Peer relations in peer learning

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Nipissing University]On: 10 October 2014, At: 18:25Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    International Journal of QualitativeStudies in EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tqse20

    Peer relations in peer learningHanne Riese a , Akylina Samara a & Slvi Lillejord ba Department of Education , University of Bergen , Bergen ,Norwayb Teacher Education , University of Oslo , Oslo , NorwayPublished online: 18 Oct 2011.

    To cite this article: Hanne Riese , Akylina Samara & Slvi Lillejord (2012) Peer relations inpeer learning, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25:5, 601-624, DOI:10.1080/09518398.2011.605078

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  • Peer relations in peer learning

    Hanne Riesea*, Akylina Samaraa and Slvi Lillejordb

    aDepartment of Education, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway; bTeacher Education,University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

    (Received 22 April 2010; final version received 8 July 2011)

    Over the last decades, much research on peer learning practices has been con-ducted. Quantitative, experimental designs focusing on problems of cause andeffect dominate. Consequently, effects on achievement are well documented, asis the influence of different conditions on the effect rate. In spite of the generalacknowledgment of the importance of peer learning and a large amount ofresearch on collective learning practices, questions regarding the quality of peerinteraction, and how peer relations influence learning, are not well elaborated.This paper complements the discussion on effect focusing on the processes ofinteraction between peers, and relates these to theoretical perspectives on learn-ing as fundamentally social. Inspired by meta-ethnography an integrative analy-sis across seven qualitative studies was accomplished. The approach enabled aninvestigation of peer interactions in different educational settings. The analysiselaborates on how instructional designs and students relational knowledgemediate interaction in peer learning. The paper further discusses the potential ofapproaches synthesising qualitative studies as a tool in qualitative research.

    Keywords: peer learning; peer relations; mediational means; meta-ethnography

    Introduction

    Peer learning practices are promoted at all levels of the educational system for theo-retical, empirical as well as policy reasons. Arguments fall into three broad catego-ries: First, positive effects on students achievement. Second, in the current masshigher education system peer learning activities can reduce the workload of theteaching staff. Third, the need for including the development of generic skillsrelated to future employment can be promoted by learning practices where studentswork together (Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 2001). Subsequently, research on peer-learning is extensive and has addressed both cognitive growth (ODonnell and King1999) and social aspects of learning (Johnson, Johnson, and Stanne 2000; Resnick,Levine, and Teasley 1991).

    We understand peer learning as activities where peers learn from and with eachother in both formal and informal ways (Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 2001, 4).Approaches that can fit under this broad definition of peer learning include peertutoring, peer assessment, small group learning, collaborative, and cooperativelearning (Cooperative learning methods: a meta-analysis, http://www.co-operation.org/pages/cl-methods.html [accessed 10 December 2007]). The plethora of concepts

    *Corresponding author. Email: Hanne.Riese@uib.no

    International Journal of Qualitative Studies in EducationVol. 25, No. 5, August 2012, 601624

    ISSN 0951-8398 print/ISSN 1366-5898 online 2012 Taylor & Francishttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2011.605078http://www.tandfonline.com

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  • reflects the wide range of practical models for implementing peer learning. Mostresearch concentrates on identifying effects and conditions for effect, treating peerlearning as an instructional intervention, rather than as enacted practice (Kosch-mann 1996). Thus a number of meta-studies have documented positive effects onlearning outcome, in addition to social skills, self-esteem and cost-effectiveness.Research further shows that conditions for positive effects include group goals orinterdependence, student responsibility, and reward systems on the group as well asindividual level (Cohen 1994b; Falchikov and Goldfinch 2000; Hattie 2009; John-son, Johnson, and Smith 2007; Johnson et al. 2000; Lou et al. 1996; Prince 2004;Rohrbeck et al. 2003; Slavin 1996; Springer, Stanne, and Donovan 1999; Topping1996).

    However, researchers call for more investigation into the complexity of interac-tions in peer learning (Hartup 1999; Kumpulainen and Kaartinen 2000; Lillejordand Dysthe 2008; Springer, Stanne, and Donovan 1999; Szymanski 2003), claimingthe need for knowledge regarding which aspects of interaction are conducive tolearning. This means that the study of peer learning should concentrate on under-standing what learners do when they work collaboratively. In this perspective learn-ing is investigated as changes in practice as well as cognitive development, and theanalytical focus should be on process as well as outcome.

    Furthermore the meaning of the term peer in peer learning is seldom dis-cussed. Most often it refers to a student in the same cohort or learning situation(Boud and Lee 2005). Peer relations are addressed using terms like interdepen-dence, scaffolding, and tutoring, indicating that the relations are important but thesocial relationships between peers and their prior knowledge of each other, are notdiscussed as being of importance to the learning activity (Boud and Lee 2005;Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 2007; Topping 2005; Tosey and Gregory 1998).

    In peer learning literature social relationships between peers are indirectlyaddressed, discussing problems related to status, ethnicity or gender (Cohen 1994b;Cohen and Lotan 1995; Salomon 1989; Slavin 1996; Springer, Stanne, andDonovan 1999). In contrast, if we turn to literature on social relations in education,peer relations are addressed in terms of friendship and acceptance (Berndt, Miller,and Perry 1988; Hamm and Faircloth 2005; Hanham and McCormick 2009; Kut-nick and Kington 2005; Swenson and Strough 2008; Zajac and Hartup 1997). Thisfield of research has documented that friends are an important motivation forschooling (Berndt and Keefe 1996), that social and academic development arerelated (Anderman and Anderman 1999; Wentzel 1996), and that friendship rela-tions may be significant with regard to the learning outcomes from peer learning(Riese 2010). These two traditions of research, one addressing learning, the othersocial relations in education, are seldom combined (Hanham and McCormick 2009;Swenson and Strough 2008).

    Based on the identified gaps this study intends to address peer learning as anenacted practice, questioning how interaction proceeds and how social relationsbetween peers contribute to the interactional process in peer learning. Inspired bythe meta-ethnographic approach developed by Noblit and Hare (1988), we have car-ried out an interpretative synthesis of seven qualitative studies. We assume thatexisting qualitative research already but implicitly includes information on peerinteraction and how relations influence the process of peer learning. By synthesisingresults from several studies the understanding of peer learning practices can be

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  • improved on a broader base than a single study may provide. Our results allowfuture research to pose more informed questions on peer relations in peer learning.

    Theoretical context of the study

    As the intention of this study is to investigate interaction in peer learning and the con-tribution of peer relations to the process, there is a need for an approach paying atten-tion to interactional patterns and to changes in practice. The theoretical assumptionsunderlying our synthesis are therefore a socio-cultural understanding of the relation-ship between knowledge, individuals and their context (Vygotsky 1978; Wertsch1991). Within this tradition, the assumption is that learning is situated in a material,social and cultural context and considered a joint symbolic activity. From this followsthat the attention is on how individuals produce meaning in interaction with eachother and the environment, and the learning process is considered as a contingentinteraction between individuals and their context (Lave and Wenger 1991; Slj 2007;Wenger 1998). Interacting actors continuously reproduce and change the conditionsfor action and learning. Thus it is not only the individual, but also the context of inter-action that is changed. In socio cultural theory this interdependence between actors,and between actors and their context is theorized through constructs such as commu-nities or organisations or institutions for interaction and discussions of their quali-ties, or in more general terms the qualities and roles played by cultural ideas andpatterns, and social norms in interactional processes.

