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Making a Horse Drink

This post is a part of the series Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning.

Peer learning has common problems, and this blog series reframes them as pedagogical design challenges. Instructors and students struggle with peer learning because of different expectations. Instructors often underestimate how much practice students need, how much can be learned by studying students’ practice, how hard learning the most important skill is, and how much coaching novices need to develop expert thinking and behaviors. Students misperceive the costs of missing out on peer learning as well as the value of their contributions. Students’ expectations for what instructors should do can also create problems in peer learning, and this post explores ways get beyond their resistance.

Design Challenge: Students resist peer learning on principle.

If you’ve ever taught a class where peer learning was a routine part of the course schedule, we bet you’ve heard or intuited these reactions:

  • “Feedback is your job, not mine.”
  • “I’m not in this class to learn from them; I’m here to learn from you.”
  • “They aren’t getting paid to teach me; you are.”
  • “I don’t see why I should listen to people who don’t know any more than me.”
  • “I can’t make it to your office hours. Can’t I just send you my draft because my peers didn’t help much?”
  • “Just tell me what I need to do.”
  • “This class is too much work. The teacher didn’t do anything. We did it all.”

If you’re lucky, these didn’t make it to your course evaluations.

Student resistance to peer learning comes in a lot of flavors, from saccharine to acrid. The base flavor profile, however, comes from a rigid notion that teachers teach and students learn: Teachers talk, comment, and grade while students listen, read, and get graded.

Students who resist peer learning have accepted as ideal what Freire called the “banking model” in his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They’ve figured out how school works and how to pass through virtually unscathed. Sit in desk. Seem attentive. Do enough homework. Avoid the teacher’s pet peeves.

They’ve figured out how school works and how to pass through virtually unscathed. Sit in desk. Seem attentive. Do enough homework.

Peer learning changes the game. Going to class to give and get peer feedback is dramatically different from going to class to hear discussion and occasionally get a one-on-one tutorial from the teacher scribbled in red ink on the margins of your final draft. In a way, the surprise is that more students don’t assertively resist peer learning.

When they do, turn to Patti Lather’s outstanding book Getting Smart. She offers a realistic and thorough account of moving students away from banking model that Freire critiqued and toward a “decentered” approach to learning where students embrace more responsibility.

Design Opportunity: Encourage student ownership of learning.

Peer learning asks students to invest more. They have to take risks in showing others their work and in giving feedback. They have to take more ownership of their learning.

That all sounds good, but we find that managing students’ attitudes toward peer learning is tricky and on-going. Student buy-in is critical from day one. It can turn on a dime. We never ignore the positive or negative vibe. We use the following four strategies to keep focused on the goal of improved learning.

Strategy: Give your rationale for peer learning.

Tell students why you are incorporating peer learning. As the reactions above suggest, the conclusions they draw on their own are unlikely to be flattering.

An elevator pitch for peer learning can get you out of a dozen dicey moments with resistant students. Here are two that work:

  • Reading others’ work lets you see what choices they’ve made. That gives you more options as a writer.
  • Checking to see if other writers have met the criteria will help you bring those criteria into better focus in your own work. You’ll have a clearer sense of how to succeed by using the criteria on peers’ work and your own.

By explaining why peer learning matters to the course, to you, and to their learning, you help them shift their expectations from busy work to deliberate practice.

A clear rationale for peer learning is so important that we offer multiple resources for instructors and students. We regularly host an online professional development workshop where instructors share their talking points for peer learning and get feedback from colleagues. We also offer a quick reading on “Feedback and Improvement” for students that explains the value of giving feedback for improving as a writer as well as a think-pair-share activity that works well as an introduction to Eli.

To support your claims about the value of giving feedback, consider providing snapshots of empirical research. Here are several recent studies:

Cho, Kwangsu, and Charles MacArthur. 2011. “Learning by Reviewing.” Journal of Educational Psychology 103 (1): 73–84. doi:10.1037/a0021950.

