February 18th, 2013

Peer-led Reading Groups Boost Engagement and Retention


A legal historian by training, I have taught many general education courses that draw students from across majors and disciplines. It is not uncommon for the 21st century college student to become somewhat disengaged with the works of Plato or Kant, and this is especially the case when these readings are complex and/or students are outside their topical comfort zones. As a result, in-class discussion suffers, momentum and dialogue are hindered, and students may feel alienated from the course. This is exacerbated by varying levels of engagement with out-of-class readings, producing uneven student learning outcomes.

Peer-led reading group sessions address these issues by formalizing students’ reading time out-of-class and improving analysis of core materials. The bonds built in these groups add to the student’s sense of belonging to the class and the institution, increasing the likelihood of student retention. In short, peer learning benefits faculty, student mentors, and class participants and should be encouraged as a new model for undergraduate learning in the classroom and throughout the campus community.

Just what is peer learning? Peer learning approaches vary greatly, yet perhaps the most interesting of these is the interteaching model (Boyce & Hineline 2002). The interteaching model takes a behaviorist, procedural approach and is highly collaborative, drawing upon faculty facilitation and student insight to enhance understanding and analysis of class material. The model augments the lecture experience, resting on the presumption that passive “reception learning” during lecture should be supplemented with operational application in discussion with peers and faculty. This is achieved through social interaction and the articulation of complex ideas in the language and idioms students are most comfortable using. Interteaching transfers classroom power to the student learner, allowing students to express their opinions, engendering responsible group dynamics, and creating a sense of the independence, autonomy and self-possession of learning.

Last year I incorporated the peer learning model into my course, “Western Legal Tradition,” which presents a dauntingly broad range of materials from writers as diverse as Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Marx. Students are typically mixed in terms of college experience, prior subject knowledge, and analytical and work planning skills, therefore ensuring that all students achieve the proposed learning outcomes is quite challenging. Prior course evaluations frequently revealed students had difficulties distilling relevant points from the reading, as well as felt intimidated during in-class discussion.

I came to realize that one of the best and most capable resources available to professors are the students themselves. Clearly, the students consistently providing the best insights into the readings had developed a methodology for understanding and analyzing difficult classroom texts. If this methodology could be shared through a peer-learning environment, the learning experience could be enhanced for everyone. To that end, I incorporated weekly 30-minute “reading groups” into the course. Attendance and participation were compulsory and graded. Student mentors, selected from among the best students from the previous semester, led the reading groups and were charged with ensuring discipline, answering basic questions, and calling to my attention any questions or concerns from the group.

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Overall, my experience using the reading group model has been overwhelmingly positive. Reading groups provided many benefits to the mentors, students, and myself, including more vibrant classroom discussions, improved class preparation and organization on my part, and empowered students. Furthermore, students performed better in these iterations of the course than in prior courses and most students viewed the reading groups as beneficial, noting that group work helped them “feel more prepared and confident for class.”

This peer-learning model holds much potential for application across the university. I imagine a campus quad in spring or university library on a dark winter night littered with small circles of students, sitting and discussing their assigned readings before running off to another group meeting. Mentors from one group may become participants in the next. Across campus students are more engaged, with greater expertise of their readings and more willingness and confidence to participate in class. As Nelson argues, structured collaborative learning like this will “increase the number of students with whom we will be effective,” (Nelson, 1994, pg 57).

Greater awareness of learning styles and teaching methodologies through mentoring makes for much more effective students (and teachers!), in turn allowing for greatly enhanced productivity from faculty members. It’s been my experience that incorporating peer learning environments into class appears to be of great benefit to everyone involved and offers gains in yield and efficacy that should unquestionably be considered.

Boud, David, Cohen, Ruth & Sampson, Jane (Eds.), (2001), Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning From and With Each Other. London: Kogan Page.

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, pp 215-226.

Goodlad, Sinclair & Hirst, Beverley, (1989), Peer Tutoring. A Guide to Learning by Teaching. London & New York, NY: Kogan Page & Nichols Publishing.

Nelson, Craig E., (1994), Critical Thinking and Collaborative Learning. In Bosworth, Kris & Hamilton, Sharon J., Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques (pp. 45-57). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Slavin, Robert E. (1983), Cooperative Learning, New York, NY & London: Longman.

Dr. Bill Davies is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He may be reached at davies@american.edu.. Maya P. Barak is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Affairs at American University. She may be reached at maya.p.barak@gmail.com.

