Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class

Steve Volk, September 21, 2015

Students, if we’re doing our job right, will learn more outside of class than inside. After all, that’s one of the great advantages of being at a residential college where the opportunities to pursue conversations begun in the classroom are abundant. Many of these exchanges will be serendipitous, students sharing ideas during dinner or when laboring away on neighboring treadmills at the gym. (That is what they’re talking about, isn’t it?) As teachers, we are always pleased to hear of extra-mural discussions that we didn’t plan, the study sessions or the students who, finding themselves in the same place in the library, discuss an economics problem they are having trouble with. Not to put too crass a spin on it, but this actually is one of the things that parents and students are paying for when they shell out for a costly residential liberal arts college: the opportunity to be with and learn from talented, creative, bright, and supportive peers.


Miniature of the Apparition of Michael. Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340. British Library.

With all this said, there is surprisingly little research on the cognitive and social benefits of peer instruction in higher education, but what exists is both good and very supportive of the process. I refer in particular to a 2001 volume edited by David Boud, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Samson, Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning With and From Each Other (Routledge). That book was recently reissued in a Kindle edition (2014), and it’s worth quoting at some length.

“As teachers,” they write, “we often fool ourselves in thinking that what we do is necessarily more important for student learning than other activities in which they engage. Our role is vital. However, if we place ourselves in the position of mediating all that students need to know, we not only create unrealistic expectations but we potentially deskill students by preventing them from developing the vital skills of effectively learning from each other needed in life and work. The skill of obtaining accurate information is not learned by being given accurate information by a teacher but through practice in discerning how to judge the accuracy of the information we receive” (p. 2).

Peer Instruction and Peer Learning

We are fortunate to have a number of superb peer-instruction opportunities at Oberlin, including the Writing Associates, with decades of experience, and the more recently formed OWLS (Oberlin Workshop & Learning Sessions), students who provide peer instruction in most of the sciences and math. These are exceptionally good resources and if your students aren’t aware of their programs, you should fill them in.

Technology can also play a role in bolstering out-of-class peer-learning opportunities, particularly the use of simple on-line applications, such as discussion boards, blogs, or other mechanisms for asynchronous discussions after the class is over. But I’ll save that topic for a later article.

Here I’d like to focus more on the opportunities to support reciprocal peer learning outside of class. (The “Article of the Week” from September 6 focused on encourage peer learning through discussions inside the class.)

Working at DeskThere are a wide range of peer-learning opportunities, particularly at residential colleges, that share similar characteristics: they are mutually beneficial to all students involved, involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas, insights, and experiences among the participants, and underscore the importance of moving beyond tasks and assignments that highlight independent learning (e.g., reading an assigned chapter) and toward interdependent or mutual learning. As opposed to the spontaneous opportunities for reciprocal peer-learning that happen all the time, these are strengthened by planning and proper scaffolding on the part of the instructor.

So, what kinds of skills can be mobilized in peer learning contexts:

  • To begin, the social skills involved in the very act of arranging to meet with others (an act that is easier for some students than others).
  • The skills involved in organizing and planning for the extra-mural session.
  • Collaborative skills: dividing the work among team members and insuring that all are contributing to a collective goal.
  • Communication skills: listening, presenting, challenging, and teaching.
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills: dealing with differences of opinion, planning and negotiation.
  • Assessment and reflection skills: giving and receiving feedback, learning to productively and helpfully critique the contributions of others and as well as assessing one’s own input.
  • Skills of critical inquiry: Not that it will happen every time, but often interdependent learning outside of class provides students the time they need to argue and defend their positions, something that may be lacking during the class, and to modify those positions in light of stronger arguments. Discussions outside of class seem more amenable to silences, moment where nothing is said and participants are absorbing what was said and what comes next.
  • And, of course, learning the material. It’s an old saw but nonetheless true: you learn best when you have to teach something, and peer learning is a type of teaching for students.

