Improve the paradigm
I get funny looks when I tell students I’m going to have them work together. I don’t know what expectations that creates in their minds, but I’m anticipating students enriching the learning environment by sharing ideas and engaging with their peers.
Whether you want to incorporate strategies to achieve collaborative learning or simply have learners share information with one another, don’t hesitate. Designing instruction around student-to-student interaction is a great way to augment the curriculum and improve the learning environment. As an instructional designer (or an instructor) you will work harder, but the payoff will be worth it.
Learner-to-learner interaction can break tedious patterns. (can you say, ‘sage on the stage’?) It adds relevancy to the learning process and engages learners in ways that instructors can’t.
Teachers are already good at this, but everyone else…not so much.
School teachers are usually pretty adept at using student-to-student interaction. The ‘group project’ format spans the entire road from kindergarten through graduate school. (I remember sitting quietly and eating crayons while more focused kids contributed to the work)
Training and instruction outside of traditional classroom settings is not always so good at taking advantage of peer collaboration. In my experience, there are lots of missed opportunities where it is left out altogether. I have also seen it applied with the force of “ten Grinches, plus two” (Seuss, 1957, p. 1), but no strategic thinking. This approach has little or no benefit. When it is well-planned and executed with guidance and oversight, engaging students in a peer-to-peer learning situation pays substantial dividends.
Connecting and collaborative learning
For one training package, we group learners into teams of two or three. At this point they will need to combine ‘parts’ that they have learned over the past three days and use this combined information to solve a problem. In ‘absorb-do-connect’ terms, we are leading them into a connect activity to “link what they are learning to prior learning and to situations in which they will apply the current learning”. (Horton, 2012, p. 53) We provide a scenario and minimal guidance. The focus is on letting them work together to analyze the problem then come up with correct solutions as a team. As a result they:
- Help each other understand and solve a complex problem
- Work together to connect multiple parts of the material into one interconnected solution
- Practice skills they will need in order to succeed on the final evaluation
- Practice skills they will use in the workplace
- Go beyond interacting and begin to teach each other
Learners teaching learners
During some evaluations, we identify highly proficient learners then incorporate them as ‘assistant instructors’. They are limited to providing guidance, not answers. What I observe is that peers providing guidance makes the information relevant. It has a clearly positive impact. Some learners are more likely (again, observation) to ask their peer to assist them. These ad hoc assistant instructors help to build a relaxed and positive learning environment. With respect to Bloom, acting in an instructor role ‘pushes’ these learners into the higher stages of the taxonomy.
By helping other learners, they:
- Have to work at seeing the problem from someone else’s point of view
- Must work on listening carefully, as they form an effective response
- Must balance providing assistance with encouraging critical thinking
- Have the opportunity to articulate a higher order thinking perspective
This is not a recipe where you just add collaboration and…voila’-instant success! Teacher-to-student dynamics are very much personality-driven. It takes planning-and practice-to make this exercise work for your audience, and in the end the focus is taken off you and put squarely on students. So, if you are an instructor or teacher that labors under the presumption that you are the most important person in the room, peer-to-peer collaboration is going to be a challenge for you.
(P.S. do it anyway; the learners are the important ones)
Anytime I get a chance to let the students collaborate, I take advantage of it. Why? Because the benefits are always worth the extra effort. Collaborative learning does redefine the traditional student-teacher relationship…and I like that.
- Learners are built up by the collective ideas and knowledge of the group
- Instructors can focus on guiding critical thinking, instead of simply giving answers
- Learners benefit from the experience of peers
- Instructors do not always need to have all the answers
Regardless of your reasons for designing student interaction into the process, this is how they will continue to learn and solve problems in the workplace or in the next grade level. Set them up for success now by exposing them to it frequently.
So, whether you are aiming for peer-to-peer engagement or true collaborative learning, remember to teach with a purpose so your audience wins!
Horton, W. (2012). E-Learning by design. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Seuss, D. (1957). How the grinch stole christmas. New York, NY: Random House.