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 Maya P. Barak is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Affairs at American University. She may be reached at