An experiment in peer-driven learning

As those who have followed this blog in its short history know, CELT likes to promote active learning (a term that appears in the King’s College mission statement). The idea is that people often learn best by doing, and not only by seeing and hearing. Additionally, people tend to learn better when they are engaged with what they are learning–when they have a stake in it.

Thus a key principle of active learning is giving students more control over their learning. So what happens when you go all the way with this principle, when you hand almost complete control over a course to your students?

Lee Skallerup Bessette has been finding out firsthand this semester, chronicling a bold experiment in peer-driven learning on the College Ready Writing blog hosted at Inside Higher Education (with older material at this location).

The experiment was motivated in part by her conviction that students at any level will live up (or down) to their instructors’ expectations. If you expect that students are not prepared or not willing to perform challenging tasks, then they won’t. To Bessette, her students at a rural, regional state university too often encounter pedagogies that reinforce their instructors’ low expectations. She thus took inspiration from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Cathy Davidson’s brain-science-for-the-humanities in Now You See It in getting the class going, using novel pedagogies to enable students to break open their educational experience.

So, she decided to give students almost complete control:

I’m making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class)…. Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it’s about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two sections of the writing course ended up taking on quite different structures, with one class opting for a more “traditional” structure and another being more adventurous. The first group has turned out to be the source of most of the problems Bessette has encountered–mainly problems stemming from the conflict between the course’s peer-driven aims and the students’ lack of interest in directing their own learning.

A few weeks into that class’s research project, Bessette unilaterally gave an annotated bibliography assignment, “forcing” students to learn how to use the library in their research but perhaps breaching the spirit of peer-driven learning. This class also exhibited some of the typical indices of low motivation in college students, including plagiarism and poor attendance.

The other class has been very different. Bessette reports that students have cooperated very well, produced good work, and shown her that good learning can look a lot more like “play” than like “work.” In this respect, the class might resemble something of education’s roots in leisure, rather than what some critics today see as its service solely to economic gain.

The “good” class may show us the enticing possibilities peer-driven learning offers. Even if it is a limit case, it is not hard to imagine implementing more peer-driven elements in classes that are already student-centered. If getting students “doing” their learning leads to good outcomes, then getting them designing it may lead to even better results.

And yet I am sure that many readers (not to mention Bessette herself) have a nagging sense that students who–by definition untutored–do not know what is best for their learning. Bessette was careful only to try student-driven learning in her second-year writing classes; these students had already learned the basics of college writing. First-years might not be ready for this much responsbility. Nonetheless, some K-12 teachers are implementing peer-driven learning as well.

In fact, peer-driven learning is not as radical as it might at first seem. It exists in small ways in many more traditional approaches to learning. Students very frequently pick their own paper and project topics. Advanced students in the sciences may get some autonomy in the lab. Many of our students have asked if we would direct independent studies. (And some of us have found the studies to be less independent than at first planned.)

All the examples just mentioned, though, are fairly individualized: this one (often advanced) student gets autonomy over his or her learning, and what that student does is fairly independent of what other students do. Bessette’s approach is more collaborative; students as a group determine how class will be conducted, setting communal goals. The divide in Bessette’s experiences with the two classes shows that this can work well when students are motivated, trust each other, and, in short, buy into the collaborative, peer-driven concept.

The flip side is that when those conditions aren’t met, as seems to have happened in Bessette’s other section, motivation and performance can quickly spiral downward.

The peer-driven approach is meant to generate student buy-in. But that in turn requires students to buy into the concept of buy-in. If students just don’t care at some threshold level, then no approach is going to have great results.

Even so, there is no reason to suppose that the less-motivated students learned less than they would have in a traditional class. And there is good reason to suppose that the more motivated ones have learned a great deal–and not just about writing, but about responsibility, collaboration, and motivation. I hope Bessette sees what she is doing as a success.

What do you think? Is Bessette’s experiment a wise one? Are there some learning goals that can only be achieved if the learner sets his or her own standards? Or do we owe it to students to give them as much direction as we, being experts, can give? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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