We’ve all heard the buzz about peer learning. Letting students teach one another has a number of benefits. But it’s not always easy to just hand responsibility over to our students.
Many of us worry that students will miss important content if we don’t “cover” it through direct instruction. Others have become discouraged with collaborative learning, finding that their students fool around or don’t self-start.
There are plenty of examples of collaborative learning gone wrong. With careful planning and effective facilitation, any teacher can bring the benefits of peer learning to their classroom.
Benefits Of Peer Learning
Is it just me, or does peer learning seem a bit too good to be true? When I first heard the idea, I was skeptical. “So I don’t have to teach and the students will just learn from each other?”
Clearly it’s not that simple, but teaching students to rely on each other can certainly take some pressure off of teachers. We’re terribly outnumbered by our students. Many of them ask us for help even when they don’t really need us. Encouraging students to get help from each other can allow us to focus our attention where it’s most needed.
There’s also ample evidence that students learn better from each other than they do from adults. The social aspects of peer learning are highly motivating – both because students enjoy talking with each other and because they value approval of their peers.
In addition, research suggests that people learn better when ideas are explained by someone close to their own age. Peers with similar levels of language sophistication communicate more easily. Many students also feel pressure to understand when a teacher explains something to them, but with a peer that pressure disappears.
It’s also well established that explaining ideas to others is a great way to deepen our own understanding – so when one student explains an idea to another, both are often learning more than they would from a lecture delivered by a teacher.
The Video Project – Background
Peer learning was an important part of my 5th grade class when I had my students complete a video project on fraction operations. Since this project lasted several class periods, it was important that we had laid the groundwork for peer learning during prior lessons.
We conducted freestanding, inquiry-based lessons at least once a week. Students were accustomed to self-starting and to relying on each other for help in answering questions.
Prior to completing this project, we had also established a number of content foundations. We had spent time using visual models to demonstrate whole number operations. They didn’t just learn algorithms, but had a deep understanding of the meaning of operations.
Students also had a solid foundation in fraction concepts. Before we began this project, I explained that the rules for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division applied to fractions as well. I also provided a few demonstrations without going into detail about the rules specific to fraction operations. Most importantly, I didn’t teach them any algorithms for operating with fractions.
Students were, however, given clear expectations for the project. They received rubrics in advance, which specified how they would be graded on process, product, and presentation.
Watch My Students Teach Fraction Operations
In the videos below, you can see what my students produced. Working in teams of 2-3, they used Explain Everything on their iPads to create animations of different fraction operations. Some used iMovie to add soundtracks and other finishing touches.
I was really impressed with how much students could figure out on their own. I was available for support, but mostly helped out by asking guiding questions. Students were also able to use online resources, such as Khan Academy and Google Search.
Some students certainly figure things out quicker than others. But working in groups allowed them to benefit from each other’s understandings. And presenting at the end meant they could learn from watching other group’s videos. Students also benefited from hearing constructive feedback from classmates on their final videos.
What Made This Peer Learning Project A Success?
There were several reasons this project was such a success. A big part of the success was the energy and creativity of my students. Working in a school that had 1:1 iPads and great WiFi didn’t hurt either. At the same time, the planning that went into the project was also essential to its success.
Technology Was the Tool, Not the Goal
Too often, we look for ways to “add technology” to classrooms. It is important that students learn to use technology, but technology integration needs to be strategic.
The key is looking for ways that technology can solve existing problems, rather than simply adding to our To Do list. In this case, the tech served as a motivator. More importantly it helped students to express their thinking in ways not possible without technology.
Students Had Been Coached on Inquiry and Collaboration
Project-based learning gets a lot of attention these days. The other PBL, problem-based learning, often gets overlooked. While it may not be as hip, problem-based learning provides important foundations for project-based learning. Both are examples of inquiry-based learning.
Problem-based learning usually occurs in a single lesson, giving students and teacher the chance to go through many rounds through a school year. Each instance of collaborative problem-solving provides a fresh start. Students can reflect on past attempts, and teachers can make adjustments to groupings, rubrics, and lesson structures.
Projects generally take place over many class periods. If a project goes off the rails after day one, it can be really tough to set it right. Projects are also less structured than problem-based activities. Students who are used to learning through lecture may get lost if they jump right in to a collaborative project.
Students Were Given Clear Expected Outcomes
Projects sometimes get a reputation for being frivolous. As much as I love construction paper, making posters is rarely the best way to help students master standards. I’ve also heard of projects being a way to simply boost student grades when they do poorly on a test.
True project-based learning is actually quite rigorous. In this instance, the rubrics made clear that students needed to create mathematically accurate animations. The outcomes were clear, as were due dates. Students also knew that their collaborative process was a key part of the project.
It should also be noted that these projects were completed in-class. This helped make it clear that this project was to be completed by students, not their parents.
Ready to Let Your Students Teach?
If you’re ready to connect technology and peer learning, we’d love to hear how it goes! Though this project comes from a math class, it can easily be used in other subjects.
In language arts, we did a similar project where students recorded themselves diagramming sentences. There are also many opportunities for similar video projects in social studies, science, and foreign language. You really can take any topic you’d normally teach through lecture, and instead have students create a slideshow or video.
Of course, it’s always good to try something new with the support of an expert. If you have an idea for a project, discuss it with one of our teacher coaches. Register today to save 50% off your initial coaching consultation (regular price $50).