    The interdependency of actors, and actors and their contexts, leads to a thirdassumption in socio cultural theory that activity must be understood as mediated bymeans representing a link between individuals and the social, cultural and materialcontext (Vygotsky 1978). Mediational means can be understood as cultural toolsused in interaction, facilitating the joint production of meaning. They are concreteobjects, procedures or signs, with language as the most important cultural tool, andthey derive from the social, cultural and material context.

    This understanding of learning makes the foundation for our analysis, and thespecific research questions of the study are:

    (1) What are the most prominent aspects of peer learning interaction asdescribed in the included studies?

    (2) In what ways are peer relations described as contributing to the interactionalprocess in peer learning?

    Methodology

    Research design

    The identified need for knowledge on the complexity of peer learning activities sug-gests a qualitative research design. Compared to a single qualitative study, a synthe-sis of a set of studies may contribute to a broader and more multi-facetedunderstanding of the micro-processes of peer-learning activity. As the main inten-tion in our study is to seek a deeper understanding of peer learning activities ratherthan to generalise across cases, we decided to apply an approach within theinterpretative tradition building on the meta-ethnographic approach outlined byNoblit and Hare (1988). The problem of investigating interactions and relationshipsbetween peers suggests, as stated in the theory section, an approach foregrounding

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  • learning processes and taking the wider context of learning into account (Lillejordand Dysthe 2008). We therefore opted for a research design that could producethick descriptions (Geertz 1973) of peer learning activities and their contexts.

    Although syntheses of quantitative studies are common, qualitative research syn-theses are quite rare. Still, a range of review methods exists, differing with regardto intentions, to theoretical base, as well as to how rigid, widespread, and developedthey are (Davis 2000; Denyer and Tranfield 2006; Dixon-Woods et al. 2005;Murphy et al. 1998; Walsh and Downe 2004). Amongst the most widespread arenarrative review (Jones 2004), realist synthesis (Pawson et al. 2005), and meta-eth-nography (Noblit and Hare 1988).

    Syntheses can also be sorted with regard to what they aspire to achieve. Dixon-Woods (2005) draws on Noblit and Hare (1988) to distinguish between integrativeand interpretative syntheses, concluding that most approaches to some extent mayinclude both integration and interpretation. This distinction does not necessarily fol-low a quantitativequalitative distinction, however, whereas integrative approachesaim at generalising findings, an interpretative synthesis does not necessarily aspireto make claims about generalisability, but is concerned with the development ofconcepts and the theories integrating these concepts.

    The included studies are analysed as texts representing the scientific discourseon peer learning. Through an interpretation of findings across the included studieswe will highlight the characteristic aspects of the peer-learning processes and con-tribute with reflections grounded in theory of learning in order to bring the field for-ward.

    Selection of studies

    The following criteria were applied to identify which set of studies to include in ameta-ethnographic approach to synthesising knowledge on peer learning processes:

    (1) Studies included should be of educational practices where peers worktogether on a common task, where the teacher has a guiding and facilitatingrole, and where the collaboration between peers lasts for a significant periodof time, allowing for relations to form and develop.

    (2) Studies included should describe how processes and relations in the studentgroups develop over time.

    (3) The included studies should use qualitative methods in a way that producesthick descriptions (Geertz 1973). Details on the data generated and the con-text in which they were generated should be provided so that they can becompared with data from other studies.

    Identification of studies

    We searched for studies conducted up to 2009. The following electronic databaseswere searched; ERIC (OCLC), ISI Web of Science, ProQuest Academic ResearchLibrary, ProQuest Education Journals (scholarly journals), Education JStore andIdunn. Search strategies were developed in collaboration with a librarian. Allretrieved titles and abstracts were assessed by two of the authors and the studiesthat appeared to fulfil the described criteria for inclusion were selected for further

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  • reading by the two authors. Despite a search filter on qualitative studies, a largenumber of the retrieved studies were by and large quantitative and thereforeexcluded. Studies were excluded if the focus of the study differed significantly fromthe objective of our study (for instance focusing too much on outcome and lackinginformation on process) and if the goal was a discussion of practical implementationrather than a report of research results. We also chose to delimit our study byexcluding learning schemes using electronic media, regarding this as a separateresearch field.

    An important aspect of synthesising research is assessing the quality ofincluded studies. This issue is widely discussed and closely connected to episte-mological debates. Conventional criteria for conducting research in general(Hammersley 1990) and specific criteria for qualitative approaches (Eisner 1983;Guba and Lincoln 1989) are used in the assessment of the studies. Differentchecklists have been developed for use in studies carrying out syntheses (Maysand Pope 2000; Murphy et al. 1998) even though the use of checklists is alsodebated (Elliott, Fischer, and Rennie 1999; Murphy et al. 1998). This study hasused a set of guidelines made for publication of qualitative research developedby Elliott, Fischer, and Rennie (1999) (see Appendix 1). These guidelines putan emphasis on reflexivity with regard to the researchers role as well as tohow data is produced and handled.

    The guidelines were applied to systematically scrutinise both the way methodsand procedures are described in the included studies, as well as the transparencyof the presentation of the data. This secures the quality in the interpretative analy-sis involved in a meta-ethnography. From an initial recovery of 727 studies, theselection process ended with the inclusion of seven studies that met our criteria(Allsup 2003; Bianchini 1997; Donath et al. 2005; Elbers and Streefland 2000;Hogan, Nastasi, and Pressley 1999; Kobayashi 2003; Szymanski 2003). They alldescribe long-term conducting of peer learning; include descriptions of the processand of the relations between students; and they use qualitative methods that pro-duce descriptions of the processes, relations and the context of interactions inways that allow for comparison with other studies. All studies included are tosome extent applying perspectives that are within or affiliated with a socio cul-tural theory of learning. This was not a criterion of inclusion initially, but theresult may be explained by the other criteria. Thus no studies were excluded onthe grounds of not applying these kinds of perspectives. Seven studies included isneither high nor low with regard to the analytical procedures to be applied, butsufficient to expect the generation of insights. They represent a spectrum of differ-ent educational settings and levels and come from different countries, although allare from a western cultural context. This represents a challenge in analysis andinterpretation. However given that the context of the data is considered in inter-pretation, the diversity also represents an opportunity of gaining a broader set ofaspects shedding light over the problems addressed. The included studies aredescribed in the next section.

    Summary of included studies

    A summary of the included studies is provided in Table 1. In order to further famil-iarise the reader with the studies and provide transparency of the analysis, an addi-tional description of the included studies is included in Appendix 2.

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  • Table1.

    The

    included

    studies.

    Studies

    Metho

    dsandsetting

    Analysis

    Sam

    ple

    Settin

    gDatacollectionandmetho

    dTheoretical

    fram

    ework

    Mainfind

    ing

    Allsup

    (200

    3):Mutual

    learning

    and

    democratic

    actio

    nin

    instrumentalmusic

    education

    9high

    scho

    olstud

    entsage

    141

    7with

    interm

    ediate/

    advanced

    level

    ofexperience

    onmusical

    instrument

    Musical

    project,2grou

    psin

    4mon

    ths2,

    5ho

    ursaweekwith

    collabo

    ratio

    n.Creatingmusic

    with

    indifferent,freely

    chosen

    genres,USA

    Participantob

    servation,

    collabo

    rativ

    einqu

    iry.

