When creating your course curriculum, you’re certain to think about what teaching strategies you’ll be using throughout the semester. College students may learn in many different styles, but one of the most effective ways to engage your students in the course material is by using peer-to-peer learning techniques.

Sometimes called peer assisted learning, peer-to-peer teaching involves giving the students material that they must put into their own words. Having college students teach or critique each other gives them a chance to not only take in the course material, but have to process it in such a way that they can share it with others. Peer-to-peer learning can help:

  • Create an environment for cooperative learning.
  • Increase the students’ engagement with the material.
  • Give students greater personal responsibility over the material.
  • Work on communication skills and teamwork—valuable skills in any field during and after college.

Peer-to-peer outcomes

“The best answer to the question ‘What is the most effective method of teaching?’ is that it depends on the goal, the student, the content, and the teacher,” explained Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition. They went on, “The next best answer may be, ‘students teaching other students.’ There is a wealth of evidence that peer learning and teaching is extremely effective for a wide range of goals, content, and students of different levels and personalities” (McKeachie, 193).

One reason that peer learning can be so effective is the amount of one-on-one discussion that can happen in a peer-to-peer scenario that may not be available in a classroom. In addition, students in the teaching role must summarize what they’ve learned, and express their understanding when they are asked questions. Likewise, the student in the learning role evaluates their peer’s understanding and asks questions involving critical thinking, possibly in a more daring way than if they were questioning the professor.

Peer-to-peer strategies

In order for peer learning to be successful, the classroom must have a cooperative atmosphere. You can ease into peer-to-peer learning by doing small group projects before creating reciprocal pairings, where one student will serve as the tutor and the other as the tutee, and then they switch roles.

Another method is assigning one student to teach a particular subject from the course to a small group, and switching that leadership role for various sections of material. I was fortunate enough to serve as a teaching assistant in a study abroad course that used the latter method: each student was given materials to research an archaeological site or location important to the mythology being studied in the course, and they were then asked to serve as the “experts” when we visited the location. The students were allowed to express their expertise in their own way; for example, an acting student presented the material from a pertinent myth through storytelling, acting out the piece for his peers in a way that was far more memorable to the students—and to me—than the version in the textbook!

How have you used peer-to-peer learning with your college students? Tell us in the comments.

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.