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5 Things Students Need from You on the First Day of Peer Learning

Students catch your feeling before they catch your meaning. James Eison’s tenth maxim for “Confidence in the Classroom” from his 1990 College Teaching article states: “Remember that enthusiasm and energy can carry the day.” Research summarized by Keller, Neuman, and Fisher in The International Guide to Student Achievement (2013) bears out these adages. How you feel about a topic, an activity, and your students can have an outsized impact on how things go in your class.

On the first day of peer learning, you have to bring it. This list of five things can help you be enthusiastic and confident as you set up your first peer learning activity.

#1 – Believe that students learn better together than they do alone.

A peer learning activity puts students in the zone of proximal development so that they can look at another student’s performance and adjust their own. In his keynote at Computers and Writing 2016, Eli Review co-inventor Jeff Grabill offered a critique of educational technologies using robots, and he posed this question:

Do we really think writing is best learned in isolation? Via a narrow and empty notion of “personalized learning?” Or do we think writing is one of the few things that makes us fundamentally human and that is learned in conversation with others?

Before you start a peer learning activity, ask yourself: “Will students learn best today together or alone?” If alone, save peer learning for another day.

Want to improve your peer learning pitch? Join one of our upcoming workshops where instructors use Eli to give each other feedback on how they describe peer learning to their students?

#2 – Accept that peer learning is bit like eating vegetables.

No one cheers for broccoli or for the coach who calls for another lap. Peer learning is like that extra workload that you’re thankful for after it’s over. Like athletes, sometimes students will need a pep talk from the coach before a hard practice.

Instructors can help students who have previously experienced poor results from group work to raise their expectations. The pep talk can acknowledge reasons for those poor results and explain why peer learning in this course will get better over time through practice.

We offer two free, open-source readings that frame the issues:

  • Feedback and Improvement explains why giving feedback matters for learning and how everyone can be helpful.
  • Rethinking and Revising discusses how students can get the most out of the feedback they’ve received and how they can use helpfulness ratings to encourage peers to offer better comments next time. Several instructors have let us know that the section on Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit has led to good conversation and become recurring themes.

These readings can foster discussion on their own. For a richer discussion, ask students to complete our free, open-source think-pair-share activities ahead of class time. By reading a rationale for peer learning, writing a quick response paper, and giving feedback to a few classmates, students will come to class prepared to explore common trends in their beliefs about peer learning.

On the first day and throughout the course, giving students space to share their emotional reactions to peer learning can help them work through the blockers that occur in all teams. Be careful how much weight you give their dissent, however; don’t let a past poor experience be the only evidence students have to draw on regarding the value of peer learning.

#3 – Make the process straightforward.

Your compelling rationale for peer learning will fall flat if students can’t follow the steps in the time allotted. Whether the first peer learning activity is on paper or online, facilitate the exchange of drafts and feedback as simply as possible.

  • If you are using an online technology for peer learning, ask students to register ahead of time and point them to any help information they may need. At Eli Review, we offer this customizable handout that describes the purpose of the technology and the steps for account creation, course registration, and task submission as well as support information. Most students can finish these steps in 2 minutes.
  • Model the steps or show a video of how to submit work, give feedback, and get feedback. Eli’s student overview has annotated screenshots and short videos; the goal is to help new users know where to look on screen.
  • Partner those who finish first with those who are all thumbs with the process. In every group, there are a handful of people who find baffling the instructions everyone else followed easily. Make sure those few get a partner.

The first peer learning activity introduces students to the process of submitting work, giving feedback, and getting feedback. This, by itself, is an important cycle in the writing process. In this first day, most of students’ attention and energy will be spent on getting the hang of what to do. Being clear and giving students enough time lays a foundation for future success. Let them know it is ok if the first time through is slow and deliberate. By the second or third time, students will devote almost no energy to process, and they can put their full attention on the hard work of giving peers feedback according to criteria.

#4 – Make the first activity easy.

Students need to start with a win. If you have sold students on the value of peer learning and simplified the process, don’t lose them with an irrelevant practice task. Design a task worth doing, but keep it small and easy.

Choose a low-stakes writing assignment that matters for the class but not for grades. In the review task, use only one or two criteria, and design simple questions such as a checklist and a contextual comment prompt.

The table below describes low-stakes writing assignments that we recommend and recommend against.

Try Avoid
  • Response papers like our “think-pair-share” that lead to class discussion
  • Summaries where the point of feedback is to make sure readers understand the main points
  • Personal introductions where the goal of feedback is to identify commonalities and forge relationships
  • Testing the process to be sure everything works for everyone (guarantees that the focus will be on problems and that the process will be the enemy)
  • Early drafts that get feedback based on a rubric designed for full, polished drafts
  • Asking for reviewers to give meticulous feedback on complicated drafts while they are learning the process

#5 – Celebrate and set a future goal.

After the peer learning activity is complete and before students leave the room, tell them what went well, even if you haven’t had time to process all that was exchanged.

Tell students how pleased you are about their

  • timeliness in a quick-paced activity,
  • flexibility with a new process,
  • generosity in helping each other, and
  • openness to a challenging task.

Later, once you have worked through their feedback and drafts, debrief the activity. At Eli, this step is crucial, and we offer a tutorial on how to coach writers and reviewers. One of the benefits of using a system like Eli is that you can debrief in real time, keeping students engaged and ensuring that feedback is timely as well as relevant.

We encourage instructors to talk with writers about how to improve their drafts and with reviewers about how to improve their comments. Helping students understand what they did well and what needs to improve reinforces the instructor’s role in peer learning—guiding students in thinking, talking, and writing about a topic according to criteria.

Even a well-planned, glitch-free first day of peer learning will not be a wild success. More than one instructor has lamented that, after reading and writing about Feedback and Improvement, students still write unhelpful comments at first. That’s normal. That’s learning.

Writing better comments takes practice. We’ve got additional resources that can help you with direct instruction in how to teach the pattern “describe-evaluate-suggest” for comments and a list of  best practices shared by teacher-researchers in Oakland, Michigan. Don’t wait too long before you assign the second peer learning activity.


  1. Eison, James. 1990. “Confidence in the Classroom: Ten Maxims for New Teachers.” College Teaching 38 (1): 21–25. doi:10.1080/87567555.1990.10532181.
  2. Keller, Melanie, Knutt Neuman, and Hans E. Fisher, “Teacher Enthusiasm and Student Learning,” in International Guide to Student Achievement, 2012, 247-249, Edited by Hattie, John, and Eric M. Anderman. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.
  3. Grabill, Jeff. 2016. “Do We Learn Best Together or Alone? Your Life with Robots.” Rochester, New York.

5 Things Students Need from You on the First Day of Peer Learning was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Listicle, Pedagogy.

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