Why Peer Learning?
What is peer learning? How can it help us meet learning goals in a hybrid learning environment? Why does it matter?
Peer learning refers to a broad set of pedagogical approaches that encourage students to learn both with and from each other. Peer learning involves positioning students as teachers, mentors and evaluators, and marks a shift from independent to “interdependent” learning (Boud, 2002). The scope of peer learning components can vary widely within a course and might be the feature of a single assignment, or it could inform the overall structure of a course. Regardless of scope, “Collaborative learning combines two key goals: learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others.” (Kuh, 2008).
In the hybrid or remote classroom, peer learning can play a pivotal role in fostering a sense of community among students, which can help them overcome the isolation that can accompany remote learning. Kuh refers to collaborative learning as one of eleven “high impact practices” in higher education, suggesting that the research accumulated around peer, collaborative learning leads to lasting impact. Creating opportunities for interdependent learning among students allows them to develop expertise, showcase their understanding, and practice the skills necessary for collaborative work. Crucially, peer learning can provide a venue in which students can model and observe empathy, an element that heightens the impact of remote education by attending to the needs and strengths of students in a holistic manner. Peer learning can support the achievement of course learning goals by deepening student learning and providing opportunities for students to hone their organizational, analytical, and social skills as they work with classmates.
What are the elements that require attention as we implement and support peer learning in a virtual environment?
Peer learning will be effective as long as there is intentional thinking around what you want students to do, how you want them to think, and what disciplinary habits you want them to adopt. In a virtual environment, having clear goals helps you focus on which “learning activities should provide practice toward eventually attaining one or more of the learning objectives” (Talbert, 2020).
Based on your goals, where in your course will it be useful for students to discuss and/or practice applying strategies with peers?
- Course-level: where could peer learning support students between assignments or themes? Are there topics that lend themselves more to group discussion than individual explorations? (E.g., developing/workshopping thesis statements in Zoom)
- Unit/Week/Theme: where could peer learning activities help students make connections from how you frame course content or lecture material to their own emerging understanding to the next assignment or assessment? Where will it be helpful for students to talk through ideas with each other?
- Similar questions apply to individual course sessions:
- What concepts are typically more troublesome for students to grasp?
- How can you allocate class time for activities that leverage peer learning?
- Similar questions apply to individual course sessions:
Clear expectations and criteria
- Articulate the purpose(s) of the peer learning activity.
- Provide step-by-step instructions for the peer activity, including the main questions or topics to discuss. (E.g., if you assign students to a Zoom breakout room, be sure to tell them how they should use their time, and whether they should identify roles such as timekeeper and reporter/raconteur who will provide a summary of discussion to the larger group.)
- If the activity is part of a summative assessment, include criteria for individual expectations and group expectations. This useful resource from Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center outlines advantages and disadvantages of various methods of grading peer activities.
Opportunities for Feedback
- One-to-many: When providing feedback opportunities to students, we often think of individual, detailed feedback. With built-in peer activities, you have the opportunity to provide feedback to smaller groups of students and/or feedback to the whole class based on what you see happening in peer activities.
- Peer-to-peer: As part of your written expectations or guidance for working on peer projects/activities, you can also guide students in giving feedback as a way to foster feedback literacy among students (Carless et al., 2011).
- Plan for timing of feedback: It is useful to ask yourself: “When should I provide feedback to students?” To help determine when and how to time your feedback to students, refer to this case study on feedback loops in hybrid courses.
Strategies & Tools
There are a number of GU-supported tools that can help you incorporate forms of peer learning into your course. Within Canvas, there are yet more tools, including Discussion Boards, Peer-Review, and Collaborations (which uses Google Docs). As you consider various options, bear in mind that one of the important aspects of facilitating peer learning is student agency; there should be a balance of highly structured peer learning activities and opportunities for students to take more ownership of their learning.
Collaborations and teamwork
Create assignments that put students in communication with one another in smaller group settings.
Google Docs through Canvas Collaborations is an excellent space for students to take collaborative notes, work on projects or assignments, share resources, and other peer learning and engagement activities. The one drawback of using Canvas Collaborations is that you can only create a Google Doc. But students, outside of Canvas Collaborations, can use Google Slides, Google Sheets, et.c, for projects, resource sharing, and other collaborative activities.
There are also a number of tools available through Google Apps. Students can work synchronously or asynchronously in Google Apps, allowing them to share and learn from each other. Google Maps can be used to create simple, interactive maps. Google Jamboard can be used for collaborative mind mapping, brainstorming, and drawing. And there is always Google Sheets for spreadsheets.
Students can also use Zoom on their own to organize study groups, synchronous collaboration time, and even record presentations. While working with different time zones is challenging, consider polling your students to facilitate the creation of groups with similar schedules and time zone limitations. You can also poll students to find out which platforms they are most comfortable using to keep in touch with one another, and create space for them to share contact information for working together synchronously.
