Every semester, when students are given the course outlines (or equivalent), the first part they read is about the assessment. Students want to know what they will have to produce in the course and how they will be graded. Assessment thus becomes a hurdle rather than a robust, and preferably engaging, opportunity to learn. Furthermore, students rely on the academic as the sole source of direction, guidance and feedback. Students tend to conceive of the learning experience as a one-way interaction from the academic to the student (and then the other way for assignment submission). This article presents a case example of using peer learning to put the meaning back into assessment and the overall university learning experience. It also describes how to run and encourage peer learning through use of education technology. Student quotes are provided to consider the application of peer learning and students’ developing understanding of the overall university experience from their point of view. These examples come from use of peer learning at University of Southern Queensland, where approximately 70 percent of learners study online. Clear instructions are therefore vital to the success of peer learning.
Defining Peer Learning
Peer learning is a two-way activity between students in which they support, critically review and provide feedback on one another’s work. Opportunities for this kind of learning can emerge wherever students share their experiences, not only inside but also outside formal learning settings. Ultimately, peer learning provides learners with convenient and informal opportunities to learn from those who are, or have been, in a similar situation, assisting them to access support to fortify their studies.
Rationale for Peer Learning Activities in a First-year Online Course
To effectively learn in an unfamiliar online university context, first-year students need to reposition their expectations and fine-tune their learning approaches to meet those required/expected by the university. Peer learning activities can help students make these transitions and enhance their engagement and learning. Such activities can also inspire students to value peer learning as a viable, user-friendly and accessible study approach and engagement strategy. Peer learning helps students to become familiar with and expand their sources of support, assisting them to gain perspective about their study, facilitate their reflective capabilities and augment their personalised problem-solving strategies. In other words, peer learning helps students consider themselves and their peers as valuable members of the learning environment, rather than relying solely on the academic for guidance, affirmation and feedback.
Strategies to Foster Online Peer Learning
- Integrate peer learning activities into course design, delivery and assessment:
- Divide learning activities into weekly modules to give students a clear navigational pathway.
- Build from formative assessment (which means that students are given feedback and opportunities for correction and rewrites) prior to, and specifically linked to, the final submission for marks (summative assessment).
- Organise students into online forum groups (n=20/30), each supported by an online tutor whose role is to provide individual feedback to students’ posts.
- Require students to post their responses to weekly learning activities to their forum group.
- Encourage students to read their group’s and tutor’s responses as well as responding to other forum members’ posts.
- Include screenshots of posts and responses in assessment weighting (student engagement is much higher if assessment marks are allocated to group forum posts) and reflections on peer learning activities as assessment tasks.
- Use explicit peer learning activities to encourage students to learn with/from each other by:
- conducting an interview with an experienced student (for example), reflecting on it, then identifying specific, practical and problem-solving strategies that the other students can incorporate in their study routines, before posting to their group forum. This activity can be incorporated into an assessment task with students asked to reflect on the interview and the strategies they applied.
- incorporating a similar interview strategy, but with a peer working in students’ future profession/career/discipline to enhance their knowledge of organisational practices and requisite employment capabilities.
- asking students to reflect on the development of their learning and peer learning skills over the semester, seeking feedback from a peer before posting to the forum group and discussing in assessment.
Quotes from Students about their Peer Learning Experiences
The following quotes from students, collected through their online posts, evaluation surveys and unsolicited feedback to academics, cluster into three themes: insight into self and others, the role of support and reflections about the benefits of peer learning.
Insight into self:
- The one surprising thing I found with my interview was that it’s not just me who struggles. It seems that everyone does even if they don’t show it. Makes me feel a little better knowing that I am not alone.
- I have realised that my expectation of the time required to complete my course work was unrealistic. I re-evaluated my timetable and shuffled work and family commitments to be able to allow sufficient time to complete all the required tasks.
- I enjoyed reading the posts as some of the issues brought up were inspiring and had me thinking of other risk factors when I’m at work.
