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Want to learn something new? Don't ask the expert

August 18, 2018

Educators love to talk about how people learn; the idea that we can do better for the next generation is heartening. It’s also increasingly recognised as important, given the future dependency that the current generation will have on future children—thanks in part to increased life expectancy.

ASQA’s focus on student satisfaction has brought interest back to training quality, bringing new initiatives into Australian education to improve student outcomes. RTOs who initiate proven learning concepts into their classrooms will see the fruition of decades-long education research.

The broad field of learning theory grew tremendously from the 1960s onwards as academics dove into areas of cognitivism and social constructivism, a reaction to the more rudimentary drills-and-practice approaches from earlier in the century. These fields mostly hinged on behavioural observations and learner output, with many claims that they didn’t adhere to true science.

Recently, educational neuroscience has arrived to both prove and disprove many educational theories which were long held dear. One line of learning theory in particular has received increased attention from institutions as a result—the concept of peer learning.

A typical classroom format has usually one expert and many learners. This is due to cost and supply-and-demand capacity, and throughout history has left learners with an issue. What if they need more clarification than what the expert has the time to give to them?

The obvious solution—and one anyone who’s been in a classroom can relate to—is to turn to another learner, someone who knows slightly more about what’s being taught and can assist with information discovery.

What some academics have long claimed, and what educational neuroscience is now validating, is that this issue of expert-learner imbalance isn’t an issue at all. Using peers to facilitate learning among each other is an underutilised opportunity in most school and university environments, and can lead to far greater learning outcomes when done successfully.

When we think about student learning, we need to consider the dynamics that lead to new learning experiences, as opposed to the simple information recall we’ve previously accepted as the sign that something’s been learned.

There’s still no definite answer on what exactly happens when someone learns or what the most efficient learning method is, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: people learn most effectively when they consciously think about learning.

An expert has often long-since ingrained the idea which they’re trying to share, and so the actual memory of learning it (and how they arrived at their ‘aha’ moment) has become faded. An expert-learner relationship gulf arises between the respective capabilities of the two.

Besides the recency advantage, peers are also more connected by discourse style and levels. If you imagine language to be like a series of Lego blocks, experts will deal efficiently in completed parts, whereas learners are still making sense of individual blocks. Peers can assist each other by speaking the same language, creating more relevant examples, analogies, and learning pathways.

When it comes to a new idea or topic, relevance sometimes beats efficiency.

Consider handwriting. By the time you’re an adult, it’s so intuitive and simple that you probably don’t even use conscious concentration to do it. From a neurological and fine-motor skills perspective, it’s extraordinarily complex.

Academics break the micro tasks down into terms like directional trajectory, topological change, and primitive decomposition. Most of us have mastered these things without ever knowing what they’re called, but they’re all essential Lego parts involved with the task of handwriting.

The truth is, we’d struggle to pull apart the elements of writing the letter ‘a’, but a child who has recently succeeded in doing so after a change in their directional trajectory will likely have a better chance of explaining it clearly and specifically to another child who’s struggling.

A 2011 experiment from Ohio University compared two groups of sixth-grade students’ reading and comprehension skills using the QRI standard over a four-week period. One group engaged twice a week in a structured peer-assisted environment as they read prescribed texts, actively retelling and critiquing each other as the new content was consumed. Another group read independently for the same amount of time.

At the end of the experiment, the students who had worked in the peer-assisted environment scored significantly and resoundingly higher on the QRI measure.

Many universities, such as California State University, have formalised this approach into what is called reciprocal peer tutoring (RPT), often using senior undergraduates to tutor first-year students. RPT has led to higher exam scores, higher student satisfaction, and reduced student stress.

On a grander scale, many industries now have a significant online knowledge-hub, usually taking the form of a popular open website. For software developers, this is undoubtedly Stack Overflow, which operates as an open forum in which users can post and answer specific programming questions. Its popularity over other online learning resources may point to its strong form: Stack Overflow is the 63rd most visited website in the world, while Coursera—the world’s largest MOOC—is ranked 692nd.

Training companies, especially RTOs delivering accredited training, should create a formalised approach to peer learning in order to increase the speed and depth of student outcomes. Given ASQA’s renewed focus on student satisfaction, peer learning can potentially power two important RTO initiatives in parallel.

However, the quality of the peer learning needs to be considered, and here structure is key—check out The University of Queensland’s guide to getting started with this learning domain.