Why Peer Learning is the Future of Remote Learning
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Why Peer Learning is the Future of Remote Learning

Three people working together and pointing at their computer.

2020 is giving online learning a bad name. The sudden switch to remote learning in response to COVID-19 led to a sloppy introduction to online education for many. Instructors had to quickly scramble to convert their in-person classes into something — anything — that could be completed from home. Zoom lectures rapidly became the new normal.

One of the biggest problems with our current remote learning model is that it’s not very conducive to, well, learning. Passive-learning strategies come across extra flat when filtered through a computer screen, leaving many students frustrated, bored, and lonely.

This isn’t what online learning should be. It should be innovative and interactive and lean heavily on peer learning, where students learn from and with each other. Peer learning is the key to a more sustainable and effective model of remote learning.

Peer Learners Retain More Knowledge

Passive learning isn’t just boring for students; studies have shown it’s also not a very effective way to absorb or retain knowledge.

Students absorb and retain more knowledge during active learning than they do while passively absorbing information. It’s the difference between listening to a lecture in Driver’s Ed class and getting behind the wheel. A lecture might help you understand the theory of driving, but you’ll never be able to apply it until you take the car for a spin.

Active learning requires students to engage in higher-level of learning as they evaluate, analyze, or create new content. This could be any activity that requires student participation — everything from class discussions to online simulations to role-playing. This is more challenging than passively taking in knowledge, and it’s more effective for knowledge retention too. One study found that students who engaged in active learning practices were 1.5 times more likely to pass a class than those who only learned passively.

One of the most effective ways to encourage higher learning is to turn students into teachers. You need a firm grasp of a concept in order to adequately explain it to someone else. Multiple studies show that students develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter when they teach it to someone else.

Student-led seminars are a great way to encourage students to step into the role of teacher. Have students take turns leading short class sessions where they explain a portion of the curriculum. If the class is too big for that, divide students into smaller groups and have them complete a project using the jigsaw method.

Peer Learning Leads to Better Performance

It’s no surprise that students benefit from personalized attention. But remote learning makes it more difficult for instructors to develop connections with their students. There are fewer chances for one-on-one chats and personalized feedback, particularly in big classes.

Peer learning lets students receive individual attention and feedback on their work. Specific feedback on their work lets students know their strengths and the areas they personally need to work on. Studies also show that collaborative peer learning boosts individual accountability. Students working together are more motivated to complete their work, and to do it well. All of this contributes to better work and better performance in class.

Make sure every student receives personalized feedback by instituting a class-wide peer-review process. This isn’t just an expedient way to grade a lot of papers — it’s actually a learning tool. The process is beneficial to both parties: the reviewee gets nuanced feedback on their work, and the reviewer gets another chance to critically engage with the curriculum. Giving detailed feedback has been shown to improve reviewers’ own writing

During peer review, students are randomly and anonymously assigned to review another student’s work. A detailed feedback rubric guides the reviewer through the process by requiring critical analysis of the materials and detailed feedback. After the reviewee receives feedback, they also get the chance to respond or critique the feedback.

Peer Learning Builds Community

Remote learning can be extremely isolating, particularly for typically social high school and college kids. Peer learning can make students feel more connected to the course and their classmates.

Building community, networking, and learning with peers are some of the most important components of an effective college education. It’s why students and their families spend tens of thousands for in-person learning with peers. In contrast, remote learning is psychologically isolating, which leads to low engagement, poor performance, and even depression.

Luckily, online community-building helps combat disengagement. Learning in teams and building social networks lead to students who are more engaged and 16 times more likely to finish their coursework. Peer learning gives students the opportunity to work together, form relationships, and feel accountable to the group. Requiring, and evaluating, these collaborative learning efforts makes them even more meaningful and valuable to students.

Discussion boards are a terrific way to get students to connect and interact, while also encouraging them to think critically about course materials. Use your online discussion boards to spark meaningful discussions about the subject matter, using our guide to writing better discussion questions. Post fun icebreakers to build community. If your class is very large, divide it into smaller group boards to encourage more meaningful discussion.

Peer Learning Is Scalable

Create a culture of peer learning in your class, whether you have 10 students or hundreds. With the right technology, you can scale up peer learning to nearly any size.

Lots of learning techniques don’t work in huge classes, particularly virtually. It’s difficult to facilitate a class discussion when you have 100 people on your Zoom call. It’s easy for students to fall between the cracks in these situations. Nobody is checking on on them or holding them accountable for their work.

Peer-learning techniques are especially important in these large class situations because they provide the opportunity for personal interaction, feedback, and group accountability that many students desperately need. In fact, studies show that peer learning improves the learning experience as well as student grades, even in very large classes.

Peer learning can be done in any size classroom, but it can’t be just an afterthought. The bigger the scale, the more planning and infrastructure you will need to figure out beforehand.

You’ll also need the right tools. We love this story of how BI Norwegian Business School uses our software to help very large courses (up to 4,000 people) conduct peer reviews in an organized way. Even though the classes may be huge, every student has the opportunity to give and receive personalized feedback.

Peer Learning is the Antidote to Passive Online Learning

Online learning is currently at a tipping point. Remote learning is more popular and important than ever, thanks to COVID-19. But the inevitable backlash is already on its way. To stave this off, educators will need to turn makeshift remote learning setups into effective online learning curriculums.

Peer learning is a valuable tool in this battle over the future format of online learning. It promises to change the way students view the learning process by moving them from passive viewers to active participants. And when that happens, everybody benefits.

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