    Analytical

    workdepend

    ingon

    theory.Emerging

    them

    esdiscussedandvalid

    ated

    during

    research

    process

    Dem

    ocratic

    education

    (Dew

    ey),constructio

    nof

    know

    ledg

    ethroug

    hcoop

    eration(Vyg

    otsky)

    Working

    incommun

    ities

    couldbe

    describedas

    actio

    nsof

    discov

    ery

    Bianchini

    (199

    7):Where

    know

    ledg

    econstructio

    n,equity,

    andcontextintersect:

    stud

    entlearning

    ofsciencein

    small

    grou

    ps

    18grou

    psof

    threeto

    five

    stud

    ents6th

    grade

    Science

    class,twoun

    itsof

    45

    weeksdu

    ratio

    n,biolog

    ywith

    inacomplex

    instruction

    mod

    elprog

    ramme(Coh

    en19

    94a),USA

    Mixed

    metho

    dsinclud

    ing

    participantob

    servationand

    interviews.Analysisthroug

    hiterativ

    eprocessof

    revising

    codesandrepeatingcoding

    process

    Kno

    wledg

    eissocially

    constructed(Latou

    rand

    Woo

    lgar),un

    equally

    accessed

    (Harding

    )anddistribu

    ted

    (Brown,

    Collin

    sandDug

    uid)

    Discussions

    seldom

    mov

    edbeyo

    ndprod

    ucts

    andprocedures

    and

    social

    status

    differences

    persistdu

    eto

    shortcom

    ings

    inim

    plem

    entatio

    nDon

    athet

    al.(200

    5):

    Characterizing

    discou

    rseam

    ong

    undergradu

    ate-

    research

    inan

    inqu

    iry-based

    commun

    ityof

    practice

    Three

    under-

    graduate

    university

    stud

    ents,1

    faculty

    mem

    ber,

    1PhD

    ,1

    session

    Eng

    ineering

    education.

    Studentsworking

    onresearch

    projectsin

    aRCS(research

    commun

    icationstud

    io),USA

    Lon

    gterm

    ethn

    ograph

    icstud

    yandvideo-tapedanalysisof

    onegrou

    psession.

    Speech

    eventsandrolesidentified

    throug

    hiterativ

    ecoding

    incollabo

    ratio

    nwith

    research

    team

    Com

    mun

    ityof

    practice(Lave),

    activ

    elearning

    indistribu

    ted

    cogn

    ition

    environm

    ent

    (Bransford,Brown,

    Cocking

    ),lin

    guistic

    performativity

    (Austin

    ),speech

    acts/events

    (Searle,

    Flowerdew)

    Multip

    lealignm

    ents

    betweenmem

    bers

    ofgrou

    pincrease

    grou

    pcohesion

    andbreak

    grou

    ndforincipient

    commun

    ityties

    ElbersandStreefland

    (200

    0):Collabo

    rativ

    e-learning

    andthe

    constructio

    nof

    common

    know

    ledg

    e

    Aclassof

    8th

    gradepu

    pils,

    grou

    psof

    45,

    age111

    3

    Mathematicsproject,

    com

    mun

    ityof

    researchers.

    Maths

    ineveryd

    ayissues,4

    mon

    ths1,

    5lesson

    saweek

    with

    inacommun

    ityof

    inqu

    iry

    mod

    el.The

    Netherlands

    Casestud

    y,participant

    observation,

    audioandvideo

    recordings

    ofdiscussion

    sin

    class/grou

    ps.Identificatio

    nof

    repeatingdiscursive

    patterns

    throug

    hiterativ

    ecoding

    Learningcommun

    ities/

    commun

    ityof

    inqu

    iry(Brown

    andCam

    pion

    e,Rog

    off,

    Scardam

    alia

    andBereiter).

    Scientificresearch

    commun

    ities

    (Latou

    rand

    Woo

    lgar)

    New

    patternsof

    talk

    are

    developedthroug

    hcontinuo

    uscycles

    ofdiscussion

    (Contin

    ued)

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  • Table1.

    (Con

    tinued).

    Studies

    Metho

    dsandsetting

    Analysis

    Sam

    ple

    Settin

    gDatacollectionandmetho

    dTheoretical

    fram

    ework

    Mainfind

    ing

    Kob

    ayashi

    (200

    3):The

    role

    ofpeer

    supp

    ort

    inESLstud

    ents

    accomplishm

    entof

    oral

    academ

    ictasks

    11 undergradu

    ate

    stud

    ents(4

    boys,7girls)

    3specialfocus

    3mon

    thprojecton

    presentin

    gexperiencesfrom

    previous

    practical

    projecton

    peer

    tutoring

    inlang

    uage.Japanese

    stud

    entsqu

    alifying

    inEng

    lish

    forCanadianun

    iversity

    stud

    ies

    Casestud

    y:ob

    servations,

    semi-structured

    interviews,

    stud

    entsjournals,e-mail

    interviews,audio,

    videorecordings.

    Identificatio

    nof

    speech

    events,

    valid

    ated

    throug

    htriang

    ulation

    with

    otherdata

    Vyg

    otskiansocioculturaland

    activ

    itytheory,lang

    uage

    socialisation,

    task

    interpretatio

    nandpreparation

    (Ochs,Wertsch,Cou

    ghlanand

    Duff).Speecheventor

    activ

    ity(H

    ymes,Scollo

    nandScollo

    n,Schriffin)

    The

    grou

    pprocessis

    shaped

    byperson

    alhistoriesandbeliefs

    aswellas

    thesocio-

    educationalcontext

    Hog

    an,Nastasi,and

    Pressley(199

    9):

    Discourse

    patterns

    andcollabo

    rativ

    escientificreason

    ingin

    peer

    andteacher-

    guided

    discussion

    s

    Twelve

    8th

    gradestud

    ents

    infour

    different

    collabo

    rativ

    egrou

    ps

    12weekscienceprojectun

    ites

    constructio

    nof

    mentalmod

    els

    onnature

    matterin

    aWIG

    (with

    outtheinform

    ationgiven)

    pedago

    gy(Perkins

    1992

    ).New

    Yorkstate.

    Participantob

    servation,

    videoandaudiorecordings.

    Groun

    dedtheory

    approach

    toanalysisof

    discou

    rse.

    Interactiveprotocols.Data

    prod

    uced

    throug

    hdiscou

    rse

    maps(Frederiksen,Roy

    and

    Chen),conceptual

    prop

    osition

    maps(N

    owak)

    Cog

    nitio

    nas

    situated

    ininterpersonalinteractions.

    Focus

    ongrou

    pprocessesand

    prod

    ucts.Und

    erstanding

    grow

    thin

    scientificreason

    ing

    interm

    sof

    both

    cogn

    itive

    and

    social

    process(Coleand

    Thagard).Transactiv

    edialog

    ues(A

    zmitiaand

    Mon

    tgom

    ery)

    Different

    discourses

    developwith

    and

    with

    outteacherpresence.

