Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
Peer learning; the term is sweeping the current world of workplace learning. Everyone seems to agree that peer learning is required and can be awesome in workplace learning. Businesses are encouraged to support it. L & D departments have also jumped on the bandwagon. Why are we raving about it? And where is the solid research to support that it actually works?
Let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s interpret peer learning as any learning with and from each other. In workplace learning, it can be planned with a desired outcome, but it can also happen ‘on the fly’ or even serendipitously. Although we must acknowledge that peer learning most likely takes place spontaneously and informally, in many cases a suitable context is required so that peer learning can take place (Boud, 1999) and so that we are able to evaluate its value, especially as a company. So far, there is only high quality research on the planned and organised version (e.g. Topping 2005), so those championing the ‘on the fly’ version do not have any proper arguments to do so, except that it seems intuitively right to support any peer learning or that people “say that it works”.
Peer teaching: a professional development tool in workplace learning
Neal Whitman and Jonathan Fife wrote a solid report in which they pointed out that for the peer teaching role, the advantage is that peer teachers are peer learners as well as they are required to repeat and organise internally what they are planning to explain to their peers. Because of that process, they gain a deeper understanding of the instructional content.
Recently, Nestelojko (2014) published two notable research articles. In his research, it turned out that participants who thought that they had to teach others, performed better on the required tests. In other words, they didn’t even actually have to teach the instructional content, just to think that they would have to do so was sufficient for them to remember and hence, perform better. Next, we have Fiorella and Mayer’s study (2013). Their approach was similar to Nestelojko’s, except that they actually let their participants teach their peers. First, those in the group that actually had to teach performed better than those in the control group, who had to complete a test. Second, the participants completed a test one week after studying the instructional content. This time, it turned out that only those who had taught the subject matter, performed better. The researchers concluded that teaching your peers ensures deeper and more permanent learning.
In a workplace context, this most likely means that stimulating a peer learning culture works; championing the norm that employees communicate their expertise and help their peers as a tool for learning and professionally develop themselves.
Peer learning: beneficial to all levels of performance in the workplace
Ideally, in peer learning the roles of teacher and learner are blurred or will shift during the course of the learning experience (Boud, 1999). Archaic perceptions of peer learning assumed that peer teachers should be the ‘best performing’ individuals. However, recently, there is more interest in the idea that peer learners should have similar capabilities so that they are both cognitively challenged (Topping, 2005). This is also described by Whitman and Fife (1988) as they state that the ‘receiving’ peer learners benefit because what they need to learn is taught on a level that is closer to their own learning level (think of Vygotsky’s Zone of proximal development). Gottlieb et al., (2014) even cautiously argue that low performing learners benefit from being a peer teacher as poor learners seem learn better thanks to explaining things to others. In the workplace, this means that L&D professionals and (line) managers need to be smart about who work and learn together, depending on the context and desired outcome.
Structure peer learning smartly; this does not equal overly controlling
Peer learning in general yields gains in transferable social and communication skills and is also noted to be among the most cost-effective of learning strategies. It works. At least, if you organise and implement it well and if you have a predefined learning outcome. Topping (2005) emphasises that results of peer learning are typically very good when it is implemented with thoughtfulness about what form of organisation best fits the target purpose, context, and population. For workplace learning, all this suggests that peer learning may work if you have a predefined outcome, if the context is well-defined and if the information that the peer learners share is accurate. The risk in workplace peer learning is, of course, that peer learners will share incorrect or inaccurate information which can lead to misconceptions or misunderstandings. That can be risky within the workplace but, on the other hand, over-controlling your employees is risky as well. Hence, champion a learning culture in which it is the norm to learn from and with peers. Just be smart about it!
Boud, D., (1999). Situating academic development in professional work: using peer learning. International Journal for Academic Development, 4, p 3-10.
Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38, 281–288.
Gottlieb, S., Martin, C., Nichols, C., & Edmondson, A. (2014). Student peer teaching in the anatomy lab enhances anatomy performance in the lowest quartile of allied health students. The FASEB Journal, 28(1), Supplement 211.5.
Nestojko, J. F., Bui, D. C., Kornell, N., & Bjork, E. L. (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory &Cognition.
Topping, K.J., (2005). Trends in Peer Learning. Educational Psychology, 25, 631-645.
Whitman, N. A. & Fife, J. D. (1988). Peer teaching: To teach is to learn twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington D.C: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. (ERIC Document No: ED 305016)