Introductory physics students were divided into three groups: (1) reviewers, (2) readers of models, and (3) no treatment. The groups had no significant differences in content knowledge or pretest writing assessment. All students received training in the use of the rubric. Reviewers and readers of models worked with 3 example lab reports that ranged in quality. All students wrote an introduction for a lab report. The quality of reviewers’ introductions was higher than readers of models (large effect size) and the no treatment group (very large effect size). Reviewers’ comments on the example essays were also coded. Reviewers’ solution suggestions and problem detection were positively correlated with writing quality, but problem detection in drafts accounted for most of the variance in the quality of their writing.

Li, L., X. Liu, and A. L. Steckelberg. 2010. “Assessor or Assessee: How Student Learning Improves by Giving and Receiving Peer Feedback.” British Journal of Educational Technology 41 (3): 525–536.

Undergraduate education students peer-reviewed their WebQuest projects. The researchers rated initial draft, feedback quality given, feedback quality received, and final draft. After controlling for quality in the initial draft, only the quality of feedback students gave was significantly correlated to the quality of the final project. That is, only the helpful reviewers improved as writers.

Lundstrom, Kristi, and Wendy Baker. 2009. “To Give Is Better than to Receive: The Benefits of Peer Review to the Reviewer’s Own Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 18 (1): 30–43. doi:10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002.

In an intensive English institute, low and high proficiency L2 writers either gave feedback or received it for the whole semester.  Givers made more gains than receivers. Givers from the Low proficiency group made the most gains as writers.

Philippakos, Zoi A., and Charles A. MacArthur. 2016. “The Effects of Giving Feedback on the Persuasive Writing of Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Students.” Reading Research Quarterly 51 (4): 419–33. doi:10.1002/rrq.149.

Fourth- and fifth-graders wrote a persuasive essay on uniforms and field trips. Then, all were guided through applying a rubric to a strong and weak essay. Next, students were divided into groups: (1) reviewing peer essays using the same rubric, (2) merely reading sample essays (same ones as peer reviewed), or (3) reading age-appropriate books. They repeated their activities for 3 days. Following those practice rounds, students revised their own essays (immediate post test). Then, they wrote and revised another persuasive essay on second-language learning (transfer test). A few days later, they wrote and revised another persuasive essay on chores at home (delayed transfer test). Compared to readers of sample essays and readers of narratives, reviewers produced immediate post test drafts with more persuasive elements related to counterarguments, including opposing positions and rebuttal, and more final thoughts for the reader in the conclusion. Reviewers’ revised essays were of significantly higher quality than both other groups in 1 of 2  immediate post tests and the transfer test.  In the delayed transfer test, reviewers’ revised drafts were significantly better than the reader group.

Strategy: Talk about peer learning outside of school as leadership skill.

Part of your pitch to students can connect to their future. Bill Hart-Davidson makes two relevant points with his students:

  • Outside of school, peer learning is the primary mode of learning.
  • The best leaders give the best feedback.

For many students, their whole professional lives will circumscribed by feedback loops. Being comfortable giving, getting, and using feedback sets them up for later success.

Students may be unable to see the connection between feedback loops in class and those at work. They may mistakenly assume that their future jobs will include only people who do their fair share and won’t have group members with remarkable abilities beyond their own. Talking about how addressing uneven group participation and giving helpful feedback transfers out of class can encourage students to value practicing a job skill now.

Strategy: Show our work as instructors.

When students expect sage-on-the-stage or red-ink in the margins, coaching peer learning looks effortless. It’s important then to talk about the work they don’t see us doing with the archive of student work in Eli. Here are six introductory statements that can help students recognize the coaching we are providing:

