I know my students want to be with others students and care so much about what their friends (and their non-friends) think. In fact, I can’t always get them to stop being with each other and focus on what we are supposed to be learning. The good news is, it isn’t a question of time with peers or time for learning. Research actually shows that students learn much more effectively with each other than by themselves, provided the teacher sets it up carefully. In fact, the “research on cooperative learning is one of the greatest success stories in the history of educational research” (Slavin et al., 2003, p. 177). There are 4 main reasons that working with peers is so important for adolescents:
What Research says the Value of Learning with Peers
1. Motivation: When you work is necessary for others, you want to do a better job. In well-constructed environments where peers help each other learn, each person is critical to the teams’ success and has a personal role. Research shows there are four key intrinsic motivators a teacher can tap into: student interests, someone really needing what the student is doing, peers valuing what a student does and student feels of early and continued success. Working with peers to increase motivation in the first three, and sometimes the fourth.
2. Social cohesion and connection: Peers work hard because they care about the group and how they are perceived by peers. In adolescence, this is one of the most powerful positive or negative motivating forces. How the teacher structures the groups and creates a safe environment determines if collaboration uses social cohesion to increase learning or reduce it.
3. Personalization: Almost 80% of the feedback students get in a class is from their peers, and peers are much more likely to answer questions quickly than a teacher is. In addition, students are more willing to ask direct questions of peers and typically get responses more specifically directed at what they don’t understand. One downside is that peer’s explanations for “why” are often incorrect. Teachers need to structure peer learning to surface common misconceptions and correct them, and then personalization and feedback our powerful ways to improve student learning.
4. Cognitive elaboration: When people work in groups, they need to understand their ideas more fully to explain them to others, and they often gain insights, see errors, or find connections they would not understand on their own. Collaboration builds richer, more nuanced understanding than learning in isolation.
John Hattie notes that the effect on learning for cooperative learning is better than common alternatives in terms of effect size (.52), and “much higher” if skills are explicitly taught (p. 78 of Visible Learning for Teachers). If students know the basics before learning with peers starts, students learn more completely than they do in either individual or competitive learning environments.
Ensuring Students are Growing Learning by Working with Peers
There are many things you can do to help and lots of instructional approaches to try (there is definitely another blog post in there), but here are some of the key ones:
- As the teacher, you ensure the classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and grow for everyone in the room. One of the few times collaborative or peer based learning does not help students is if they fear peers will hurt them or are judging them.
- You make sure everyone has enough of the basic understanding and skills they need to start working with others. The focus of the work with others is on peers helping each other understand and apply learning.
- Everyone has a different and important job. The students are working as a group, not just in a group.
- Peer processes focus much more on understanding together than doing common assignments. When there is a common assignment, everyone has a personal product and mark.
- You teach your students to give good feedback about tasks, processes and self-regulation.
- You structure and monitor peer learning, providing prompts and using questioning and feedback often.
- Groups have mixed ability level and preferences, and students work with a variety of members of the class over time.
Read more about these concepts in works by the following authors: