Small Teaching Tip #11

The Benefits of Peer Teaching

When we ask students to work in groups or turn to their neighbor to discuss course content, many of us wonder whether this kind of collaboration is worthwhile.  Students aren’t experts, so could they be teaching each other incorrect information?  Or perhaps what they discuss is superficial or watered down?  Not to mention the drama and interpersonal conflict that can arise when students try to work together.  Is peer teaching really worth it?

Despite these concerns, and many others, a significant amount of empirical research indicates that there are numerous benefits of peer teaching.  For example, a recent study published in Teaching in Higher Education, found that working with peers has a positive influence on students’ psychological wellbeing, including autonomy, environmental mastery, and personal growth.  The research of Eric Mazur, who popularized peer instruction in the sciences, demonstrates learning gains frequently double and sometimes triple when peer instruction is integrated into class time.

Beyond the research, we must also recognize that peer teaching happens informally all around us.  Maryellen Weimer argues that students instinctually learn from one another.  When they have a question about course content, they often turn to their peers before their instructor.  Students are often intimidated by professors and don’t want to appear “stupid,” so they approach their classmates first.  I can’t tell you how many times I overhear students in the hallways turn to a classmate and say “I have no idea what Dr. so-and-so wants for this assignment. Do you?”  Students are constantly learning from one another, so why not use our classes to cultivate stronger collaboration and communication skills?

Here are a few simple peer teaching strategies to try:

Microteaching:  Students choose or are assigned class periods during which they are responsible for teaching the entire class.  They act as the professor for the day and are charged with developing a lecture, crafting activities, and facilitating discussion.

Think-Pair-Share: The professor poses a complex, challenging, or controversial question and asks students to think about their responses alone.  To encourage deeper thinking, students should write down their thoughts.  Then, ask the students to turn to a neighbor and compare answers.  The students are tasked with reaching a consensus or formulating arguments to support their views.  Finally, students report back to the rest of the class.

Peer Instruction using an Audience Response System:  Students are assigned a reading or video lecture prior to class and then quizzed on the more difficult or complex topics using an Audience Response System, such as Poll Everywhere, to submit their answers. Students then form small groups, discuss the quiz question, come to a consensus, and re-submit a group answer. Instructors can then instantaneously see where clarification is needed based on incorrect answers provided by both individuals and groups.

Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique:  This is the low-tech version of the above strategy.  Students are presented with multiple-choice questions that they discuss with group members.  Then, using cards that are similar to scratch-off lottery tickets, students choose their answer by removing the foil covering options A, B, C, or D.  If their choice reveals a star, they know they’ve answered correctly.  If they don’t see a star, they must problem-solve with their classmates and endeavor to determine the correct answer.  If you are interested in this technique, TLT can provide IF-AT cards to try with your students.

IF-AT scratch card used with peer teaching.

The Jigsaw Technique:  In this strategy, the instructor first divides a topic, problem, or assignment into parts.  Next, students are split into “home teams” with one member assigned to each topic.  Working individually, each student learns about his or her topic.  For example, if the content is divided into parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, group one would contain four students and one student would work on part 1, one student on part 2, and so on.  Next, groups are reformed into “expert teams” so that everyone in the group worked on the same topic (e.g. all the ones become a group, all the twos, and so on).  These students share their findings and collaborate to discuss, verify, and synthesize all the information gathered.  Finally, the home teams reconvene and listen to presentations from each member. These final presentations provide students with a better understanding of their own material, as well as the findings that have emerged from other groups.

Jigsaw method

Image via Eliot Aronson


These are just a handful of popular peer teaching strategies that do not require a significant amount of labor on the part of the instructor.  Consider giving one a try.  But remember, it’s important to recognize the benefits of peer teaching do not result from simply putting students together in groups. Group work that promotes learning and other positive outcomes is carefully designed, implemented, and assessed.

This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Reference: Hanson, J. M., T.L. Trolian, M.B Paulsen, and E.T. Pascarella. 2016. Evaluating the influence of peer learning on psychological well-being. Teaching in Higher Education 21 (2): 191–206.

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