July 22, 2022

Effective peer learning in online courses

Well-designed online learning can be highly engaging, motivating, and enjoyable. Historically though, distance learning, both pre-web and in early online courses, suffered from poor retention – students found it difficult to study on their own.  Learning at a distance can be an isolating experience; this isolation can lead to lack of motivation, lack of a sense of belonging, and ultimately to students failing or withdrawing from their studies.


The good news is that we have advanced a long way from students being delivered textbooks through the post, or from the learning management system/virtual learning environment (LMS/VLE) being used simply as a repository of information to be passed on to the student. Web 2.0 technologies and beyond have enabled lots of opportunities for communication.


To counteract isolation for distance learners we must design courses so that students are encouraged to interact with other learners in positive, constructive ways. What’s more, educational psychology and learning theory tells us that we really should be providing these opportunities for students to participate in peer learning.


Why have peer learning activities?

Giving students opportunities to discuss, question, collaborate and socially interact with their peers helps to reduce the sense of isolation for online distance learning students, and increases their enjoyment in their studies, as found in this 2016 paper researching the experience of Australian nursing students, and can also be shown to improve their learning results, as found in this 2020 study (amongst many others).


This is supported by the key pedagogies that underpin the design of effective university teaching and of online learning. Peer learning is a constructivist approach; Piaget, Vygotsky and Dewey developed the ideas of constructivism and social constructivism early in the 20th century – that learning is developed over time, with learning built from existing knowledge and skills, and that learning happens through social interactions, giving opportunities to examine, test and renew understanding by interacting with others.


A contemporary development from this is connectivism – that technology allows us to be constantly and dynamically connected, not only to the information we need to learn, but also to other people, most especially our peers, enabling group discussion and collaboration that better allows us to construct our learning.


Technologies for peer-learning

With a connectivist view of technology, we can look at the LMS/VLE to decide how to best enable peer-to-peer communication and learning, and how to make connections for students between digital sources of information, and ways to utilise this for their peer-to-peer collaboration and discussions.  Realistically, most peer learning activities take place in the system’s built in discussion boards – but the boards are the medium of communication, not the type of communication, which can be much more varied that simply, ‘discuss’.


Of course, student-to-student communication can make use of a plethora of other tools – integrating social media communications such as WhatsApp is common, as is the use of collaboration systems such as MS Teams. The advantage of the LMS/VLE is that the teacher’s chosen learning resources – their micro-lecture recordings, digital texts, links to websites, journal articles, etc. – can be presented alongside the tasks that will ask students to answer, discuss, analyse, compare, or challenge them through peer learning activity.


Types of online peer learning

It’s common for teachers to use discussion boards for students to answer questions about the topic being taught. For example:


Can you explain Mazur’s model for peer instruction? Write your answer in the discussion board. Make sure you return to the board to read and comment on your classmates’ posts.


This, of course, is valid and will provide an opportunity for students to explore their understanding, explain it, and get some feedback on their knowledge from their peers. However, it is a little limiting – ultimately, there is a correct answer to this question, so it may not lead to a great deal of discussion.


A big challenge is to ensure that the task being set is discursive, that it is open-ended enough to generate difference in the responses of the students, and there is more than one way of providing a valid response.


Students can be asked to interact with each other and with the learning content in a variety of ways, for instance:

  • Answer an open-ended question – read your classmates’ responses, compare answers, provide feedback, or ask questions about the responses of your peers.
  • Describe your own experience – compare this experience to those of your classmates, seek ways to learn by the similarity and difference – is it because of global location, professional context, personality, preference, difference in knowledge? Students can seek shared understanding but also learn through difference.
  • Similarly, students can contextualise the topic they have been studying in their own life or work context, using that to provide analysis that the group can collectively compare, contrast, and develop understanding from.
  • Work collaboratively towards a solution – this may be a problem set by the teacher, or challenges arising out of your own life, or work, perhaps it is part of a case study analysis. This is a great opportunity to show that the collective knowledge is greater than the individual.
  • Conduct research with a group of your classmates, using the discussion board as the focus of your communication, and reporting back your findings to the wider class after you have collaborated successfully.


There are a great many other ways to use the discussion boards for peer learning. A useful resource of ideas can be found in this five-part higher ed teaching strategies blog.


Motivating students to learn from their peers

Many of us are reluctant to design online peer learning activities because we have had poor experiences in the past of discussion boards that have failed to generate much student contribution. This is often the result of the LMS/VLE being used as a support for classroom activity. However, we must remember that in fully distance online programmes, the LMS/VLE is the classroom – this is where all student learning happens or is instigated, so it is vital that we make the tasks we ask our students to carry out meaningful and useful.


Make explicit to your students the benefits that come from participation in peer-based learning activities. Do this by stating:

  1. What learning outcomes are being addressed
  2. How interaction with peers will help students develop understanding (this may be through peer feedback, through comparison of experience, or by direct Q&A to gain new knowledge)
  3. How this activity prepares students for successful completion of their assessments


Moreover, students are motivated by challenge and reward. In the case of peer learning activity, the reward comes in the form of interaction with, and feedback from, other learners – this helps shape the student’s own knowledge and their confidence in their own understanding, experience, and skills.



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