By: Amy Silver
Despite being a straight A student, my understanding of calculus did not reach a deeper level until I became a peer mentor for first-year science students – despite the fact that calculus was a course I had received an A+ in with relative ease the year before. By explaining the concepts at work behind the homework problems and answers to my fellow undergraduate students, I came to a deeper level of understanding of those concepts myself. This helped me to gain a personal appreciation of peer teaching, which is an active learning strategy whereby students share their knowledge about course content with their peers in order to further their understanding. Active learning and, by extension, peer teaching are increasingly popular teaching practices in higher education because there is a growing recognition within the teaching community that active learning is more effective at promoting student retention of class material than traditional lecture-style instruction (Weiman, 2014). While there are many different active teaching strategies, here I will focus on peer teaching as being an especially effective active learning tool.
Peer teaching not only increases students’ engagement with course material but also promotes a deeper level of learning and higher retention rates, particularly when it is combined with other active learning strategies such as group work (i.e., having students give group presentations to explain complicated material to classmates) (Freeman et al., 2014). Other peer teaching strategies may include having a student summarize the previous class’s important points at the beginning of class (Blazer, 2014), group problem-solving, providing feedback on a classmate’s assignments, formulating example questions for the class to solve (Turpen & Finkelstein, 2009), or encouraging students to answer each other’s questions. These practices can help increase students’ understanding by exposing them to multiple different perspectives and styles of explanation. Some professors have even gone so far as to enlist students’ help in creating exam questions (Corrigan & Craciun, 2013), which encourages students to reflect on class material and consider how to best evaluate what they have learned. Such approaches also give students the opportunity to reflect on their own understanding and to improve their self-evaluation and communication skills. Being responsible for peer teaching can also highlight for students any gaps in their own understanding while giving them ample time to address them, thus decreasing exam-time stress. Even anticipating having to summarize a given lecture’s content for their classmates can encourage students to focus during that class and strive to understand the material covered (Blazer, 2014), while participating in weekly peer-assisted study sessions has been shown to increase undergraduate students’ exam scores (Coe, McDougall, & McKeown, 1999). These findings show how effective peer teaching can be, both for the students being taught and those teaching.
As teaching assistants (TAs), we are often responsible for smaller groups, such as tutorials or labs, which are the ideal setting in which to use many active learning strategies. Unlike other aspects of the courses to which TAs are assigned, how we teach is often something over which we have a lot of control, so choosing to implement an active learning strategy such as peer teaching is a viable option.
Despite its effectiveness as a teaching practice, peer teaching can have its drawbacks: students may not, for instance, understand the material well enough or have the communication skills to convey it to their peers. Such “challenges,” however, can actually provide excellent opportunities to engage the student’s peers in providing feedback and discussing the content of the peer-taught lesson. These moments of intervention allow students not only to gain a better understanding of course content, but also to develop their own transferable skills of teaching, communication, and applying feedback to improve their performance. Realizing that they lack the necessary knowledge to teach can also spur students engaged in conducting the teaching to undertake research and utilize available resources (such as their TAs, professors, and library) in order to gain the more comprehensive knowledge of the topic that is necessary to communicate the content to their peers effectively. As mentioned above, when students know that they will be responsible for imparting class content to their peers, their focus increases during class, as does the effort that they apply to understanding lecture material (Blazer, 2014).
Overall, peer teaching is a simple and effective teaching practice with sound and ever-increasing pedagogical evidence of its effectiveness (Weiman, 2014; Freeman et al., 2014). As a form of active learning, it can be easily implemented by teaching assistants as well as professors, and it promises to enhance student learning and academic achievement.
Blazer, A. (2014). Student summaries of class sessions. Teaching Theology and Religion, 17(4), 344.
Coe, E., McDougall, A., & McKeown, N. (1999). Is Peer Assisted Learning of benefit to undergraduate chemists? University Chemistry Education, 3(2), 72-75.
Corrigan, H., & Craciun, G. (2013). Asking the right questions: Using student-written exams as an innovative approach to learning and evaluation. Marketing Education Review, 23(1), 31-35.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23), 8410-15.
Turpen, C. & Finkelstein, N. D. (2009). Not all interactive engagement is the same: Variations in physics professors’ implementation of Peer Instruction. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 5, 1-18.
Weiman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8319-20.