    Students

    discou

    rsewas

    morevaried

    whenon

    theirow

    n

    Szymanski(200

    3):

    Produ

    cing

    text

    throug

    htalk:

    questio

    n-answ

    ering

    activ

    ityin

    classroo

    mpeer

    grou

    ps

    Seven

    grou

    psof

    four

    3rd

    graders,nativ

    eSpanish

    speakers

    Eng

    lishliteracyun

    itof

    three

    weeks.Working

    with

    prod

    uctio

    nof

    writtenansw

    ers

    afterreadings

    inaCIRC

    prog

    ramme(Coo

    perativ

    eIntegrated

    Reading

    and

    Com

    positio

    n(M

    adden,

    Slavin,

    andStevens

    1986

    )).California,

    USA

    (Participant)ob

    servation,

    audio

    andvideotaped.

    Com

    puter

    indexedactiv

    itycoding

    .Con

    versationanalysis(G

    ail

    Jefferson),coding

    and

    describing

    conv

    ersatio

    nand

    relatin

    gconv

    ersatio

    nto

    activ

    itypatterns.

    Socio

    lingu

    istic

    approach;

    participantsin

    interaction

    orient

    toprecedingtalk

    and

    actio

    ns(G

    arfink

    el),talk

    inactiv

    ity(G

    oodw

    inand

    Goo

    dwin,Gum

    pertz)

    Talkin

    activ

    itycreates

    oppo

    rtun

    ities

    toengage

    incollabo

    rativ

    elearning

    activ

    ities,this

    encourages

    stud

    ents

    participation

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  • Analysis, synthesis and interpretation

    When introducing the meta-ethnographic approach in 1998, the main argument ofNoblit and Hare was that qualitative studies could be treated as cases to be com-pared with other cases in an interpretative analysis (Noblit and Hare 1988). Recentapplications in meta-ethnographic studies (Britten et al. 2002; Dixon-Woods et al.2005; Savin-Baden 2007; Smith, Pope, and Botha 2005) have developed andrefined Noblit and Hares procedures, and we continue in this tradition.

    Rather than considering the included studies as cases to be compared, we regardthem as texts in a scientific discourse on peer learning. By analysing how the topicis presented in the analysed studies, and working across texts, we reinterpret thefindings and conclusions in the seven studies. This implies an understanding of the-ory as identification of social rules that underlie and govern social patterns, ratherthan as law-like expressions of the nature of social behaviour (Popkewitz 1981). Interms with this, we consider the second order constructs (Schutz 1962), or interpre-tations made by the researchers, as our study object. This position enables us todescribe and discuss the interactional processes of peer learning as well as the waysin which this relates to theory and previous research. This way, a meta-ethnographicinterpretation escapes the potentially problematic assumptions about the commensu-rability of the studies as well as the problem of the context-bound character of data(Britten et al. 2002).

    Our approach can be described as involving inductive interpretative comparisonof the reported findings in the included studies. This implies several readings andre-readings of each article, comparing findings across the seven studies. A constantawareness is paid to the meaning of the finding in the original study. Extensive useof tables and grids is important at each stage of the interpretative process. Two ofthese are included in the text (Tables 1 and 2), showing categories describing simi-lar phenomena across the seven studies.

    Three stages of analyses

    The analytic process proceeds through three stages. Each stage of the analysis wascarried out by two researchers first individually, and then discussed and agreedupon by all authors. In the first stage each researcher searched the included studiesfor themes, concepts and descriptions related to the research question and examinedhow concepts used in different studies could be said to describe the same phenom-ena across the studies. This remains close to the original analysis of the studies andis termed the first order interpretation.

    The second stage is to analyse data across studies by comparing results from theincluded studies. We identified seven themes that characterized the interactional pro-cess in peer learning situations (see Table 2). These themes represent the secondorder interpretation of the studies and are identified as relevant for all includedstudies. As the themes derive from the analysis across studies, they do not directlymirror the way the issues are described in every included article. The validity ofconcepts and themes has been constantly checked in the analytical process byreturning to the original contexts of the data. As can be seen in Table 2, not allthemes appear in all seven studies, as the initial problem and focus of each studydiffers. The six themes that emerged are shown in the table below: negotiation oftask, pattern of talk, role of disagreement, trust or inclusion, teachers role andmediational means.

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  • Table

    2.Emerging

    them

    esin

    analysis.

    Themes

    Negotiatio

    nof

    task

    Patternsof

    talk

    Roleof

    disagreement

    Trustor

    inclusion

    Teachersrole

    Mediatio

    nal

    means

    Studies

    Log

    istical

    (how

    )Meaning

    (what)

    Allsup

    (200

    3)Equ

    alcontribu

    tion

    Genre

    demands

    Musical

    expression

    sfunctio

    nas

    ideasthat

    areelaborated

    incommun

    ication,

    lingu

    istic

    andmusical

    Inequalitya

    challeng

    e,prov

    iding

    room

    for

    contribu

    tions,vo

    icing

    disagreement

    Trustandinclusionare

    fore-groun

    dedas

    impo

    rtantto

    process

    Teachingwith

    implies

    change

    inroles.

    Dem

    ocratic

    education

    Musical

    genre,

    instruments,

    democratic

    ideals

    Bianchini

    (199

    7)Distribution

    ofwork,

    use

    of equipm

    ent

    Intend

    edachievem

    ent

    andlevelof

    ambitio

    n

    Disagreem

    ent

    accordingto

    status

    inequality

    Seemslow,status

    inequalitiespersist

    Focus

    onqu

    estio

    ning

    toencouragereason

    ing,

    and

    explanations

    Social

    relatio

    ns,ideas

    abou

    tscho

    ol,

    task

    Don

    athet

    al.

    (200

    5)

    Level

    ofam

    bitio

    nSeven

    speech

    events

    identified

    ininteraction,

    workto

    commun

    icate

    know

    ledg

    eandrelatio

    ns

    Elicitatio

    nof

    critiqu

    eisinstitu

    tionalised,

    critiqu

    epartof

    process

    Speecheventscontribu

    teto

    form

    ingof

    commun

    itythroug

    hmultip

    lealignm

    ents

    Mod

    ellin

    gpracticeand

    contextualising

    Structure

    ofacadem

    icdiscou

    rse,

    roles

    Elbersand

    Streefland

    (200

    0)

    Participant

    contribu

    tion

    Intend

    edachievem

    ent

    Cyclesof

    inqu

    iry

    contribu

    teto

    know

    ledg

    ebu

    ilding

    Critiq

    ueand

    disagreementop

    enforelaborationand

    diffusion

    Collectiveidea

    ofresearch

    collectiveun

    derlined,roles

    andidentitynego

    tiated

    Mod

    ellin

    gpractice,

    secure

    integration,

    reconstruct

    andsing

    leou

    texpression

    s

    Roles,toolsfor

    writin

    g,task,

    teacheras

    mod

    el

    Hog

    an,Nastasi,

    andPressley

    (199

    9)

    Distribution

    ofwork,

    use

    of equipm

    ent

    Locatetask

    with

    regard

    totim

    e,competence,

    goals

    Patternsof

    verbal

    interactionidentified

    andclassified

    with

    regard

    tokn

    owledg

    e-bu

    ildingfunctio

    n(statementun

    its)and

    with

    regard

    tointeraction(interactio

    npatterns)

    Elicitatio

    nof

    critiqu

    eanddiscussion

    son

    alternatives

    Acceptanceof

    others

    ideasandwillingn

    essto

    askforclarificatio

    nsare

    impo

    rtantprecon

    ditio

    nsforsuccess

    Questioning

    ,controlling

    with

    outdo

    mination,

    encourageexpand

    ingand

    clarificatio

    n,no

    explicit

    evaluatio

    n

    Writin

    gtools,

    roles,social

    relatio

    ns

    (Contin

    ued)

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  • Table2.