  • I rely on you guys to find the best drafts, and you didn’t let me down in these star ratings. We’ve got three peer-nominated exemplars to discuss today that are outstanding.
  • I read through all 125 comments made in this review, and I’ve selected the top 3 that do a nice job of giving writers’ feedback on the most important revision everyone needs to make.
  • Everybody check your “Feedback Given” tab. I endorsed only 1% of the comments made this week, so if you got at least one thumbs up, you should be proud.
  • One of the things that I can see Eli’s analytics is an average student profile. Let me talk you through what that average tells me about how this class is doing overall.
  • I ran some quick numbers using Eli’s analytics, and the top 30% of the class has given about 90 comments so far while the bottom 30% has given only 40. That’s a pretty sizable gap that throws off our “give one; get one” reciprocity. If you’d like to know where you stand, come by and see me in office hours.
  • If my comment in your revision plan is longer than yours, you need to spend more time explaining what you are thinking about as you head into the next draft. I want to help you find success, but I can’t do that if I don’t know your plans.

By telling students what we look at and what those trends mean to us, we establish our presence in peer learning. It helps students see that we value their work and trust the process.

Strategy: Give one-on-one feedback at critical moments.

Well-trained, helpful peers can provide more feedback at scale than even the most dedicated instructor. Yet sometimes only an instructor’s feedback will do. Peer feedback shouldn’t replace teacher feedback. It should help teachers understand how to make comments to students that are more relevant and timely. Here are three critical moments where instructors can make a difference:

  • Early signs of disengagement. For a quick check on student engagement, the “Engagement Highlights” tabled in the Highlights tab under Analytics provides a table summarizing students’ work as reviewers. Use the arrows for “Comments Given” total to sort students. Talk with students who are clearly offering fewer comments than their peers. These students may be struggling with priorities, confidence, skills, or motivation. If you can help them get engaged, they’ll have a chance at improvement.
  • Clear signs of dissatisfying peer learning. If students are using helpfulness ratings, you can tell how well they think peer review is going. In the Engagement tab of a review, sorting students by comments received rating indicates how helpful they found peer feedback. If the ratings are quite low, click through to their draft and feedback and follow-up on the revision plan or via email.
  • Right before the first full draft. If it looks like a full draft, it’s very likely to get treated like a final draft. Students are loathe to revise something that looks nearly done. The goal then is make sure they go through a couple of rounds of peer feedback and revision so that the substance of the paper is defined but not set. That’s the perfect moment for a revision plan and a conference or instructor feedback on draft.

Bottom-line: Make student buy-in a priority.

Students who are less engaged in peer learning will lag behind those who are more engaged. Even if those students get feedback from instructors, they will do less well if they don’t get – and more importantly give – feedback to peers. Instructors need to make sure buy-in and engagement happens.

Instructors can design meaningful learning opportunities for resistant students. Being clear about why peer learning matters beyond class, being present by showing our own work as teachers, and intervening at the right times can help students understand that engaging with others is learning.


  1. Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.
  2. Lather, Patricia. 1991. Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern. Critical Social Thought. New York: Routledge.

Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning

This blog series addresses the design challenges instructors face in creating rich peer learning environments. Those dilemmas feel familiar: finding the time, motivating students, worrying that they have the skills to help each other learn. But, we—the Eli Review team of Jeff Grabill, Bill Hart-Davidson, Mike McLeod, and Melissa Graham Meeks—approach these dilemmas from what might be an unfamiliar place. We understand more peer learning, done well, as the solution to motivation, skill development, and learning. In the classes we teach and in our work as a company, peer learning is routine and powerful.

  1. Your Students Aren’t Revising Enough
  2. Know When To Shut Up, Part I
  3. Know When to Shut Up, Part II
  4. Your Rubric Asks Too Much, Part I
  5. Your Rubric Asks Too Much, Part II
  6. Debrief Every Time, Part I
  7. Debrief Every Time, Part II
  8. No Pain, No Gain, Part I
  9. No Pain, No Gain, Part II
  10. You’ve Totally Got This, Part I
  11. You’ve Totally Got This, Part II
  12. Making a Horse Drink
  13. Bad Feedback Happens, Part I
  14. Bad Feedback Happens, Part II
  15. Give One, Get One
  16. The Secret Sauce of Producing Better Writers

Cover photo credit: Mikka Em

The Secret Sauce of Producing Better Writers was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

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