One valuable but sometimes neglected teaching strategy is using learning cells, also called peer-to-peer learning, peer learning, or collaborative learning. College students teach other students by working together in small groups or pairs, studying or discussing classroom material. These teaching methods gain students’ attention, helping them retain information and practice critical thinking. Here are some classroom ideas and teacher tips for learning strategies involving learning cells and collaborative learning.

Goals of the learning cell

“The learning cell, or student dyad, refers to a cooperative form of learning in pairs, in which students alternate asking and answering questions on commonly read materials,” explained Wilbert McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki in the book McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth edition. By working in pairs, students engage in face-to-face discussions whereby they can talk about the material. The concept of learning cells was developed by Marcel Goldschmid of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Creating a learning cell

To create a learning cell, give students an at-home reading assignment and ask them to write down facts and questions from the reading. In the classroom, divide students randomly into pairs or threes. The object is to form very small groups. Then the students take turns asking each other the questions they wrote down. Give the students 15-30 minutes.

In these intimate discussions, the students teach and learn from each other, inform each other and introduce various material into the discussion. “Training students to generate thought-provoking questions enhances learning,” wrote McKeachie and Svinicki. The instructor circulates among the pairs or small groups to give feedback, answer questions, discourage distractions and keep the students on topic. Their student-led nature means learning cells can be used in a variety of disciplines.

Variation of the learning cell

McKeachie and Svinicki explored a variation of the learning cell strategy. The teacher asks the class a question and has each student think about it for a few minutes and/or write down an answer or question. The class then gathers into pairs to share their thoughts or answers. After the pairs have discussed the material, they share their ideas with the class as a whole. This process captures student attention, gives students time to think and discuss on their own without teacher intrusion or lecture and then stimulates deeper classroom discussion.

Different types of peer learning

Other forms of peer learning include student-led discussions, peer tutoring and team learning. According to David Boud in the Stanford University hosted blog post “What Is Peer Learning and Why Is It Important?,” there are many options with similar goals, such as senior students teaching junior students, discussion seminars, private study groups, the buddy system, peer-assessment schemes, collaborative project or lab work, workplace mentoring and community activities.

Whichever teaching method is employed, the purpose is to create “a two-way, reciprocal learning activity. Peer learning should be mutually beneficial and involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience between the participants. It can be described as a way of moving beyond independent to interdependent or mutual learning,” wrote Boud.

Will you consider using peer learning in your classroom?

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert, Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.