    (Contin

    ued).

    Themes

    Negotiatio

    nof

    task

    Patternsof

    talk

    Roleof

    disagreement

    Trustor

    inclusion

    Teachersrole

    Mediatio

    nal

    means

    Studies

    Log

    istical

    (how

    )Meaning

    (what)

    Kob

    ayashi

    (200

    3)Distribution

    ofwork

    Con

    tent

    and

    ambitio

    nsNegotiatio

    nof

    task,

    performance

    and

    experiencescontinues

    throug

    hwho

    leprocess

    with

    interrelations

    betweenwrittenand

    spok

    enlang

    uage

    Elabo

    ratio

    nas

    pattern

    ofinteraction

    includ

    esevaluatio

    nof

    ideas

    Use

    ofvo

    icingstrategies

    andperson

    alhistoriesto

    conv

    eymessagesin

    non

    -threateningways

    Native

    lang

    uage,

    written

    material,Pow

    erPoint,social

    relatio

    ns

    Szymanski

    (200

    3)

    Genre

    demands

    Talkin

    actio

    ncontribu

    testo

    organising

    learning

    activ

    ity.

    Identifies

    adjacency

    pairsthat

    prom

    ote

    interactionin

    prod

    ucing

    writtenansw

    ers

    Questions

    are

    follo

    wed

    byansw

    ers

    which

    arecontested

    andnego

    tiatedun

    tilagreem

    ent

    Roo

    mfordisagreement

    sign

    ifies

    trust

    Mod

    ellin

    gandscaffolding

    Teacher

    asmod

    el,task,

    text,vo

    icing

    strategy,nativ

    elang

    uage

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  • In the third stage the relationship between the themes in all studies is examinedand discussed to identify potential new insights from the comparison across studies.This third order interpretation and synthesis goes beyond the conclusions of the ori-ginal studies and emerges through discussions of the syntheses with reference to theincluded studies and existing knowledge and theory. In our study we identified oneparticular third order interpretation that is discussed in the concluding session.

    Presenting the analysis: peer relations and activities in peer-learning

    In this section we present the characteristic aspects of peer learning activities asdescribed in the included studies. Five of the six themes or second order interpreta-tions (see Table 2) structure the presentation. In our analysis we focus primarily onthe interaction between peers and draw on the research focusing on studentteacherinteraction only when relevant. In the final discussion we present our third orderinterpretation from the analysis. This is how the seven studies complement theexisting discussion on peer learning. Before turning to the presentation of themes,we will comment briefly on the studies.

    All the included studies describe environments in which the major part of theinteraction is between students. Spanning from primary till undergraduate studentsand within a wide range of subjects, the peer learning situations in the includedstudies use a set of means to promote student autonomy and agency in learning(assignment, roles, rules). Four studies from primary education weave the threeaspects closely together, and instructions are overt and detailed. The remaining threestudies from higher levels also include the three constituents. However, as the par-ticipants are older, the frames are characterised by voluntariness and implicitnessrather than role-play as in the lower age groups. Further details on the models forpeer learning implemented in the different studies are presented in Table 1.

    Negotiating task

    The first theme identified through the analysis is negotiation of task. Discussing ornegotiating a task is central to peer interaction in all studies. The importance of taskas a determinant of group interaction is discussed in literature on peer learning (Cohen1994a; Derry 1999), and task is formulated differently according to the theoreticalunderpinnings and learning goals of a program. As a consequence, programs varywith regard to how much information and details on procedure the tasks need.

    As can be seen from Table 1, this also varies in the included studies. As all theincluded studies are within a theoretical paradigm where education is regarded as acomplex, multifaceted activity, we did not expect the analysis to reveal regularitiesregarding the nature of the task and the interaction in the peer groups. However, wefound that all studies included in their analysis some common themes regardinghow students engaged with the task.

    Most of them describe negotiating task as involving both a negotiation of whatthe group of peers is going to do, and a discussion of how this should be done. Thehow-questions typically address logistical decisions regarding the practicalperformance. These could be issues such as the presentation outline (Hogan, Kobay-ashi) or the relationships between participants (Elbers, Allsup, Bianchini). Thewhat-questions address the interpretation of task intention for instance goal, thegroups ambitions, and the need for additional knowledge or information.

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  • Negotiation of task is not simply something that appears in the beginning of anactivity, but is described as reappearing throughout the peer learning activity. In thestudy by Elbers, task negotiation is described as cyclic and productive. New ideasderive from specifying task, in this instance how shadow may be used to measureheight. The discussion of task prompts new cycles, bringing the discussion forward.The same pattern of productive interaction is seen amongst the students in Szy-manskis study when they negotiate the answer to a question from an English textand its linguistic framing. In this activity students use formulations from the writtentask and in combination with competences such as the ability to switch betweenquestion-answering and answer-framing in dialogue to collaboratively fuel the inter-action. The discussions are described as a kind of genre discussion that spring fromtask specifications. The same genre discussions are found in the Kobayashi studywhen the students discuss how their presentation should be framed in order to com-municate to their audience. In some instances, recurring negotiations are, however,described as unproductive. Bianchini presents a case where the discussion betweenpeers centres round procedures and products rather than the big ideas that make upthe content of the task. One of the two groups in the Allsup study also spends a lotof time discussing genre demands and ends up dividing work into individual tasks.

    Patterns of talk

    The negotiation of task constitutes part of the pattern of talk in the peer groups.All studies, except for Bianchinis, describe patterns of communicative action thatestablish social relations and contribute to knowledge building in the group. Thereare, however, significant differences with respect to how the process is described ineach study. This may be explained by two conditions: First, the seven included stud-ies describe peer interaction in primary up till undergraduate education and withinsubjects spanning from music to science. The span in level and topic is reflected incategories emerging from the studies. Second, the studies adopt different analyticalconcepts and frameworks. Even though all studies partly share theoretical perspec-tives, this does not imply that they apply similar concepts in their analysis of conver-sation and interaction (see Table 1). This variation in use of concepts is of course achallenge in the synthesis. Because of the multitude of analytical tools, and becauselinguistic analysis is a specified field of research, the present study will not providedetailed conclusions regarding how patterns of talk are described across the includedstudies. Instead we will outline how the studies present what can be seen to consti-tute common themes in their descriptions of the communicative activity (despite thevariation). This serves as a background for analysing the role of disagreement andtrust (the two subsequent themes) in the interaction between peers.

    Four of the studies apply detailed linguistic analyses. Szymanski conducts aconversational analysis of speech and identifies different ways in which languagepromotes interaction through conventions communicated through adjacency pairs(words or phrases that semantically follow from each other). Both Donath et al. andHogan et al. analyse how language functions in communication and identify broadsets of speech events or statement units. Donath et al. categorize the speechevents with regard to how they convey knowledge as well as how they facilitaterelations. Hogan et al. demonstrate how language functions to convey knowledgeonly, and analyse interaction separately. The three other studies are less elaboratewith regard to their analysis of speech or statement units (Elbers, Kobayashi, and

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  • Allsup), and concentrate on identifying patterns of communication described ascycles of inquiry (Elbers), acts of discovery (Allsup) and negotiation of mean-ing (Kobayashi). Through descriptions of how ideas are suggested, elaborated andnegotiated, criticised, renegotiated and agreed upon, these three studies all integrateknowledge building and social interactional activities in their analyses.