VoiceThread is a tool that can be integrated into Canvas, which allows even richer multimedia responses to a discussion prompt. Faculty can record themselves and annotate a document or other artifact, and students then respond in turn. Like a regular discussion board, this is a tool for asynchronous discussions, but VoiceThread allows for a bit more flexibility and space for creativity. There is more of a learning curve for both the instructor and the students in terms of familiarizing themselves with the tool and the interface, but not insurmountable.
Have students partner in pairs in order to support each other with studying and comprehension; this can happen synchronously or asynchronously.
Crowdsource class notes by having a changing group of 2-3 students notetake in a collaborative document.
Create group review documents by having students address specific questions in smaller groups in collaborative documents, then share with the larger group.
Have students assess each other’s work and give formative feedback though smaller synchronous meetings or asynchronously through collaborative documents.
Discussion boards are probably the most commonly used forms of engagement and peer learning, so much so that both faculty and students can feel that discussion boards are overused, therefore diminishing their effectiveness as a tool for peer learning. However, there are a number of ways to make discussion boards more effective.
The discussion boards in Canvas support multimedia responses. So students aren’t limited to responding with just text; they can incorporate images, videos, sounds, animated gifs—if it can exist on the web, then it can exist in a response on a discussion board. Consider allowing and encouraging students to change up their types of responses.
Canvas Assignments also allow for you to set up peer review. Students can provide feedback based on a rubric you provide, or just with some guidance in an announcement. The peer review can be anonymous or not, and students can be assigned to do multiple peer reviews before they can access the feedback they have received.
Ask students to develop assessment questions for each other.
Digital tools afford instructors the opportunity to be extremely specific about steps, expectations, and instructions for peer assessment.
For summative, in-depth projects, another platform that GU supports for peer-learning is Georgetown Commons Blog. Instructors can create a course blog in WordPress (a popular web platform) that everyone can contribute to, or one central class blog with each student getting their own blog attached to the main site. This tool is great for longer-term projects, weekly reflections or research journals, or a collaborative space to be able to share research, resources, and have discussions.
Students can also create Portfolios or exhibits on their Commons Blog, which is a more flexible platform than discussion boards in Canvas and, for longer term discussions and work, easier to navigate and manage. You can limit access to your class blogs to just students in your class, or make them public.
Georgetown Domains is a more robust way to create websites for a course or for students to create their own web presence. With more options than just WordPress, Georgetown Domains allows for different ways to share scholarship and work on the web. Installing a platform like Omeka can allow for the creation of robust online exhibits; certain WordPress themes facilitate multimedia portfolios; and students can even create their own website via coding.
MBA professor Lee Pinkowitz values peer learning and community in his MBA courses, and has sought ways to encourage students to engage with each other and the course materials in meaningful ways. Some of his strategies have been:
To increase participation and check for understanding of course materials, Pinkowitz incorporated activities such as Write a Quiz Question in the Canvas peer reviewed discussion board environment. Periodically, all students were required to post quiz questions to reflect their understanding of the course concepts. Each student is assigned to review two quiz questions created by their peers and grade the quiz question according to its relevance to material covered in class, whether the difficulty of the question is balanced, and how much they learn from the quiz question they answer.
To support community building and increase networking, the team developed discussion board activities entitled “Valuation Cafe,” a virtual, structured yet casual environment where students discussed how course concepts and skills could be applied to their past or current work experience, how the latest news related to the course concepts, and how to value a real company based on their annual financial reports.
You can read more about Lee Pinkowitz’ class in Issue 8 of The Prospect magazine (PDF).
Georgetown College professor Huaping Lu-Adler was looking for a way for students to more deeply engage with philosophy and each other and to share what they learned with the broader public. Using Georgetown Domains, they created a Critical Thinking website highlighting student work around the subject of critical thinking. Lu-Adler explains the purpose of the site:
- Critical thinking: the students have to think critically about what it takes to share information in a way that is responsible.
- Public service: in the spirit of Georgetown Values, the students as well as the instructor of this class wanted to share resources—in terms of both content and pedagogy—that might be useful to (a) other young people who wish to cultivate/further their critical thinking skills and (b) other instructors who wish to teach critical thinking in a way that speaks to challenges of our society and our times.
- Self-teaching: as Georgetown’s Provost Robert Groves puts it on his blog, “research in all areas of study depends on critical thinking” and only by continuing to encourage “innovation in teaching methods” and “developments in experiential learning,” among other things, can we ensure that our graduates are “well grounded in diverse self-teaching skills.” The resources on the Critical Thinking website are meant to facilitate the ongoing cultivation of such skills.
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