“Breathing New Life” into Learning: Peer Teaching and How it Works

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending a Colloquium hosted by our English Department. Dr. Jo Devereux and Anne Young, a PhD candidate in our department, presented their separate talks on “Teaching Across Class and Disciplinary Divides” (which could have easily been a panel at NAVSA 2014). While the talks touched on various aspects of class (classification, social status, and issues of poverty), it was interesting that both talks ended by gesturing towards the matter of teaching in the classroom.

Dr. Devereux’s talk on Princess Louise (Queen Victoria’s second youngest daughter) as a successful sculptor referenced a new exciting techno-feature in London, England. Merely by waving your smartphone over a barcode on a statue, your phone will ring and say, for example, “Sherlock Holmes is on the phone for you” and you will then hear the ‘voice’ (by an actor) of the famous literary detective himself.

As the article states, the project is partially to “breathe new life into weary landmarks”, which Dr. Devereux used to effectively close her talk by asking how we might effectively teach history to our students without “ventriloquising” its important players.

As someone who specializes in the Victorian period, I feel that this is a particularly important question. I want to find a way to get my students interested in the time period but certainly not at the expense of the period’s integrity or the potential eliding of the period’s political, cultural, and/or social issues.

Context, of course, is everything. So how can we still have “fun” without taking away from what’s important?

If you’re a fellow teacher, you may have experienced some difficulty in competing with technology for your students’ attention. I am a great lover of technology and certainly intend to explore how it can be more effectively incorporated into the classroom (for example, see Dr. Karen Bourrier’s use of “Storify” with her students), but my current “project” is more about distracting students from their technology. Shocking, I know. As if we could ever ply students away from their laptops.

As preposterous as it sounds, Dr. Solga and I managed to get students “distracted” enough so that they tried their hands at a number of “Peer Teach” exercises over the last few weeks. As I plan to submit my idea to the Teaching Support Centre for “Best Teaching Idea”, I won’t put up the entire thing (because of course it’s just SO awesome you’d want to steal it), but I’ll give you an overall sense of what’s involved.

The idea in a nutshell: get students to explore an idea/concept/theme/question they themselves don’t quite grasp, research it independently outside the class, and then teach said findings to the rest of the class. In summation: learning by teaching.


  • Push students out of their comfort zone;
  • Work through any questions or confusion students have about any concept/theme/idea regarding class material;
  • “Teach” findings to the rest of the class in a creative, dynamic, and productive way;
  • Produce and generate continuous and organic class discussion.

One great thing about this idea is that you can do it in so many different formats. There’s the usual “Think, Pair, Share” (students work in pairs, fine-tune their thinking, and ‘share’ the idea with the class) and the up-and-coming “Long Table Discussion” which involves students sitting down together, as they would at a dinner party, and begin a discussion about the week’s readings.

As a practice run, we tried a “Group Think” exercise (something Dr. Solga and I came up with it) which involved individuals going home and picking a source to use to teach an idea from the text, becoming an expert on their resource and teaching it to their group members, then paired groups  (two different groups that were assigned the same topic, in this case, a “character” from the play we were studying) present their ideas to each other in order to ‘fine-tune’ their argument, and then combined groups present potential working theses to the entire class which opens up an entire discussion about the material.

The actual “Peer Teach” exercise involved assigning each group a “prompt” (a quotation from that week’s reading) and the group had to pick a resource (an article, a youtube video, a play review, etc) in order to “teach” (explain) the prompt to the rest of the class. It was fascinating to see all the different ways students came to understand the readings, without any input whatsoever from us, the instructors.

After the exercise (the remainder of which was completed in today’s class), I asked the students to complete a survey in response to the Peer Teach workshop.

We asked:

1) What did you enjoy most?

2) What was the least effective?

3) What would you want if we did it again?

4) What will stay with you/What will you take away from this workshop?

Thus far, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback. Some of the “remember for next time” feedback includes more time (we did the exercise during a one hour class – I definitely suggest trying it in two hours) and wanting more input from the instructors before doing the exercise. Depending on the way you go about it, providing students nothing to go on before they do the exercise is actually the entire point. We want students to figure out what the reading means on their own – something that they don’t often get to do.

The reading we were working with was, I admit, quite advanced (I wouldn’t suggest trying out this exercise with a theory reading without providing some sort of foundational knowledge first). However, if you’re curious to see what your students are capable of without your guidance, it’s definitely an effective “sink or swim” exercise which Dr. Solga feels that students should be forced to do at some point or another (and I wholeheartedly agree).

Out of all the positive feedback, what warms my heart is seeing the most common response: “Finding real life examples on my own helped me better understand the reading.” Given that this was the entire point of the exercise, I am quite pleased with the end results.

One student even remarked to Dr. Solga and I that the Peer Teach presentations helped her think about the reading in ways she never would have before if we had just given a lecture on it. I received similar emails from students along pretty much the same lines.

I care so much about students developing critical thinking skills that I am constantly thinking about ways to make them practice independent critical thinking. After all, I remember, painfully, what it was like to listen to a 2 hour lecture with next to no class participation. I don’t want to put my students through that. I want them to be engaged, critically, and not even feel the need to check Facebook, their email, their texts, etc for a single moment. Yes, I am a dreamer.

I want them to care. I can’t imagine a better way for them to care than by showing them that they can, in fact, come to (quite brilliant) conclusions about the course material all on their own. That their education is, in fact, paying off.

Although it’s still very much a work in progress, I feel that this idea has, in a way, ‘breathed new life’ into the learning process. Moreover, I sincerely hope that my students do more than simply take away various scraps of information about 20C Drama (though that definitely is a plus too)–I want them thinking about how to learn. And how to learn well.

Technology certainly has its uses in the classroom (and I intend to fully explore those options in future blog entries) but part of me still (naively) longs for that moment when my students stand up on their desks at the end of term and say “Oh Captain my Captain”.

As I said, I’m a dreamer, but some dreams are worth pursuing.


About Madison Bettle

English PhD Candidate working towards a career in the academic world. I love Austen, Rand, and Meatloaf (the band).
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1 Response to “Breathing New Life” into Learning: Peer Teaching and How it Works

  1. Christine says:

    I have no doubt you are going to scoop up the “Best Teaching Idea” award! You are one of the most passionate and innovative teachers I have ever meet. Peer teaching sounds like a fascinating new approach to get students involved in the class and engaged with the material. From putting together lectures, I know that deciding how to teach something to others is one of the best ways to learn. I think you have taken this aspect of teaching and perfectly transformed it into a tool for student learning. I look forward to trying this one day in my classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

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