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…

9 thoughts on “Peer Pressure

  1. I agree….. Peer tutoring has it place, as has been seen in schemes such as PASS at Manchester however to me it is always supplementary/complimentary to a course taught by qualified and experiences educators in the field. PASS also has considerable lecturer input, is it truly peer tutoring if the academics are writing the problems and answers?

    1. I can’t imagine a world where we disagree?? 🙂 and if we do, then I’m wrong…

      Must read up on PASS/PAL

  2. Hi Michael,

    You raise some very good points. In my opinion, peer teaching is beneficial for two main reasons. You mention the first, which is that we often learn best through teaching. I think we have all experienced this to some extent as teachers. The second however, is that students very often listen more and engage with their peers than with the old guy at the front. This only works though if the peer teaching is guided. I find this easiest to do by providing some questions that the students must have answered during their teaching. This prevents rambling, off-topic chatter or just plain bad science.
    Also, you say that we don’t have to default to the “traditional lecture”, but that is exactly what you’ve just described. I would argue that even undertaking group work is a form of peer teaching as the students are (should be) working together, communicating, chatting, discussing their options and learning from each other. I’m not against the traditional teaching style at all, but my point is merely that in a well-controlled guided environment, I have seen peer teaching be a success.

    1. Hi Gareth,

      Thanks for you comments. Essentially I agree, although perhaps my definition of peer teaching is different. Just for the sake of discussion though…
      – I disagree with the old guy up the front argument (as I continue to tend towards that status myself!) Such a person might be motivating because of different reasons – scientific acclaim, ability to engage, etc. However I do acknowledge that students, for example when writing for each other rather than lecturers, tend to try better because they are writing to explain (teach) rather than writing to get marks (ie hoping to hit “the right answer”)
      – a lecturer teaching doesn’t have to be traditional (we may just be differing on definitions). There’s lots of ways to make classes interactive apart from peer teaching.
      – I suppose the big thing is that I agree completely that discussion should be a central part of the education of scientists, sorely lacking. But discussion perhaps as you say in a guided way. Which is great, but we’re back to the initial problem of having a realistic amount of time to do it. I hear you when you say “learning from each other” but is that happening? Love to see evidence for it in a study which compares to some other form of interactive lecture. Comparing anything with the traditional lecture is likely going to show benefit, just because it is something different.

      I suppose my core question is: now that we’re beginning to tease out different approaches to traditional, can we begin to say which of these may have an edge.

      Sorry for long reply, and thanks for your very sensible comment.

      PS: Perhaps see you at Irish Variety in May at DIT

      1. Hi Michael,

        Just a quick clarification – my “old guy at the front” comment was meant more as a self-deprecating light-hearted reference rather than a dig at older teachers in general, and certainly wasn’t a reference to you! I think your point touches on the disparity between second level and third level science teaching. I would suggest that at third level students are more attentive and tolerant given their age and also the fact that they have chosen to be there. Unfortunately, this is not always the case at second level, added to the fact that the” industrial production of Magnesium Oxide”, for example, is often not of great relevance to the average 17 year old. In a nutshell, I imagine that engagement is more difficult, in general, in secondary schools compared to third level. If the engagement bar is higher, it means we need to be a bit more imaginative at reaching it, which is where peer teaching potentially comes in.
        I have no defence to counter your “time” argument – you are absolutely right, we have limited time, particularly in the second level curriculum, and this dictates or even limits teaching practices. But that’s a whole other can of worms…
        Thanks for your reply, sorry for the ramble.

  3. Michael,
    I read this with great interest, as a keen advocate of Peer Assisted Learning. I think a very clear distinction needs to be made between “Peer Teaching” and “Peer Assisted Learning.” They are not, and should not be, the same thing.
    When I train our PAL mentors, I make it very clear that they should not be teaching. PAL is about developing good study habits and learning together, as peers; not a teacher/student relationship.
    I think that it is very beneficial for those who take on a mentoring role, in terms of developing their skills and confidence.
    Also, I would never make claims that PAL can improve grades. However, I will and do claim that it can improve the community within a school, and foster better relationships between students in different years and also with staff. To me, that is the reason to implement and support Peer learning. And as Kristy says, such schemes should always be to complement, not substitute other forms of teaching.

    1. Hi Samantha,

      Thanks for that. Part of my problem is that I hear “peer” and tend to run! But the difference you emphasise is important.

      Hoping to hear more in May 🙂


    2. Hi Michael and Samantha,
      I think I consider the value in peer something to be similar to Samantha’s definition. Peer teaching makes my brain itch at the thought, but peer mentoring and peer assisted learning doesn’t tick the same box of unease. We’ve just started with PeerWise and despite the name, it remains very much students producing questions without much interaction beyond write a question and forget about it. We’re struggling to get our students to engage with the peer aspects such as improving explanations and engaging in discussion through comments. So it is a fairly effective means of writing MCQs provided we edit sufficiently. I’ve not looked at grades yet but I suspect that some students will get what they would always get, at both the high and low ends of the scale and there may be some impact on the middle ground where doing more examples can help.
      We don’t have peer mentors of the type Samantha describes at Keele, I quite like the idea though!

      Very interesting post generally, been thinking of it for a while.


  4. Hi, you’ve expressed some valid concerns here. Peer tutoring (focusing on k-12 education here) isn’t supposed to replace traditional teaching. It’s just another way to help students learn and reinforce their knowledge. Also, peer tutoring is a broad term; it doesn’t always occur between students of the same grade level. Cross-age peer tutoring falls under this broad category and also tends to be more effective.
    This peer tutoring success story from a once failing high school in Arizona might give you a better understanding

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