Friday, March 1, 2013

Peer-led Learning and Reading Groups - Theory and Practice

How might we help students gain a better understanding of course material, structure a learning community, seize responsibility for learning, and promote valuable affordances? We might consider peer-led Learning. What is peer-led learning?

Peer-led learning approaches vary significantly and have been used for decades. With the popularity of MOOCs we see many new approaches to peer learning and crowd sourcing that are effective and innovative yet build upon long-held principles. In the face-to-face classroom, we might think about peer learning that involve student cohorts or triads taking responsibility for presenting chapters in the textbook or presenting theoretical frames. We might think of it as flipping a classroom or structuring the learning activities to expound the power of peer-to-peer learning and group process. In essence, when students work together, they build bonds that add to the student’s sense of belonging and invite opportunities to learn from one another. Moreover, when students are provided power and responsibility to direct the learning process, they gain numerous affordances that facilitate the evolution and growth of the person. Utilizing a more concrete example of peer-led learning one might explore the interteaching model (Boyce & Hineline 2002).

The interteaching model is a pedagogical method that shifts student responsibility from passive reception to active engagement, while transferring the instructor’s role to organizing and guidance (Saville 2006). The paradigm can be traced back to behavioral scholarship (Keller 1968),cooperative learning (Halpern 2004), and reciprocal peer tutoring (Griffin and Griffin 1998).

An example of how this method works involves Instructors preparing instructional guides in advance of class sessions which consist of a series of factual and conceptual questions. In the online class, these are posted in the modules. Students work collectively outside of class to grapple with the questions and make sense of the factual information. Students work in groups to discuss and deliberate the topic and questions, while the instructor provides prompts and feedback to support active learning. After student-led discussions have exhausted the topic or issue, students are asked to complete an assessment that provides feedback to the instructor about the student’s level of comprehension. Any misunderstandings or weak points may be addressed by the instructor during the next class period, posting, or video lecture. The theoretical framework that supports the interteaching model is well documented.

For example, David Kolb’s work on adult learning (known as “Kolb’s Cycle”) describes how adult learners traverse experiences and make sense of them. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, was another proponent of “constructivist” learning theory. His 1962 book, Thought and Language, is a seminal work that provides evidence to support collaborative, socially meaningful, problem-solving activities over solo exercises.

In the 1980′s, Edwin Hutchins developed the theory of Distributed Cognition (Dcog). His findings suggest that knowledge lies not only within the individual but is situated in the individual’s social and physical environment. Distributed cognition refers to activities whereby cognitive resources are socially shared, extending individual cognitive resources, and allowing groups to accomplish some things individuals cannot achieve alone. This also fuels affordance theory.

The theory of affordances was introduced in the field of cognitive psychology during the late seventies (Gibson 1977). In short, it refers to measurable and independent benefits that flow from action, association, interaction, and presence.

The interteaching model envelops a behaviorist, cognitive, procedural and constructivist approach. It places the student at the center of learning and the instructor in the role of facilitating. This power shift, allows students to express their opinions, engender mature group dynamics, and creates a sense of independence, autonomy and responsibility.

In addition to learning the core concepts and struggling with conceptual questions, students gain soft-skill affordances. As students communicate with one another, they inevitably assume leadership roles, acquire conflict-managing skills, and as they discuss and clarify concepts they unravel the complexities of human relationships within a given context. In sum, peer-led learning should be incorporated as pedagogy in courses or programs to facilitate intentional integration, an attachment to the learning process, and the facilitation of a sense of belonging in order to best promote deep learning.


Davies, Bill., and Maya Barak. 2013. “Peer-led Reading Groups Boost Engagement and Retention” in Faculty Focus, February 18. <>

Boyce, Thomas E., & Hineline, Phillip N., 2002. “Interteaching: A Strategy for Enhancing the User-Friendliness of Behavioral Arrangements in the College Classroom.” The Behavior Analyst, 25:215-226.

Gibson, James. 1977. “The Theory of Affordances.” In Robert Shaw and John Bradford Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, (Eds.), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Griffin, M.M., and Griffin, B.W. 1998. “An investigation of the effects of reciprocal peer tutoring on achievement, self-efficacy, and test anxiety.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23: 298-311.

Halpern, D.F. 2004. “Creating cooperative learning environments.” In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, and S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology. 2:149-155. Washington DC, American Psychological Society.

Keller, F.S. 1968. “Good-bye teacher…” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 1:79-89.

Kolbs Learning Cycle

Nelson, C. 1999. “Critical Thinking and Collaborative Learning.” Tomorrow’s Professor Msg. #173. Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University. (last accessed: 23 June 2003).

Saville, B.K. 2006. From sage on the stage to guide on the side: An alternative approach to teaching research methods. Paper presented at the Annual Teaching Institute, Association for Psychological Science, New York, NY.


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