The Art of Peer Teaching

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

Back in 1988, Neal Whitman and Jonathan Fife wrote a solid report on peer teaching; an instructional approach in which learners take on a teacher’s role and explain the learning content to their peers.

They pointed out that we have known since the 1960s that peer teaching has a positive effect on learning for both the individuals in the peer teacher role as well as the peer learner role (in some situations we also see the terms tutor and tutee).

For the peer teacher, the advantage is that they are required to repeat and organise internally what they are planning to explain to the peer learner. Because of that process, they are able to gain a deeper understanding of the instructional content. The peer learners, on the other hand, benefit because what they need to learn is taught on a level that is closer to their own learning level; this in contrast to the content in a book or a teacher’s lecture which may be much further away (think of Lev Vygotski’s Zone of proximal development). So much for history.


Recently, Nestelojko (2014) published two notable research articles on peer teaching. Subjects were told that, after studying a passage, they would be either have to complete a test or they would need to teach the content of the passage to another peer. However, in reality, all subjects would actually take a free recall test; jotting down as much information from the passage as they could recall, followed by a short-answer test. In other words, participants in the intervention group only thought that they were to peer teach.

Participants who thought that they had to teach others on the passage, wrote better organised and more detailed free recall tests. They also scored higher on the short answer test than the participants who thought that they would only have to complete a test. In other words, the subjects 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.

Deeper learning

Can we place any critical remarks in response to the above? Yes, indeed. First, we have Fiorella and Mayer’s study (2013). Their approach was similar to Nestelojko’s, except for the fact that they actually let their participants teach their peers. Their first study showed that participants in the group that actually had to teach performed better than participants in the control group, where they were told that they had to complete a test. In their second study, the participants completed a test one week after studying the instructional content. This time, it turned out that only the participants who had taught the subject matter, performed better. The researchers concluded that teaching your peers ensures deeper and more permanent learning.

The second ‘critical remark’ is more of a question, namely: Who benefits most – the peer teacher or the peer learner?

Gottlieb and co (2014) conducted a study in which learners alternatingly took on the role of peer teacher and peer learner. The researchers wanted to determine whether learning from peer teaching would be different for learners with different knowledge levels. The first results showed that the poorer learners (those in the bottom 25%) performed better thanks to their peer teacher role. However, there was no difference for the remaining 75%. The researchers therefore cautiously argue that peer teaching might work better for low performing learners.

One way or the other, it’s pretty clear that peer teaching works, even when learners only think that they have to teach a peer. In other words: Just do it!


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, Supplement 211.5. Retrieved from

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, 42. Retrieved from

Whitman, N. A. & Fife, J. D. (1988). Peer teaching : To teach is to learn twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 4. Retrieved from Peer teaching : To teach is to learn twice.