Working with/through Difference

Reciprocal peer learning can also help students understand the importance of working with (and through) difference. Social context is highly relevant to the learning experience, and students’ learning experiences are significantly influenced by whom they are learning with/from and their own experiences of comfort or safety. Gender, ethnicity, and race, as well as other differences (disability, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.) shape learning contexts and can have an impact on how peers learn from each other. Faculty may choose to address the social context of learning by constructing outside-of-class peer learning activities that emphasize cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and shared responsibility and where difference is seen as implicit, without directly raising the issue. Or they can draw explicit attention to working with difference from the start, emphasizing the importance of building on difference and recognizing and confronting oppressive behaviors.


‘Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson’ (Philadelphia, 1813) cartoon by artists Samuel Kennedy and William Charles,Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What Activities?

While some of the most productive reciprocal peer learning opportunities are unplanned (the student equivalent of faculty parking-lot conversations), others can and should be designed into the course to take greatest advantage of the opportunities. These will work best, as Cohen and Samson argue (“Designing Peer Learning,” chapter 2 in the above mentioned volume), when we understand learning as a social as well as an individual activity, when we foreground the importance of skills such as collaboration and cooperation, and when students come to value the importance of critique, are able to listen (and hear) others, and can develop a capacity to work with their peers’ ideas.

Here are some ideas, taken from the Cohen-Samson chapter and augmented by my own experiences:

  • Preparation for class facilitation: When students are in charge of facilitating classes (usually seminars), they will be required to meet outside of class time (besides meeting with the instructor). These sessions work best when the students have a clear set of expectations for what a successful facilitation will look like.
  • Similarly, small groups can be assigned to present topics in class that require further preparation outside of the class session. These can be aided by allowing some class time for groups to cohere, schedule, and assign tasks for their first meeting.
  • Students involved in research can plan joint meetings with the reference librarians, present each other with work-in-progress reports, feedback and suggestions, or collectively develop questions to bring back to the class.
  • For students involved in community-based projects, time out of class can be used for debriefing sessions (in pairs or small groups).
  • For any writing project, students can bring drafts to workshop with their peers. As assignments near their due date, these sessions can also be used to peer mark the papers, giving the students an opportunity to discuss why they gave the grades they did and the changes they would encourage to strengthen the paper.
  • You can set up out-of-class meetings as “ice-breaking” activities at the start of the semester, a way to help students get to know each other.
  • Faculty can plan out-of-class activities for students in specific classes that explicitly foreground difference around culture-specific or gendered activities, address tensions between the task and the process, or are designed to address group dynamics, and that are formed of groups composed of students who bring different levels of knowledge and experience, the potential for differences in power, or are mixed in terms of race, ethnicity or other differences, if known. The decision to select some strategies might be made with the intention of helping students develop these abilities by working among themselves, whereas others might be made with the understanding that the students will be able to manage these differences effectively so that particular learning outcomes can be achieved without having to address broader issues.
  • Extra-class peer sessions can be used as a substitute for some kinds of tutorials. As mentioned above, peer instructors in writing (Writing Associates) and in the sciences and math (OWLS) are most often available for these purposes, but pairing students of different strengths for extra-mural work can also be a useful approach.
  • Outside-of-class sessions can be used as a strategy to address specific difficulties that are pertinent to your classes: to give students more practice in verbal presentation, to pair English language learners with skilled English speakers, etc.
  • As a means of helping students provide support for each other while they are engaged in individually assessed tasks, allowing for students to hear constructive feedback on their progress.
  • To model work groups that students will likely encounter after college (e.g. in computer science, design-oriented classes, or scientific research).
  • To address non-content related issues that have surfaced in the class: perhaps you are concerned that you have not created the kind of positive learning climate you think is essential for significant learning. It is possible that forming groups of students outside of class to address the issue and return with positive recommendations is one approach to think about. (There are potential downsides to this approach as well, so think carefully about the issues you face before trying this route.)

In summary, we are fortunate to teach in a context that allows for a substantial amount of reciprocal peer learning outside of class. How do you take advantage of it?

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