Peer Learning In Higher Education
|Editor(s)||Boud D., Cohen R. & Sampson J.|
Dr Paul Tosey
University of Surrey
|Review published||17 November 2005|
David Boud, together with various co-authors, is well known for work on experiential learning, reflection, collaborative assessment and other themes that emphasise student-centred learning in higher education. Here, in a book written for educators working in formal higher education, Boud, Cohen, Sampson and colleagues focus on peer learning. They define this as `students learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways’ (p.4), emphasising that peer learning involves a multiplicity of activities, and much more than just working in groups.
I came to the book with a strong interest in peer learning, which I have used with postgraduates for many years and which I am now exploring in a variety of undergraduate settings in the context of a project on enquiry-based learning. So I was interested in how it would capture and represent key issues, and in what I could learn from it.
This volume originated from a funded project at the University of Technology, Sydney; consequently the book’s contributions and examples are all from that institution. While there is plenty of internal variety here – examples from disciplines such as law, design and management, and diverse student groups – there is a case for drawing from a wider range of institutional and cultural experiences. Having said that, as an educator in UK higher education I found no difficulty in applying the contents to my circumstances and experience.
I particularly liked the core emphasis in this book, which is on the role that peer learning can play in designing high quality learning environments, and not on peer learning as an educational technique: `Peer learning activities per se are not important – what matters is their contribution to the overall learning experience of the students.’ (p.174).
Herein lies a tension, readily acknowledged in this volume, that many HE educators may become interested in peer learning initially as a means to respond to immediate problems. Boud et al identify economic and resource constraints, together with increasing use of technology, as largely responsible for bringing these issues into the foreground. Increased student numbers, larger class sizes, and discontinuity and anonymity in the student experience, force educators to be innovative, perhaps bringing peer learning onto the agenda even for those with no previous philosophical interest in learner-centred education.
The challenges involved in using peer learning are set out clearly. The whole of part 1, titled ‘Basic Considerations’ (though some are perhaps basic only to those who are already familiar with the issues), comprises four chapters by the editors that set out issues of the design, application, management and assessment of peer learning. These provide a helpful guide for educators wishing to introduce, or review their use of, peer learning. They emphasise consistently that far from being a ‘quick fix’, peer learning is best thought of as integral to the design and management of a curriculum, and involves change for students and staff alike.
Part 2 consists of six chapters of case studies by other colleagues at UTS. Gordon and Connor illustrate nicely, from a postgraduate application in Management, that peer learning can generate worthwhile but problematic issues of power, diversity and intercultural learning.
Wilson’s example from a Design course for first year undergraduates is richly illustrated with the student voice. It highlights well the issue of whether to allow students to select their own peer groups, and involves an interesting use of peer assessment (which might have been worth exploring in more detail).
Cooper, in chapter 7, describes a fascinating use of group journals as a peer learning and assessment vehicle. This would be illustrated more effectively by including examples. As in Lederer and Raban’s chapter that follows, issues of equity and diversity within peer groups are again prominent.
McLaughlan and Kirkpatrick’s chapter on computer supported role-play simulations raised the question for me of what makes the difference between the use of interactive learning activities and peer learning (if indeed there is a difference). This perhaps arises from the emphasis of this chapter on describing the simulation and the electronic medium for interaction, more than on explaining how peer learning was facilitated intentionally. Finally in this sequence of examples, Freeman and McKenzie describe one possible solution to the ubiquitous concerns about the vagaries of group-based assessments, in the form of an online self and peer assessment system.
Boud’s concluding chapter draws out themes from the contributions in Part 2, emphasising for example that peer learning needs to be managed. The persistent refrain about fairness in assessment underscored how strongly educators hold this value, even while acknowledging that the worlds of practice for which we prepare students are often not fair.
The balance of emphasis in some of the examples seemed more on educational design than on facilitation. Indeed I had the impression of surprise from some contributors that groups of students put together for the purpose of a course or module did not automatically know how to become effective learning groups. If, as is evident from this volume, the quality of the learning group is so significant, and if problems with this are so directly related to issues of fairness in assessment, then logically it seems crucial to provide training and support to enable learning groups to be effective. I would endorse Boud’s conclusion (p.176) that ‘learning to work in a team must turn into an immediate goal for the here and now, not just a general aspiration for a degree programme’.
Active facilitation of peer learning can enable difficulties that students encounter to become opportunities for, rather than barriers to, learning (one innovative approach to this is Wilson’s ‘troubleshooter’ form in chapter 6). Clearly, capacity to provide this facilitation diminishes when staff resources are spread so thinly; however it was disquieting to note the impression that face-to-face contact between staff and students can seep away very easily when we start to perceive that the only viable way to engage with large numbers is through electronic media.
Finally, the need for research into the experiences and practices of peer learning, which is acknowledged here on p.5, could be followed through.
Overall this is an informative guide to issues involved in peer learning in higher education that achieves a helpful balance between principle and practice.