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The Benefits of Peer Learning in Higher Education

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The very foundation upon which institutions of higher education are built is peer learning: the idea that students learn and grow more effectively through interaction and collaboration with one another than they would through individual study. 

Anyone can buy a book or surf the web to expand their knowledge on a given subject, but colleges and universities provide the unique opportunity to join a larger community of learners to better facilitate the process of attaining knowledge.

Within this community, individuals engage in peer learning that is both horizontal and vertical. Horizontal peer learning occurs when there is no clear teacher/learner relationship, simply two or more individuals learning from one another through the mutual exchange of ideas. This takes place when students discuss topics in class, work in a study group, or collaborate on group projects. Vertical peer learning, on the other hand, takes place when one student teaches another within the framework of a teacher/learner relationship. This can occur through one-on-one tutoring, supplemental instruction, student-led small group reviews, or when one student explains a concept to another to help them gain a better understanding.

All forms of peer learning provide great value to students, but the benefits of vertical peer learning can be more easily quantified. Consequently, this article will examine a typical peer tutoring relationship where student and tutor meet on a weekly basis.

Peer Tutoring is a Two-Sided Learning Experience

For the student, the benefits are rather straightforward. Through these tutoring sessions, the student gains a better understanding of the information at hand and gains an insight into how the tutor learns, which can in turn improve their own learning habits. Furthermore, research has shown that personalized attention and feedback are both extremely important when it comes to learning new things. This kind of personalized attention is very difficult for a professor to provide to all of their students; so, peer tutoring is an excellent way to bridge the gap.

For the tutor, on the other hand, the benefits are a bit more nuanced. First and foremost, the tutor reinforces their own understanding of the material by virtue of working through new ways to explain concepts and express ideas. Beyond this, however, the tutor develops a much wider range of soft skills that will benefit them in many facets of life moving forward. Among these skills are communication, dependability, selflessness, teamwork, collaboration, confidence, organization, flexibility, and the ability to work under pressure.

Tutor Development

In acting as a peer tutor, an individual demonstrates a deeper level of understanding than is necessary to perform well in the classroom where students can sometimes get by off of memorization alone. When tutoring, it is not enough to be able to rattle off a string of facts because the student already has access to the textbook those facts are pulled from. A tutor must therefore go beyond the “What” of the course and into the “Why” so as to successfully impart said understanding unto the student.

To do this, a tutor must demonstrate to their student the underlying connections and larger concepts that tie together course information. Not only does this lead to a better understanding of course material overall but, more specifically, it leaves the student with an improved mental organization of the material, which results in an increased ability to retrieve and apply the underlying information.

Ultimately, through this exchange, both the tutor and the student develop valuable skills that will benefit them throughout the rest of their academic pursuits and professional careers. Consequently, peer tutoring is the best way to increase retention and drive career readiness for college students.