Learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.

Problem solving man and womanLearners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation. That’s number 10 of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

You could fill a library with words that have been written about social and collaborative learning in the past decade. Common practice is based on a belief that learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.  Peer co-operation may assume a number of different forms: discussion groups, seminars, syndicate and “breakout” groups; social media; proctoring and mentoring – where learners help, supervise or assess other less able learners; self-directed, moderated and un-moderated study groups. I believe that pairing and grouping people to study, discover and practise together improves their results in assessment. But is it true? Where are the unchallengeable authorities, where is the incontrovertible evidence and the body of proof to support my belief? Here are some questions on which I’d like to ask you to ponder:

  1. Is it true that social learning makes learners feel more confident in their own and one another’s talents and capabilities, and gives them a more positive attitude towards the process of learning?
  2. Does group work enable learners to observe, copy and learn from one another?
  3. Does it prevent them for straying away from the task?
  4. Will it encourage individuals to share and celebrate their own and others’ accomplishments?
  5. Won’t it lead inevitably to a minority of learners dominating proceedings so that they inhibit the opportunity of others to learn?
  6. Can peer interaction in small groups help slower and underachieving students to learn and succeed in their learning?
  7. Do peer coaches really benefit through learning more about a subject by preparing and giving lessons to others?
  8. Does this approach only work in academia and in courses that involve extended periods of drill and practice?
  9. Is it necessary for partners in a learning task to be physically in the same place? When they connect through a computer or phone, don’t they do at least as well and often better than when they work alone? Is it sensible to believe that online learners can connect with one another more frequently and with more regularity than they can do face-to-face?
  10. Is the collective wisdom of learners as valuable as the specialist knowledge of experts? Learners possess a wealth of life experiences that you can acknowledge, tap and exploit so everyone can learn through co-operative study with peers they trust and respect.
  11. Will their attitude toward themselves, towards the course content and towards the other party improve when a learner is partnered with another?

I have at least as many questions as I have answers on this theme.

As for peer-coaching (or any form of coaching) I believe it will not add very much to a course in which testing and assessment is very frequently used, but that if you use a valid and reliable pre-test coaching will bring big benefits – far more than if you leave assessment to the end.

I do not favour competition except in the case of groups where the culture and spirit is already highly competitive. People learn to avoid the things that hurt them and so competition might provoke them to strive for success or to keep out of the way of failure. I feel sure that co-operation makes learners productive and successful, whereas competition makes them focus on grades and beating others to win extrinsic rewards rather than on understanding learning material and working well within a team.

Just putting people together to work on a learning task does not guarantee that they will co-operate. They also need some structure and a process to raise the chance of their really sharing the work in a way that contributes to the learning of both.

So there you have it, but are the views I’ve shared here just blind faith, or can they be substantiated?

What do you think and what do you know?