“The [peer-to-peer] structure helped encourage consistent engagement and accountability to other students, as well as mitigate the separation by making us interact with one another on a regular basis. Also, having a lot of time online becomes a bit disengaging, so I preferred switching it up between talking to peers and then logging on with the class.”
Student, FREN3007 Intermediate French II
When the pandemic shut down in-person classes in March, we found ourselves asking difficult questions about what an online class should look like. How could we continue to foster an interactive and supportive environment in which students could express themselves openly? How could we recreate a sense of community, especially as our students’ mental health was eroded by isolation? How could we make the most of Zoom, while minimising the mental disconnect, strain and increased anxiety of learning via video conferencing?
Our solution for Intermediate French in 2020 was peer-to-peer learning.
In this model, rather than holding our two weekly classes of 1.75 hours entirely on Zoom in a large group, we divide each class in two. Students meet in groups of three for 45 minutes and follow a highly structured itinerary, working through a series of discussion questions about a cultural text or exercises about a grammar problem. As they follow this guide, students take on the roles of teacher and learner, building an intellectual relationship in which they co-construct the lesson and assume responsibility for their learning. In semester 2, students based in Canberra were able to do these sessions in person.
After each peer-to-peer session, we meet in groups of 10-15 for one hour; students report on their discoveries, pose any questions or concerns and consolidate their learning in a more traditional classroom dynamic.
The results have been astoundingly positive. In an October survey, with 81% responding, 94% reported they preferred the split peer-to-peer structure to Zoom-only class. However, because we cannot be present for the peer-to-peer sessions, this model obviously requires a measure of trust in our students. In 2021, we’ll assign a weekly journal, in which students reflect – in French – on their peer-to-peer learning, to bolster their accountability to their partners and participation in the sessions.
Peer-to-peer learning wouldn’t work for every course, but it lends itself to those with a strong focus on discussion and small-group work. Scaffolded with detailed plans and the instructor’s guidance, peer-to-peer work has allowed us to reimagine our classes under Covid, without sacrificing what makes in-person learning so interactive, creative and supportive.
Claire Brooks and Dr Scott Rickard are Education Designers in the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT)