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I recently had an epiphany about my students: they shared one important trait—they were all interested in helping others.
And that realization has helped me rethink my approach to their instruction.
Students are coming to college to get degrees that will allow them to do good in the world. They want to help their fellow man.
I figured I could build on this natural inclination and encourage students to help each other learn.
Drawing on research in neuroscience and learning, I’ve designed, implemented, and refined a number of assignments that foster peer collaboration in my classes.
The activities also help each student feel a sense of contribution to the group. The roles are less about peer pressure and more about how to help your peers. It emphasizes that we’re doing this as a group, as a team.
Because even when you’re a student, it’s nice to feel that you’re helping others learn.
4 Roles that Promote Collaborative Learning
These are my favorite in-class techniques for any educator looking to bring more collaborative learning into the classroom.
On a rotating basis, one student must volunteer during each class lecture to take what I refer to as “copious notes” for the entire class.
This person, known as the Class Scribe, then has one day to edit their notes and post them to Moodle, the class’s learning management system.
Other students can earn points by posting corrections or addendums to the posted set of notes. (The notes are also emailed to the Lecture Expert to assist in the creation of a class video, explained later in this ebook.)
In addition to general note-taking, the Scribe is instructed to record any whiteboard notes, student questions, and anything I preface with “this might be on the exam.” They also take attendance and track any points awarded that day (e.g., from a class competition).
Benefits of the Class Scribe
This role promotes deep critical thinking about course material, because the Scribe must identify the important points from each class and then present them in a way that their fellow students will understand.
I’ve noticed that “poor” note-takers are inspired to do a more thorough job, and “good” note-takers benefit the rest of the class by providing a highly useful study resource.
Prompts to consider for the Class Scribe
- What are the key points the professor is making?
- What is the professor’s main argument or thesis?
- What evidence or examples is the professor using to support their argument?
- What important definitions or concepts do we need to understand?
- Are there any questions I have that I should ask the professor or follow up on after class?
- What are the potential applications or real-world uses of the concepts discussed in this lecture?
- What are the most important takeaways or things I should remember from this lecture?
To fulfill this role, each student video-records one of my lectures per semester, then augments the film with material that highlights their own mastery of the subject.
After the video is captured, students have one week to use Microsoft Moviemaker or similar software to edit the video, adding PowerPoint slides, Scribe notes, and other multimedia elements.
I then upload the video to Moodle for everyone in the class to use as a study resource. Students are evaluated on both the accuracy of their presentation and their effectiveness in communication.
Benefits of the Lecture Expert
The videos have a significant impact on student retention of material. As students edit their videos, they are watching and rewatching the lecture for splice points. That makes this a particularly powerful learning medium for visual learners.
For students who have served as the Lecture Expert, I’ve seen an average 12% increase on their scores compared to everyone else.
Video Tips for the Lecture Expert
- Start by defining the learning objectives and the target audience for the video.
- Before editing, develop an outline that is clear, concise, and well-organized, highlighting the key concepts and examples you want to cover.
- Use a combination of visual aids, such as diagrams, images, or animations, to help clarify complex concepts and engage the audience.
- Make sure the audio quality is clear and consistent. Use subtitles or captions to make the video accessible to a wider audience.
- Keep the video length short (5–10 minutes) and focused on the main topics.
- Use storytelling techniques to make the video engaging and memorable, such as using real-life examples or scenarios that demonstrate the concepts.
- Test the video with a small group of learners to get feedback on the pacing, clarity, and overall effectiveness of the video.
One of my more nontraditional strategies is to have students teach concepts to people who are not part of my class at all.
For these assignments (there are two per semester), I give students one week to select a person outside of the course —be it a fellow student, a friend, or a family member—and explain a particular scientific concept to them in detail.
To assess their lecture, I provide each Peer Teacher with a recording device, which they use to create an audio file of their session with the layperson. The goal is for the explanation to be accurate, easy to understand, and thorough, capturing the essential nuances of the concepts that I’ve identified beforehand as significant. (There are usually up to three of these key points.)
To provide feedback, I then edit my comments into the audio file and post the grade on Moodle.
Benefits of the Peer Teacher
Being able to verbalize an important concept to others is a crucial part of the process of internalizing and retaining knowledge.
Having to focus on accuracy and precise language ensures that students develop more than a cursory knowledge of the subject.
More importantly, they provide a different point of view on the topic. I’ll explain things one way, and a student with a different set of experiences might explain it a different way. This improves the odds that all of the students in class will grasp the concept.
I like to have students score each other’s work—typically short-answer questions on problem sets and exams. I want Peer Reviewers to provide candid feedback, so I maintain their anonymity with student-specific PIN numbers.
For this exercise, each student is each given a paper copy of another student’s exam or assignment, along with an answer key.
They are given one week to score the paper, which requires more than marking an answer right or wrong. Instead, I want them to determine whether the answer is “equivalent” to that on the answer key and award full or partial credit based on a rubric provided by the professor. When marking an answer incorrect, students must include a written explanation of what was incorrect, along with the correct answer.
I then grade the papers myself and score the Peer Reviewer on how closely they approximated what I did. The exercise is worth 25% of the grade for the semester.
This way, they really try to apply the rubric accurately, because this is a substantive portion of their grade.
Benefits of the Peer Reviewer
This approach helps students better understand the grading rubrics, which results in greater student satisfaction with the course. Further, rather than just looking at their grade and tossing out the paper, students are revisiting material, with a chance to reflect on the correct answers.
The exercise also promotes critical thinking, as they try to determine where the answers fall on the rubric. And it gives students a good idea of where others are in the course, which is especially important for those who are behind. When they see other answers that are more in depth, better written, or generally more correct, it motivates them to try harder and do better. For high achievers, it offers an opportunity to help others improve.
Download the Ebook
- Detailed explanation of 4 key roles students can take in the classroom.
- List of benefits showcasing why each class role matters.
- Video tips to help students succeed in their class role.