, where my fictional student reports back his new knowledge to the group. Ideally, the lecturer is available here at all times to give feedback on understanding; but the reality may be that we get a draft report or presentation, where we can only address some headline issues. Although lauded as a way of saving time, I think it might need a lot more time to do well.

I’m open to being convinced. Convince or agree…