Insight into others’ experiences:
- Highlighted by international students was the extra challenges faced when coming to study in a new country with a new language and slang. Their posts nicely put things into perspective and were another gentle reminder that so-called barriers are in your own mind.
- A surprising thing that came out of the interview was the importance of interaction and co-operation with other external students. I was made aware of the value that peer support can offer during university studies, that having other people who are going through the same experience to bounce ideas off of and to offer/receive encouragement is very helpful.
Developing sources of support:
- Further discussions with Dulcie led her to divulge that I should utilise all resources available to myself. Due to my introverted personality I am less likely to seek help from others. With her advice I have realised my studying would be made easier if I seek help from sources, such as my lectures and other students.
- One surprising thing I discovered during my interview is how holistic the university environment is. Students are encouraged to network and expand their educational experience well beyond the four walls of the rooms.
- She also said to ‘make friends at uni, having someone who is going through the same thing can make it easier, someone to talk to when things are getting tough’.
The value of peer learning:
- The fact we were expected each week to contribute to online engagement was fantastic; not only did we get to chat with other students, but we also got the chance to see what other students were thinking and know we weren’t alone if we were struggling with anything. The feedback given by the tutor at the end of each week was a massive help in knowing we were on the right track!
- We all learn so much from others through their different understandings of perceptions of tasks and different cultural understandings. I love reading the posts. It makes me realise lots of things. They help me build my learning strategies and motivate me to do my best.
- I am learning to utilise this social media to my best advantage, connecting with other students and hearing different perspectives and different interpretations which are also helping clear up questions when it comes to assignments.
- M’s number one rule for students at university is to ‘get involved’. She states, “See what your campus has to offer and just be involved in everything you think will benefit you, whether it be helping you in your career in the future or just in that very moment physically and emotionally.” At first this statement took me by surprise however really thinking about it made more sense the more I thought of it. University is about putting yourself out there and getting the most you can out of your campus for yourself and your education.
- Reading other peoples’ posts is insightful. It is so good that we can all help each other because in the future in our nursing roles that is what we will be doing, working in teams and supporting each other.
- Initially, the online components seemed like another basic course that one seems to encounter on any study program, and one which I met with frustration. This was an inappropriate conception. I resented having to respond to online forums, and considered to be required to read everyone else’s responses (let alone reply to them) an imposition on my valuable resource of mental energy. Over the semester, information on the reasoning behind the extended engagement has surprised me. I am glad now that I persevered, participated in forums and engaged in the university culture, as I feel an internal generation of energy that draws me toward my study daily from these activities.
The value of peer learning for student engagement and quality learning is strengthened by stories/narrative from actual practice. These stories reveal benefits related to gaining insight into self and others, achieving perspective and repositioning expectations, incorporating personalised problem-solving strategies and developing sources of support. Woven through these themes are threads related to the communication capabilities of seeking help, making social contact, participating in groups, seeking feedback and saying no. Peer learning opportunities not only prompt students to engage in learning but also encourage them to reflect on that learning, thereby enhancing their lifelong learning skills and simultaneously drawing students’ attention to the need to develop these skills as key professional capabilities.
Professor Jill Lawrence is Associate Dean (Students) in the Faculty of Business, Education, Law and Arts at USQ. She teaches communication to first year students in nursing and the sciernces as well as coordinating post graduate research methodology courses. Her teaching has been acknowledged in a national teaching citation (with Eleanor Kiernan) and in a national teaching award (the Arts and Humanities). Her research includes a range of collaborative projects crossing disciplines, programs and institutions in the first year experience, cross-cultural communication and professional capability building.
For further reading about peer learning:
Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2001). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other. London: Kogan Page.
Lawrence, J. (2017). The power of peer learning in assisting first year students’ engagement in successful learning. STARS Proceedings. Retrieved from http://unistars.org/proceedings/#copyright
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