    Drawing on these different ways of describing communication, the interactionalprocess in the peer groups can across the seven studies be described as continu-ous cycles of inquiry or meaning making where meaning is built and refinedthrough cyclic processes. The cycles are further described as consisting of work onideas through a set of speech events (the number and naming of these vary, and notevery study describes them in detail, but the following categorisation is an outlineof what can be identified across the seven studies): suggestions, elaborations, cri-tique and agreements. The involvement of peers in each speech event varies theymay be carried out by one peer alone, or by peers in collaboration.

    The role of disagreement and of trust

    All the included studies describe room for disagreement as an important aspect ofthe peer learning activity. If interaction, as argued in the previous section, may begenerally portrayed as cycles of meaning making, each cycle is introduced throughcontributions described as a kind of disagreement. While the influence of disagree-ment in the learning process is debated in existing theory, recent contributions tothe sociocultural discussion on learning suggest that room for disagreement is pro-ductive in the learning process (Lillejord and Dysthe 2008). Six of the studiesreflect this standpoint. Allsup, Bianchini, Donath et al., Elbers and Streefland,Hogan et al. and Szymanski describe disagreement as an institutionalised part of theinteraction between peers, encouraged through teacher modelling, roles, interactionalrules, etc. Kobayashis study transcends the school setting and carries fewer instruc-tional components.

    All but one study ascribe disagreement a generative role in interaction: byproviding room for contributions (Allsup, Hogan), and by evaluating statements andproducts (Elbers and Streefland, Kobayashi, Szymanski, Donath et al.). In contrast,Bianchini describes an instructional programme (the Complex instruction scheme)where the aim is promotion of equity, and finds that disagreement is counterproduc-tive. Social status (understood as composed of perceived academic ability and per-ceived popularity) is expected to interfere with group functioning. In order tocounteract conceived social status the teacher is expected to use dialogical tech-niques to demonstrate that there are alternative ways of being smart than demon-strated by academic achievement. Furthermore, different roles are assigned todifferent participants in the groups. Despite its explicit goal of counteracting nega-tive effects of social relations this study reports that disagreement is disruptive andthat status differences persist. Low-status students were not allowed to participateon equal terms with high-status students, and discussions on procedure and contentwere disturbed by discussions on status.

    In addition to discussing how disagreement functions in interaction, the includedstudies also discuss how disagreement is addressed. Allsup and Kobayashi bothstate that disagreement must be voiced in ways that attend to the social relationsbetween the peers. In these two studies the students are older and more individuallyresponsible for interaction in their groups, compared to the other studies. Donath

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  • et al., dealing with older students, do not directly comment upon how critique isconveyed (however, if one turns to the data from the study provided in the appen-dix of the article, it seems that the students use humour to mediate the social rela-tions when dealing with critique). Trust is an aspect that is dealt with more or lessexplicitly in the included studies (see Table 2). Based on these studies it is fair tosay that voicing of disagreement depends on a safe social atmosphere or trustwithin the social relations. In order to explore the importance of trust it is interest-ing to look to studies where the processes are reported as less successful.

    When describing situations where disagreement exists, Bianchini reports thatdisagreement or critique seems to follow pre-defined status hierarchies. Studentswith high status are free to voice disagreement, whilst students with low status arenot. Bianchini also describes interaction that undermines the safe social atmosphere.In the case reported in Hogan et al., three groups are described as functioning well,allowing disagreement and fostering productive dialogue. The fourth group needsexcessive help from the teacher in order to discuss subject matter. This group isreported to have more instances of irrelevant discussions as well as more episodesof scornful remarks to peers. Thus trust seems to be more difficult to establish inthis group. Also in Kobayashi and in Allsup instances of less well functioninggroups are reported. However, information on processes in these groups is lacking.If the description of these negative cases is added to the picture of how peer learn-ing activities are portrayed in the included studies, interaction between peers seemsto be understood with reference both to the design of the peer learning programmebut also to how the existing social relations between peers interfere with programmeintentions.

    The role of mediational means

    This leads to the last theme identified in the analysis, the described role of toolsin the peer learning activity. As recorded in Table 1, all the included studies arereported to have an instructional design consisting of a combination of a concretetask, roles for participants and rules for interaction, as well as relying on traditionaltools such as blackboard, paper, pens, etc. When elements in the programme designare described as significant for interaction, they can be regarded as means mediatingthe interaction between individuals and between individuals and their environment.

    All seven studies describe interaction as facilitated or organised in differentways through the use of language, procedures, concrete tools or ideas or conceptualtools. As stated in the theory section, socio cultural analysis understands humanaction and its social, cultural and historical context as linked through mediationaltools or means (Wertsch 1998). All studies describe mediated action; two of themuse the expression tools (Elbers and Kobayashi). In order to synthesise how med-iated action is described we use the term mediational means. Both terms are usedwithin socio cultural theory, but the term means gives a broader association andsuits describing a wide range of observed aids for action and interaction.

    The mediational means described as most important and profound to interactionis, in line with socio cultural theory, language (Wertsch 1998). The analyses of lan-guage show that students ways of communicating, and the ways in which differentkinds of dialogues emerge in the groups, are central to how activity in peer learningis understood. This is particularly thematised in the two studies of students workingwith English as a second language (Kobayashi 2003; Szymanski 2003).

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  • The most central mediating means in peer learning, besides language, is thetask. All studies report that task is communicated through written instructions orquestions. These instructions are said to have a central position in interaction andmay serve several functions. They are described as coordinating peers in interactionwhen task is negotiated. They also serve to orient peers towards the subject matterby providing information or questions. Last, they are described as providing instruc-tions informing peers on how to set up experiments in order to explore the topic inquestion. Thus they constitute the element giving direction to the content, thewhat, of the interaction.

    Rules for how to play roles in the peer group are also described as media-tional means, and are important for the structuring of interaction, the how ininteraction. The instructional designs vary with regard to the degree roles arespecified: students are directly (Elbers, Hogan, Szymanski, Bianchini) or indirectly(Donath, Kobayashi, Allsup) assigned roles to play in interaction. In some studiesthe roles are specified with explicit interactional rules on how they are to beenacted (Elbers, Bianchini, Szymanski). In others the students are instructed todevelop rules through interaction according to democratic and cooperative ideals(Allsup), in yet others there are implicit shared expectations for how roles are tobe enacted in a research community (Donath). These roles and the rules for howto enact them also function as mediating means as they provide patterns ofbehaviour (providing authority, sharing of responsibility, etc.), and ways of relat-ing to the subject matter (exploring and non conclusive, critical, etc.).

    Concrete, material means, such as blackboards, pen and paper, PowerPoint andexperimental instruments, do not structure the whats and hows of interaction.However they are described as facilitating interaction through providing opportuni-ties for visualising thoughts and opinions and thus opening space for discussions,and by structuring communication or contributions to communication.

