The idea of getting kids to work and learn together is not new. However:
- Some teachers still resist it
- Many others don’t do it well
In this article, you will learn how to harness the power of peer learning.
Peer Learning Through Group Work That Works
Group work is the most widely used way that teachers get students working together, and it is a valid form of peer learning.
It can have a potent effect on students’ learning, but only if you do it well. Otherwise, you will find that some students dominate, other students chat and some sit back and do as little as they possibly can.
Simply placing students into groups and asking them to work together will not help them to learn. Sadly, that is exactly what many teachers do.
However, when you add some structure to the process, group work can enhance learning.
You should only use group work after all the students have enough knowledge and competence that will allow them to actively contribute to the group. For example, if using group work as part of explicit teaching, you would do it in between guided and independent practice. Alternatively, you could use group work when revising past lessons.
Cooperative learning is most powerful after the students have acquired sufficient surface knowledge to then be involved in discussion and learning with their peers – usually in some structured manner.
You also need to ensure that each group member is accountable by making group success dependent upon the success of every individual in the group.
If the task can be broken down into steps, one way to do this is to make each group member responsible for one step in the task.
I don’t mean steps such as one person gets the materials while another person writes things down, and a third person keeps the group on tasks. These are group roles – not steps.
Rather, you use the same steps an individual would use to complete the task on their own. For example, when students complete two-digit addition with regrouping. After learning the steps, students can practice in groups with one child adding the ones, the next child regrouping, and a third child adds the tens.
If you gave the group six sums, they could rotate so that each child got two turns at each step.
The number of steps in the task determines the size of the groups. In the example above, you would place students into groups of three. This also helps to keep the groups small, which is a good idea.
Is this the only type of group work that works?
No, but it provides an easy to use example, which you can apply to many different situations.
There are other ways to make group work work, and other forms of peer learning, which we will move onto now.
- Only give groups work that every person in the group can do.
- Make each person responsible for one step of the task.
- Balance group work with time for individual practice of the same steps.
Peer Learning Through Peer Tutoring
Another way to harness the potential power of peer learning is through peer tutoring.
Put simple, peer tutoring involves one student teaching another student.
Research shows that peer tutoring helps the student doing the teaching as much as the student being taught. This is because it forces the tutor to clarify and deepen their own understanding while trying to teach their classmate.
When most people think of peer tutoring, they picture an older child helping a younger child from another class. However, there is a lot to be gained from more able students tutoring peers in their own class.
As with group work, peer tutoring works best when you use it thoughtfully. Here are some pointers that will help you.
Peer tutoring has more impact when it supplements, rather than replaces explicit teaching by the teacher.
Peer tutoring is an effective way to help students to learn new things. It is not so effective when it comes to developing fluency.
Therefore, you should use peer tutoring to help students understand the work that they have missed, or that they didn’t understand during the last lesson.
When pairing students, you should select a tutor who already understands the material, and place them with a student who is struggling or a student who has missed the work. Note that you don’t need to use peer tutoring with the whole class. Some of your students could be doing independent practice (developing fluency), while others are taking part in peer tutoring.
Each peer tutoring sessions should have a clear goal (or set of goals); the tutor should monitor their classmate’s progress towards that goal, and the tutor should acknowledge their classmate when they have mastered the goal. You should teach regular tutors how to set this up for themselves, as it nurtures a form of self-regulation that they can use in their own learning.
- Use peer tutoring as a supplemental teaching strategy within your class
- Pair a more able student with a student who is struggling, or a student who has missed the work
- Ensure that each tutee has a clear goal which they must achieve, that their tutor monitors their progress towards this goal, and that you know when or if each tutee achieves their goal
- Involve the tutor in setting goals
When done well, group work and peer tutoring are powerful forms of peer learning that have a considerable effect on students results.
However, peer learning is just one aspect of evidence based teaching.
To learn more, return to the Crash Course In In Evidence Based Teaching homepage.