  • Swoop

    The peer led reading group is an interesting idea that I will consider how to incorporate. I am also interested however in the referecne to "learning styles" that is mentioned in the last paragraph. Despite recent reviews which strongly suggest that there is really not much evidence for fixed learning styles, this terms continues to appear again and again in essays and scholarly works. Learning PREFERENCES does seem to have some basis. I'm wondering now if the educational community doesn't still buy into the concept of learning styles, as it sure doesn't seem to be going away. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/learning-sty

  • Carole

    I think this is great, but I'm trying to figure out how to modify it for a non-residential college whose students all work and often have family responsibilities as well. I would have to give class time (not a bad thing since I'm a strong believer in the students teaching each other) and I would have to replace the mentor with, perhaps, some questions to help guide them. The questions would be tricky since students have a tendency just to hunt for answers and then be done with it. It's a terrific idea.

    • Maya Barak

      Hey Carole. So glad you are excited about peer-learning! I have an MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice and about half the students in my program had full time jobs and families. Many of the courses I took in the program relied heavily upon a "peer-learning" component in which a different student would take over the first half of class each week fulfilling a mentor-type function. When it was not a student's turn to mentor, she or he would still bring several discussion questions to share with the class–this is a technique we often use in our undergraduate reading groups. Perhaps a twist on peer-learning that uses in-class, student-led breakout sessions in which students take turns as mentors would be useful in this setting. It might also be worthwhile to allow students to bring in their own unanswered questions, overall comments, or critiques of the readings, which can generate a surprising amount of student-led discussion, and perhaps adding one or two of your questions to the mix to make sure key points are discussed in the break-out groups.

  • Vickie

    For those who've done this: were the mentors paid?

    • Maya Barak

      Hey, Vickie. Yes, in this case student mentors were paid. They were hired for a set number of hours per week for the semester and kept logs of these hours, which were then turned in. However, I can imagine situations where students would sign up as mentors for reasons other than being paid (for example they may want to put the activity on their resume). As I mentioned in my response to Carole, reading groups could be student-led with rotating mentors, each taking the responsibility for one group session during the semester. Although these students would not have been "vetted" by having already taken the course, many of the other aspects of peer-learning would still be present, i.e. student empowerment and a safe space for students to express themselves. For instance, this semester I am facilitating all five reading groups for Dr. Davies' Western Legal Traditions course, thus there is no "student-mentor," per se. Instead, the students in each reading group informally take turns in the mentor role, which is really quite wonderful.

  • Gene

    The practice of peer teaching is standard proceedure in Boy Scouts, 11 to 18 year old males. I also used the same technique in Middle School Techology classes, which included 6th through 8th grade students of both sexes. Informal in structure, it most often settled into pairs with interaction between pairs. This method was applied to a very wide range of material, drafting, small engine power dynamics, wood shop, structural design, electricity, etc. Gradeing was on a points scale based on work acomplished.

    This system was most notably effective with students who were working well out of their previous experiences. Female students adapted to it well. Typical "A" students were not disadvantaged. Students who faired poorly under conventional class structure appeared to benefit the most., For the age group involved, adolescent and preadolesent children, I would strongly reccommend peer teaching as a most successful methodology. Gene

  • Another variation on this peer-teaching method, which works especially well for non-native language users, is the use of Academic Reading Circles, as described by Tyson Seburn: http://fourc.ca/arc/

    • Maya Barak

      Thanks for sharing this great teaching tool! It looks as if the ARC method could pair nicely with peer-teaching and I can't wait to experiment with it!

      • Tyson Seburn

        Awesome. Thanks for mentioning ARC @D0gg3d. 🙂 I enjoyed your post Maya and will share it with colleagues here too. Must read again. Let me know if I can help you with ARC and how it goes when you experiment with it. 🙂

  • Jean Crockett

    I realize that this is not quite what your article is targeting; however, for over 10 years now we have offered extra-curricular book sessions, to encourage reading and to enhance student engagement. Rather than treating class assignments, these sessions concern pleasure reading; however, they gather students, faculty, and staff/administrators in a casual setting, in order to help students get to know the campus family and to learn how to discuss ideas–even outside the classroom. We have covered over 50 books over the years, everything from Austen's Pride and Prejudice to Rawling's Harry Potter books, from Shaara's Killer Angels to Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie. What we have found is students who first joined the groups for extra credit purposes, later joined just because they had enjoyed themselves so much. And we feel there is a definite carryover to improvements in critical thinking and self-expression.

    • Kathy Watson

      I would love to know more about your extra-curricular book program. Could you please contact me: watsonkj@eckerd.edu.
      Thank you.

      • Jean Crockett

        I'd be glad to–Jean

  • jd80

    Great article, so great to hear about so many educators practicing these techniques. Just bought a new book out by Dale Schlundt, called Education Decoded on Amazon. Short book, but gives excellent practical examples of strategies that promote student engagement and collaboration. Truly makes a difference in the classroom.

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