    Relational knowledge as a mediating means

    In addition to the more apparent means mentioned so far, the studies describeinstances where students relational competence functions as a mediational means.The included studies in different ways describe how students knowledge of eachother influences interaction. We have chosen to term these as descriptions of rela-tional knowledge to indicate the way in which knowledge is applied in interaction.Relational knowledge is knowledge of fellow peers background or personality, orshared history regarding status and interactional patterns in the peer group. Itincludes typical ways of acting in different situations based on and learned throughinteraction over time. One example is found in the Bianchini study that shows howexisting status hierarchies provide rules regarding voicing of opinions as well ashow voiced opinions should be received and acted upon. Students who score lowon status are not listened to and rarely voice their opinions. With regard to interac-tion in the groups, students knowledge of own and others status therefore func-tions as mediational means.

    Another example of how relational knowledge is applied to mediate action isfound in the Kobayashi study on how students use voicing strategies and role-play.Students knowledge of each other and of each others history is called upon inorder to convey critique in a non-confronting way. For example this knowledgeenables the students to imitate the teacher when voicing critique, signalling that this

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  • is not to be taken personally. Yet another example of how students make use oftheir knowledge of each other in interaction can be seen in Hogans study, wherestudents are described as reflecting upon how their presentation might be critiquedby other students in class. As part of their task they are expected to present anddefend a model of physical matter in front of their class. In preparing for this pre-sentation, they draw upon knowledge of how interaction with peers might proceed;they anticipate objections and refine their argument and presentation. In the extract ofdata provided in the Donath et al. study, a group conversation where students ask forassistance from their seniors in order to improve a poster, students communicateawareness of their supervisors expectations through use of self-irony and humour.The Allsup study provides a last example of the importance of relational knowledgethrough emphasising how students knowledge of each others musical competence aswell as knowledge on how to interact with others in order to encourage participationand to make them feel valuable, is crucial to productivity in interaction.

    Discussion

    The meta-ethnography has identified a number of similarities in how the includedstudies describe peer learning activities. Turning to the research questions, our anal-ysis shows that the peer learning activity is described as a communicative processcharacterised by three distinct features: (a) it relies on mediational means; (b) itneeds trust and a safe social environment; and (c) it allows disagreement. Applyingsociocultural theory in the analyses of peer learning across studies entails a changedperspective and thus contributes to the research field of peer learning. Rather thanexamining how models of peer learning function and how different parts of themodel can be refined in order to improve the output, we have in this study con-ceived of peer learning as guided interaction where actors make use of variousavailable cultural means. Our synthesis shows that this foregrounds the interdepen-dency of the involved actors in addition to the instructional design. In research onpeer learning, interdependency is a recurring topic. It is, however, frequently pre-sented as something that has to be arranged for through elements of the instruc-tional design such as characteristics of the task, roles, rewards, and instructions.Our synthesis shows that there is a potential productiveness in interdependency independently of the instructional design. The presence of interdependency appearsin the findings on the importance of the quality of the peer relations ensuring trustand allowing disagreement.

    In sociocultural theory the issue of interdependency is discussed using constructssuch as community of learners and intersubjectivity in education. It has been con-cretized as shared focus of attention, respectful disagreement and human actionthrough caring (Matusov 2001). We find, however, in the presented synthesis, thatsuch a theorising does not include direct reference to the breadth of students exist-ing social relationships in time and space. Discussing relationships in education ithas, as stated initially, been delimited to how characteristics such as gender, status,roles, etc., interfere with learning. Other aspects of relationships such as friendshipare addressed mainly with reference to how they contribute to the social aspects ofschooling. However there are also studies showing that friendship has an impact onthe learning processes or conditions for learning (George 2007; Riese 2010),indicating that the interdependence from relationships may be of relevance whenresearching learning processes.

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  • A second contribution relating to the description of the process is therefore thefinding that students draw upon relational knowledge in interaction, and the relevanceof their relations outside the educational context for the peer learning activity. We willelaborate on this third order interpretation of our synthesis by interrogating into thedescriptions of situations where peer learning is considered as less successful.

    When things do not proceed according to plan

    The analyses of peer learning in the seven included studies show that peer learningactivities do not always proceed according to plan. Four of the studies includedescription of negative cases, i.e. descriptions of situations where interactionbetween peers did not proceed as planned, did not produce expected outcomes ordid not work as productively as in other cases.

    In the Kobayashi study the analysis is based on one group that is particularly suc-cessful compared to other groups. The groups success is primarily explained as aresult of positive social interaction rooted in the history and competence of the partici-pating students. In the Hogan et al. study, four groups of students are included. Theanalysis of statement types within discussions where peers construct knowledge,builds on material from three groups described as well-functioning. The fourth groupis not included in this part of the analysis reportedly because the data on knowledgebuilding was insufficient. Hogan et al. report that this group had more scornfulremarks amongst peers but also less subject-related discussions. The study concludesby referring to Rogoff (1998) in saying that: A satisfactory explanation [of variationof success both within and between groups] would have to integrate personal, inter-personal and cultural planes of analysis (Hogan, Nastasi, and Pressley 1999, 427).This leads us to a brief reflection on the less successful parts of the studies.

    Two studies explain the negative cases by referring to the instructional design orframing conditions. The Bianchini study reports for example that discussion seldommoves beyond products and procedures and that the programme fails to succeed inreducing existing status differences amongst peers. Shortcomings in design andinstructions are mentioned as reasons for lack of success. However it is interestingto note that this study discusses how existing peer relations influence interaction,but from a negative perspective, a plausible perspective given the projectsintentions in combating status differences. The Allsup study compares the work intwo groups where one group works well, interacting and building on productivepeer relations. The other group is described as solving the problems it encountersby dividing the task into individual subtasks rather than cooperating. Allsup arguesthat the groups (self-dependent) choice of musical genre may explain the less inter-dependent cooperation in this group whereas the success of the other group isexplained with reference to the attention paid to the social relations in the group,involving peers relational knowledge.

    The information on the so-called negative cases is insufficient since neither ofthe studies was designed to describe and explain why interaction is more successfulin some groups than in others. However, the difference in activity between groupswithin some of the studies underlines that peer learning activity must be understoodas depending on more than the implementation of the instructional design. Thenoted differences in the social relationships between groups functioning well asopposed to those that are not successful, suggest that the issue of interdependenceor intersubjectivity is a relevant criterion for productivity.

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  • From the analysis the interaction within peer learning can be understood asmediated by tools such as language as well as material means (pens and paper,PowerPoint, etc.) and socially instituted means (tasks and roles). But, the analysissimilarly shows that peers relational knowledge mediates interaction. Relationalknowledge can originate both inside and outside of the classroom. It may consist ofconventionalised patterns of interaction, concrete shared history, as well as concep-tions of peers characteristics, and their relations to self and others; in short: socialpatterns. The descriptions of how this mediational means works indicate that it medi-ates the process in less intended and planned-for ways. Relational knowledge might,as in the Allsup and Kobayashi case, contribute to the productivity of the process or,as in the cases of Bianchini and Hogan et al., interfere with and hamper the instruc-tional design and thus influence negatively the peer learning process.

