Model for Active Learning: Collaborative Peer Teaching

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  • Model for Active Learning Collaborative Peer Teaching

    Lois Rubin and Catherine Hebert

    ctive learning has a long and dis- tinguished history-from the dialogue of Socrates, to Rabe-

    laiss model Renaissance education of Gargantua, to Deweys reflective thinking (1930s), to Bruners discovery method (1960s). Again and again, the idea of learners getting involved in their learning, instead of passively receiving informa- tion from an instructor, has been consid- ered the essence of education. No doubt good teachers have always known that learning is enhanced when students get involved-to discover, manipulate, or personalize information. To be sure, teacher-centered instruction, such as lec- ture, has the advantage of communicating information in a complete, orderly form. However, student-centered methods, such as discussion, are considered more effec- tive in developing higher-order intellectu- al skills, such as synthesis and problem- solving (Bloom 1953, 167-69).

    Indeed, recent empirical studies have found student-centered methods to be superior to teacher-dominated practices in the following respects: application of concepts, problem solving, attitude, moti- vation, group membership and leadership skills . . . (McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, and Smith as quoted in Sorcinelli 1991, 17).

    Among the various active learning meth- ods, collaborative learning and peer teaching are particularly encouraging. In fact, Gerlach (1 994, 9) makes the point that collaborative learning environments have many advantages for students intel- lectual and social development . . . , while McKeachie et al. maintain that one of the most effective methods of teaching overall is students teaching other stu- dents (Sorcinelli 1991, 17). In our class- es, we experimented with collaborative peer teaching-combining the two approaches, with groups of students negotiating ways of running a class and eventually teaching other students.

    The idea of collaborative peer teaching is supported by three theoretical perspec- tives. According to the first, the cognitive approach, which focuses on strategies of information processing, learning is maxi- mized when students act on information in ways that make it more meaningful, such as organizing it, making their own connections with it, and applying it to new contexts (Svinicki 1991, 30). An example is for students to actively work with course material, devising ways of conveying it to their classmates. The sec- ond perspective, motivational theory, is concerned with how learning is initiated and sustained; it advocates giving

    social context, the kind of environment most conducive to learning is thought to be dialogue, characterized by interac- tion and cooperation. Teachers need to share responsibility for the course with students: give them a say in the details of the syllabus or permit them to plan cer- tain segments of the course, to make class presentations under (the teachers) guid- ance, or to suggest and arrange for dis- cussion topics, etc. (Billson and Tiberius 1991, 93). In sum, collaborative peer teaching, endorsed by all three theoretical viewpoints, appears to be promising.

    The benefits of the method accrue not only to the peer teachers but to the stu- dent audience as well. Many educators believe, and some research shows, that students learn more in a secure, coopera- tive classroom atmosphere. They are more willing to take responsibility for (their) educational experience than they would be in a traditional learning situa- tion where they are dependent on and subordinate to the teacher. In addition, being innovative both in its shift of the usual teachedstudent roles and in the variety provided by different student leaders and presentation modes, the method motivates students and sparks their interest (Forsyth and McMillan 1991, 55, 63).

    responsiblity for learning back to the students, and using innovative methods (Forsyth and McMillan 1991, 55, 63). Collaborative peer teaching does both.

    Three Class Experiments Lois Rubin is an associate professor of En- glish, and Catherine ~ ~ b f l is an assistant professor of French at Perm State University,

    In spring semester of 1996, we wrote into the course syllabi in three courses

    New Kensington campus. Finally, from the third perspective, the (Rubin, freshman composition and Amer-


  • ican Studies; Hebert, International Diver- sity) the requirement that groups of stu- dents would teach a class at some point in the semester. Originally, the impetus for peer teaching came from a presentation at ISETA (The International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives) in October 1995, by Jacqueline Mintz of Berkeley, entitled Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn: Instructor and Stu- dents Share a Course. Determined to put into practice her belief in letting students make decisions about their education, Mintz created a structure for a compara- tive literature course in which, for two thirds of the course, she modeled ways to teach a play. Subsequently, groups of four or five students were responsible for selecting a play for their classmates to read and for planning the activities of the class sessions in which the play would be taught. The course was very successful, with students evaluating both the project and the instructor highly.

    We adapted the Mintz approach to our classes. Like Mintz, we organized the presentations to suit the formats and con- tents of our classes. For instance, Rubin used five groups of four and five students, one group for each assigned novel, while Hebert assigned four groups of four stu- dents, each taking over a full 75-minute period during the last two weeks of the semester. We applied similar criteria to evaluate student performance-quality of presentation, creativity of design, engage- ment of the class-but weighted the pro- jects differently: Rubin valued them at 5 percent of course grade and Hebert at 15 percent. We modeled appropriate ways to present and explore similar subject mate- rial before students were expected to teach their classmates.

    In a real sense, then, students were not left to figure out the method on their own, but were able to consult guidelines and observe similar lessons. In addition, dur- ing the preparation time we acted as con- sultants by advising the groups, at times pushing them to carry their investigations further or to devise questions more likely to stimulate critical inquiry. During a class, however, students taught students with the teacher in the background, as a member of the student audience. Wishing to foster greater student responsibility, we rarely assumed a teacherly role.

    Rubins Courses: Freshmun Composition and American Studies

    In the freshman composition course- a required class with an enrollment of twenty-two-students were developing their writing skills by performing a sequence of assignments about Native American culture, two of which were based on Leslie Marmon Silkos Story- teller, a collection of stories, legends, and memoirs. The American Studies course- a writing-intensive, diversity-focused.

    an issue suggested by the text; (3) role play, in which they asked students to take on roles of characters and respond in character to questions posed by the class.

