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Peer Support Community: -Peer Learning

Peer learning is when students of the same social standing i.e. students in the same year or class, support each other. This is different to peer mentoring where there is a hierarchical relationship between students of different study levels.

Peer learning can relate to students collaboratively developing their academic knowledge together, as it the ‘learning’ name suggests, but it can also involve learning about their own personal and professional development – as well as supporting each other’s wellbeing.

Peers can learn from each other by scaffolding their learning together, piecing together each other’s knowledge and building on it together. This mutual collaboration gives students confidence in their own abilities, knowing they are learning alongside their peers. This is also true on a personal level, helping each other grow in confidence through shared experiences.

What is it?

Peer learning in HE is a two-way process whereby students learn from each other by sharing ideas, knowledge and experience. Peer learning has been described as ‘a way of moving beyond independent to interdependent or mutual learning.’

Peer learning can be categorised into three types:

Cooperative learning

Students work together in small groups on a structured activity and are individually accountable for their work, yet also evaluated as a group. These groups work face-to-face and are usually managed by a leader.

Collaborative learning

Students team up in a less structured way to explore a problem statement, bringing complementary skills to the team and offering alternative solutions.

Peer tutoring

A student is appointed as a coach or mentor and share their knowledge with other students by way of formal tutorials.

Does it work?

A large number of studies, research and theories suggest peer learning has numerous benefits for students in higher education settings.

Theories

Vygotsky (1962) valued peer learning and argued that the range of skills that can be developed with peer collaboration is greater than anything that can be attained alone.

Piaget (1971) believed that co-operation between peers is likely to encourage real exchange of thought and discussion.

Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory suggests that students’ behavioural and cognitive learning processes become integrated in an environment which encourages social interactions and self-directed learning.

Limitations

Considering the barriers of peer learning:

  • The single most potent problem arising in peer learning is associated with issues of difference. If students do not accept each other as peers, difficulties arise. Oppressive behaviour by dominant group members can and does occur (Boud et al., 2001).
  • Peer learning may not be for everyone. Some students prefer to work individually rather than with peers and feel their time is spent more productively this way (Capstick, 2004).
  • Groups can become dependent on one member who they look at as being the teacher (Capstick, 2004).
  • There can be conflicts among team members and team members’ level of commitment can be a challenge (Idris et al, 2018).

Case studies

In a meta-analysis of 148 studies representing over 17,000 early adolescents, peer learning was associated with greater achievement and more positive peer relationships as compared to competitive or individualistic instructional approaches (Roseth, et al.,

2008). 

Capstick (2004) found peer learning helps students with settling in to university, understanding the course, awareness of course directions and expectations, assignment help, study skills and cooperative learning.

Hassan (2014) discovered most students (95 per cent) view peer learning very positively and enjoy socialising with their peers. This strengthens their learning from learning from each other and through discussion and feedback in the group, together with the feedback they received from the teacher on their solutions to the problem and other questions that are related to course.

Research

  • Students develop skills in organising and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning (Boud et al., 2001).
  • Communication is based on mutual experience, enabling peers to make equal contributions (Boud, 2001).
  • Peers do not have power over each other by virtue of their position or responsibilities (Boud et al., 2014).
  • Peer learning can prompt a sense of responsibility for one’s own and others’ learning and development and increase confidence and self-esteem through engaging in a community of learning and learners (Boud et al., 2014).
  • Working together gives students practice in planning and teamwork which can be useful for future work (Boud et al., 2014).
  • It enables critical enquiry and reflection (Boud et al., 2014).
  • Concept development often occurs through the testing of ideas on others and the rehearsing of positions that enable learners to express their understanding of ideas and concepts (Boud et al., 2014).
  • It helps students with managing learning and how to learn and self and peer assessment (Boud et al., 2014).
  • Interaction with peers can result in the development of cognitive or intellectual skills or to an increase in knowledge and understanding (Topping, 1998).
  • Peer learning offers students benefits such as higher academic achievement, improved interpersonal relationships, enhanced personal and social development, more positive learning environment and increased motivation levels (Topping and Ehly, 1998).
  • It enables cultural knowledge and cultural awareness to be developed through conversations between peers (Yan and FitzPatrick, 2016).
  • Peer learning can lead to a decrease in drop-out rates (Watkins and Mazur, 2013).
  • Peer learning may be more successful when peers are close in experience or stage of training as it provides a more relaxed, less intimidating, and more ‘user friendly’ learning experience (Cooper and Cant, 2013).

Cohen and Sampson (2001) suggested that time is formally allocated to preparing students to engage in peer learning through orientation, rehearsal and discussion of the processes. They identified four main phases in the process of establishing and maintaining peer learning:

  1. Preparing for peer learning

Teachers consider the issues involved in the course, deciding which peer learning strategy will be used, preparing documentation for students and planning how they will orient students for peer learning. The four key elements to be considered prior to the effective introduction of peer learning are: staff knowledge, providing a rationale, developing guidelines for students and preconditions for fostering peer learning.

  1. Orienting students to peer learning

This can take place in normal classes or in a specially organised training workshop. The key features of an orientation session are:
Introducing students to the notions of learning with and from each other.
Modelling/illustrating how these learning processes are consistent with the outcomes of the course.
Demonstrating how to build upon student experiences and use them as a resource for further learning.
Convincing students that different perspectives have validity. Providing opportunity for doubts and concerns to be raised. Encouraging others in competitive courses.
Information on group development.
Providing a practice session on a relevant topic to try out some of the processes to be used in a safe environment.

  1. Managing, monitoring and sustaining the events of peer learning

Students take on the tasks of peer learning but academic staff are responsible for implementing and managing peer learning. Teachers can monitor the process through observations, conversations with students, formal or informal group reports,

reading students reflective journal entries or self or peer assessments by the students. Cohen and Sampson (2001) suggest timetabling a short session early in the semester for sharing accounts of how the peer learning is progressing and to provide an occasion for the students to reflect on their own roles in the process.

  1. Evaluating outcomes

Evaluation is an ongoing process and accessing this sort of data early in a semester gives staff and students the opportunity to make appropriate adjustments. Several evaluation approaches stand out as being congruent with peer learning goals: self-evaluations, group or pair evaluations and staff evaluations.