    Based on the results from our synthesis we argue that relational knowledge canbe understood as a mediational means in analysis. As the topic relational knowledgeemerges as a third order interpretation from the synthesis, the varying extent towhich it is elaborated in the individual studies restricts more specific conclusionsregarding how different forms of relational knowledge shape interactional processes.In order to understand nuances in the productivity of peer learning processes, futureresearch should investigate the importance of peer knowledge. The synthesis alsoindicates that it might be fruitful to compare groups working well to those that donot function according to norms of instructional designs. Future research exploringthe impact of relational knowledge should consider research designs where differentgroups are compared regarding composition and functioning, and focus on how rela-tional knowledge interacts with instructional design in creating interdependency.

    Applying a sociocultural perspective on a synthesis of existing research haselaborated the understanding of peer learning and identified important issues for fur-ther research. How to present the data supporting the analysis is a challenge in thisapproach given the amount of data and restrictions on space. It is, however, ourbelief that this methodological approach adds rigour to the work on generating newresearch questions based on existing research literature, and that it has proved valu-able as an additional way of building knowledge in qualitative research.

    The sociocultural perspective used in the synthesis added the analytical conceptmediational means to the investigation of peer learning. This concept enabled us todescribe ways in which peer relations influence interaction in peer learning. A fur-ther exploration into the relationship between relational knowledge and instructionaldesign might generate more analytical tools. As noted, the challenge in applying asociocultural framework will be the incorporation of the socially and historicallyextended relations of students when analysing interaction in the classroom.

    As to the relevance of our results to practitioners, the most important conclusionfrom this meta-study of peer learning practices is that in order to make peer learningwork, it is of crucial importance to pay attention to the social relations that existbetween members of a group prior to the design of the peer learning programme andin the development of the programme. In peer group interaction, peer relations mustbe perceived as integral to the design and instructional practices of the peer learningprogramme as they mediate action in both productive and less productive manners.

    Notes on contributorsHanne Riese PhD is a Post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Education, University of Bergen,Norway. Her research interests are in entrepreneurship in education, the role of friendship in

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  • learning and qualitative methodology. Her latest article, Enacting entrepreneurship education.The interaction of personal and professional interests in mini-enterprises, is due to be publishedin Cambridge Journal of Education.

    Akylina Samara is a regional leader of the Educational Psychology Services in uppersecondary education, region Nord/Hardanger/Voss, County of Hordaland, Norway. She haspublished recently in Issues in Educational Research, UNIPED and Higher EducationResearch and Development.

    Slvi Lillejord is the head of the Department of Teacher Education and School ResearchFaculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Oslo. Her research interests are inleadership, individual and organisational learning, instruction, assessment and learning. Shehas published recently in International Journal of Web Based Communities, Perspectives ofEducation and Journal of Education and Work.

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    Appendix 1. Guidelines for publication of qualitative research studies inpsychology and related fields (Elliott, Fischer, and Rennie 1999)

    A. Publishability Guidelines Shared by Both Qualitative and QuantitativeApproaches

    (1) Explicit scientific context and purpose(2) Appropriate methods(3) Respect for participants(4) Specification of methods(5) Appropriate discussion(6) Clarity of presentation(7) Contribution to knowledge

    B. Publishability Guidelines Especially Pertinent to Qualitative Research(1) Owning ones perspective(2) Situating the sample(3) Grounding in examples(4) Providing credibility checks(5) Coherence(6) Accomplishing general vs. specific research tasks(7) Resonating with readers

    Appendix 2. Description of the included studies

    The first study by Allsup (2003) is an ethnographic study of a four-month bandprogram in the USA. Two groups of students aged 1417 were recruited to theprogram through school but attended outside school hours. The program wasdesigned to promote small group music making in the form of learning communi-ties and built on participants own interests. The study addresses the question ofhow groups evolve and define themselves through the practice of composing andanalysing music. The research was conducted as participant observation and philo-sophical inquiry, with the researcher acting in the role of the program instructor.Data were validated through constant reflection upon the process of data production,and through discussions with students involved (membership validation). The theo-retical approach of the study was sociocultural theory. The studys main finding isthat working in communities could be described as actions of discovery. This meansthat new (musical) concepts are discovered and worked upon, through a material

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  • process of democracy strongly associated with freedom, community, caring andfriendship.

    The second study by Bianchini (1997) addresses the strengths and limitations ofthe Complex Instruction model, a model using group work in small groups, inpromoting excellence and equity in science education. A range of methods, quanti-tative and qualitative including participant observation and qualitative interviews,were applied in the study of a class of sixth graders in the USA. Specifically thequestion of how issues of equity and context influence student construction of sci-entific knowledge in group interaction was addressed. The main conclusion of thestudy is that due to shortcomings in task, instructions, and use of instructional ele-ments, students discussions were primarily logistical and technical and seldom gen-erated new ideas or revealed differences in understanding of the subject. Statusdifferences remained and students conceptions of equity did not change.

    The study by Donath et al. (2005) is part of a project investigating how under-graduate students in the USA learn by communicating their research to one anotherin small groups consisting of other students, as well as faculty members, in weeklysessions. The study addresses the problem of understanding the process of activelearning (in terms of learners control and awareness of their own learning) andhow participants bring the process about through language. Research was conductedthrough participant observation and one specific session is presented in the paper.This session was analysed within the context of the total project using socioculturaltheory. The main finding is that multiple alignments between group membersincrease group cohesion and break ground for incipient community ties beneficial tolearning.

    The fourth study by Elbers and Streefland (2000) investigates how ideasmigrate in a classroom of 1113-year-olds in the Netherlands. Following a classthat works on a longitudinal maths project, where students are attributed the rolesof researchers in a research community, the problem addressed is: How is jointunderstanding created, how are ideas shared between participants and what discur-sive tools are used for achieving this? A project lasting 45 months is studiedthrough participant observation, video and audio recordings. The data were analysedand discussed within sociocultural theory. The main finding of the study is that newpatterns of talk are developed through continuous cycles of discussion.

    Hogan, Nastasi, and Pressley (1999) examine the interaction of four smallgroups of eighth grade students the USA to find out how students worked with andwithout teacher support in dealing with ill-defined science problems. The studyapplies participant observation and analyses data in a combined constructivist andsociocultural theoretical framework. The study concludes that there were substantialdifferences in discourse when the teacher guided the discourse compared to whenthe students worked alone. Students discourse was more varied when they workedon their own, the teacher was important in eliciting conclusions but some groupsdid attain higher levels of reasoning within peer group.

    The sixth study by Kobayashi (2003) investigates how the extended context oflearning, i.e. cooperation within and outside the classroom, functions within the per-spective of learning communities. A group of Japanese students in Canada startingtheir preparatory studies in English were followed throughout a semester by usingparticipant observation. They prepared for a presentation of a collaborative taskboth inside and outside school, and specific attention was devoted to a group ofthree students. Interactional and conversational data were analysed within a

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  • sociocultural perspective. The main finding is that the group process is shaped bypersonal histories and beliefs as well as by the socio-educational context.

    The study by Szymanski (2003) examines how students in peer groups interactand organise their literacy learning activity when producing written answers toquestions from given stories. Participant observation in a Californian school wasused to study interaction of native Spanish-speaking 3rd graders in an English liter-acy class. The study shows how talk in activity creates opportunities to engage incollaborative learning activities, and how this encourages students participation inthe peer group.

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