    In American Studies, the peer-taught classes would be conducted on the last day of a series of sessions devoted to an autobiography and could focus on any and all aspects of that text. In freshman composition, the peer-taught lessons, used in the middle of the semester, would all relate to the text, Storyteller, with teachers selecting the particular reading

    eachers gained two kinds of awareness, social T and intellectual. They found that previously habitual and unconscious patterns could be evaluated and changed.

    general education course in the humani- ties with an enrollment of twenty-three- took as its content multicultural autobi- ographies, five texts written by Native American, Latino, and Asian American writers. Students read, wrote responses in journals, and discussed the texts.

    On the first day of class, I introduced the project, with the rationale that collab- orative peer teaching is a good way to learn and gives students an active role. The syllabus explained the basics of the project: students in groups would teach one session of the course, basing their lesson on an assigned reading; they would choose the reading session they wanted to do, and the methods to use in conveying the material. They would be awarded points toward their grade for their work.

    A second handout gave more detailed guidelines. For the main activity, peer teachers could choose from the following options: ( I ) a discussion, in which they asked students beforehand to perform a task with the text-finding an image or quotation of interest, raising a question that perplexed them, or drawing a visual representation of an idea; (2) a debate in which they asked students to take sides on

    to be used as well as designing and pre- senting the lesson. The peer-taught class- es would be evaluated by the class just after they were taught, and the evalua- tions shared with the class; in addition, students would make a summary assess- ment at the end of the semester.

    When they learned of the peer-teaching assignment, students responded with some trepidation. Very few expressed pleasure or confidence at the prospect of teaching a class. Reading their responses, I, too, wondered whether this experiment was a good idea, and I experienced some fears of my own. As the first peer-teach- ing days approached, I recall much anxi- ety on the part of the first teaching group in both courses, with teachers consulting me a good deal. After the initial lesson went successfully, however, students began to relax-some later groups so much that they didnt prepare as serious- ly as the early ones.

    Lessons and Evaluations

    Students used a variety of approaches with varying degrees of success. Most popular in American Studies were the in- ventive lessons that engaged students in lively, unusual activities. For example, a

    VOl. 46MO. 1 27

  • successful lesson on Bless Me, Ultima was a quiz game, in which teams of stu- dents competed to answer questions that the teachers had prepared about the book. Although most of these were short- answer identification types, there were also two essay questions-one asking students to predict the future of the char- acter and give reasons from the book for their judgment, the other to explain a quote and apply it to their own lives. Another successful lesson was that on China Boy, where the teachers asked five volunteers to enact the roles of pre-select- ed characters in the book and to answer questions in character posed by other students. In preparation, the volunteers worked with other students who helped them recall the information. Classmates enjoyed the originality of the lessons and the amount of learning that had taken place. In their evaluations, the class gave the two lessons high marks.

    Two lessons were organized as de- bates, in which teachers asked students to take sides on issues such as, Were the interned Japanese compensated adequate- ly for what they had suffered? Students in the two groups developed their points and rebutted those of the other side. At the end, one teacher judged each side and declared a winner. Another lesson asked students to compete in finding parallels between two books on Native American experience, Black Elk Speaks and Lakota Woman; this lesson was perceived as unsuccessful.

    In the freshman composition course, students especially appreciated the activi- ties that asked them, usually as a group, to do an original writing related to the stories in Storyteller: to write a new end- ing in Yellow Woman or to re-create in a contemporary setting the plots of the legend in Up North and in the tragic story of Lullaby. They also enjoyed cer- tain other dramatic features: the debate format used with the story Rain Clouds, the drawing of an image from Up North, the quiz show motif used with Uncle Tonys Goat.

    Conversely, negative comments con- cerned lack of involvement of the class, lack of respect (in the debate), and disor- ganization. The discussions were general- ly less well received than the other activ- ities. The first four of the five lessons

    received high ratings, and the final one received a lower evaluation.

    Despite their earlier misgivings, stu- dents in both courses gave peer teaching a positive evaluation. They responded with real enthusiasm to the creative lessons of game shows, role playing, and writing their own endings. On midterm evaluations, when asked to name valuable features of the class, half of the students in the composition course mentioned the peer-taught classes. In a final evaluation, every single student said that peer teach- ing should be used again. On the other hand, students criticized some lessons for not involving the class or for repetition. In a final evaluation, many students in American Studies observed that teachers could have been better prepared, confirm- ing my perception that students had not put in enough effort in developing the lessons.

    Heberts Course: International Diversity: Focus on Asian Cultures

    While Rubins project focused on hav- ing groups of students plan ways of teaching specific segments of assigned readings, mine centered around students working out ways of researching and teaching about an Asian country of their choice. Consequently, our experiments diverged to a degree in planning and implementation, though not in basic phi- losophy. Foremost, the projects in my class did not involve the level of shared knowledge Rubins classes enjoyed and, hence, did not provide the same extent of student participation.

    Instead, students developed special areas of knowledge, which required sev- eral weeks of preparation-both collabo- rative and individual-at the end of which students in groups presented their findings to uninformed classmates. Even so, the lessons were to include a student- centered component, for each group was expected to provide an interesting story, article, or video as a homework assign- ment to create an area of common under- standing. Another contrast is that Rubins lessons were evenly spaced through the semester, while mine were grouped at the end. This arrangement may have worked to the advantage of Rubins students in

    that later groups had time to make adjust- ments on their lessons. Nevertheless, Rubins and my experiments in collabora- tive peer teaching show a number of sim- ilarities-in the overall preparation as well as in the outcomes.

    Like Rubin, and as Forsyth and McMillan (1991,55) advocate, I gave the responsibility for learning to the students. My handout focused on collaborative work, overall format of the class, types of suitable activities, and forms of evalua- tion. In particular, it pointed out that the group was to collaborate in selecting a country and in deciding what...


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