Promoting a learning community through peer feedback

Photo credit: unsplash, Brooke Cagle, CC0

In this post, Dr Neill Storrar, Dr David Hope and Professor Helen Cameron, from the Medical School, share their insights from a recent PTAS project, which highlighted three factors that can make peer learning better…

Getting students to teach each other and give feedback is a great way to learn but students vary in how much they like it and are willing to take part. This is a challenge for students and teachers alike when ‘peer learning’ – the mutual learning when students at a similar level teach each another – is used. We investigated the factors that influence whether students engage with peer learning in the workplace.

What did we find?

We interviewed medical students who were practising practical skills in the hospital, and used their answers to understand what affects their decisions about learning with other students. We found three main factors that students are constantly balancing:

Whether they thought it would help their studies (Expected Educational Gain)

Students were much more willing to engage in activities that seemed directly helpful to their overall goals, in our case, becoming successful doctors. For example, using a stethoscope is a key part of a doctor’s identity, and students tended to love practising stethoscope skills with colleagues. Bookwork was less sociable and seemed less amenable to peer learning.

Whether they thought it would help build friendships and help their colleagues (Social Reward)

The more students feel connected to their peers – and the better they know them – the more likely they are to want to work collaboratively. When students felt they were all on the same side, or had built study groups over time, then professional and social relations led to highly productive peer work.

Whether they thought it would cause embarrassment to themselves or others (Social Risk)

Even gregarious and competent students worry about looking silly in front of their peers. This really limits enthusiasm for learning with peers, e.g. students avoiding meaningful critique for fear of causing offence, and even avoiding peer learning entirely. The risk is smaller when students know one another better and feel free to make mistakes, and once they have developed or been taught skills in communication.

How does this help?

While we found other things that matter, we think that addressing these three factors can make peer learning better. For example, students would be more likely to engage in peer feedback if they see the educational benefits directly, and it’s clear how peer work fits in with overall course aims. It also helps if they can build bonds with a constant group of peers, and are given training and time to build trust which avoids embarrassment. For more guidance, see our one page document here.

Who might benefit?

These lessons could be adopted by other departments where peer feedback is a core skill, particularly where the use of feedback in the workplace is relevant, e.g. other science educators, veterinary education, architecture, and business or legal attachments, or indeed any seminar or tutorial group.

You can read the full PTAS report here.

Neill Storrar

Dr Neill Storrar is a haematologist in NHS Lothian who undertook this work as part of a 2 year Clinical Fellowship in Medical Education. It forms part of his MD on peer learning in the clinical setting. He also leads the undergraduate haematology module in the MBChB and contributes to other medical teaching locally and nationally.

Helen Cameron

Helen Cameron is the past Director of the Centre for Medical Education and an Honorary Professor at the University of Edinburgh. She is now Dean of Medical Education at Aston Medical School, Aston University. She is particularly interested in assessment that encourages and supports effective learning.

David Hope

Dr David Hope is a psychometrician specialising in assessment and feedback. A fellow of the HEA, he is closely involved in the assessment of undergraduate and postgraduate medical students and mentors on the Edinburgh Teaching Award. His previous work with PTAS has received a Teaching Innovation Award from the International Association for Medical Education. He is currently working on supporting at-risk students before they fail assessment, helping to improve formative feedback in the clinical environment and promoting fairness in postgraduate medical licensing exams.

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