Peer learning

How to integrate it into your classroom

Dr. Sarah Waters examines the value of a practice that dates back to classical times, but which, she suggests, is entirely relevant to the 21st Century. 

The practice of peer-learning is not new – it can be traced back to Aristotle’s use of student leaders or archons.  This method of teaching is now gaining popularity because it can help foster skills such as self-directed learning, problem-solving, research and reflection.  These are the types of attributes that students need to develop to excel in the working environments of the 21st century.  Finland have just announced radical changes to their already envied education system, including a change from the passive absorption of information to more collaborative, peer learning where the teacher takes on a facilitative role.


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What is Peer-learning?

First a definition. I have found this to be helpful. Peer learning is:

“the use of teaching and learning strategies in which students learn with and from each other without the immediate intervention of a teacher” (Boud, Cohen and Sampson; 2006).

The teacher’s role therefore changes to that of a monitor or even may be absent altogether.  However, students still need scaffolding and support, at the beginning at least.

The future of peer-learning?

Taking peer-learning to the extreme is a new type of university in France and the US which employs no teachers or lecturers!  Ecole 42 is a college that trains 1,000 students per year in software development and coding.  Students are set projects or tasks and they work together to solve these problems.

Once their projects are submitted, they are randomly assigned to another student for marking. Students move through levels of difficulty and graduate when they reach Level 21, which should take about 4 years.  The big tech companies are raving about this ‘school of the future’ and are hankering to employ its graduates.

How to implement peer-learning in the classroom
  1. Choose the groups wisely

Both the size and the make-up of the groups are important.  A group that is too small might lead to students who are too self-conscious to participate; a group that is too large can result in splintering.  It has also been shown that groups that have a good mix of academic abilities were most effective.

  1. Help students understand the context and learning outcomes of peer-learning

Students can have mixed feelings about working in groups.  Therefore, it is important to spend time at the beginning discussing the context and the skills they will develop and the importance of these skills in their future education and careers.  You might structure this as a brainstorming session.

  1. Develop their communication skills

In peer-learning, the quality of the conversation is key.  Students need each other to help resolve confusing ideas or arguments as they are not getting an explanation from the teacher.  Therefore, it is important that students are able to elaborate on key points, are able to resolve conflict within the group and can reflect on their learning.

To develop these skills early –on in the process, bring students through exercises on how to give and receive constructive feedback, how to resolve emotionally-fuelled issues and how to expand on ideas.

  1. Plan assessment in advance

Yes, peer-learning can be assessed!  There are a number of strategies and you may use one or a combination of these:

  • Peer-feedback: can be very applicable considering the nature of the work, however it can be problematic. Sometimes peer-feedback can inhibit cooperation within the group, can illuminate personal feelings or can lead to cartel-like grading.
  • Assess the process of learning rather than the knowledge acquisition: this strategy is hugely effective but people can find it difficult at first.  The trick here is to break down the learning into specific processes, for example: planning, conflict management, leadership, participant interaction, response to feedback, creative problem solving.
  • Self-assessment: another method that can be contentious. The fear is that some students will inflate their level of contribution and learning and others will undervalue themselves.  One way around this is to include a log or journal for each student where they have to grade themselves on set criteria and also give examples and/or explanations.  Alternatively, students self-assess after receiving feedback from their peers, leading to a justification for their grade and offers an opportunity for reflection.
  1. And finally stand back!

Do not be tempted to jump in and help them.  Your role is now one of monitoring, you are not directly involved in teaching during this process.

By integrating peer-learning into your curriculum, you can develop proactive learners who solve problems, work well in groups and evaluate their own learning.  Research suggests that students who partake in collaborative, peer learning have better outcomes academically, have better self-esteem and that their learning persists longer.

Sarah is the founder and MD of KingsHill Education; an online course provider for A-Levels. Sarah has a PhD in Neuroscience and a passion for education, with over 10 years teaching and management experience.

Find out more about KingsHill courses at






FEATURE IMAGE – By Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio, Public Domain,


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