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Making Effective Use of Your Peers

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
338

The fact that most students study alone is indeed unfortunate because research shows that students who engage in collaborative learning and group study perform better academically, persist longer, improve their communication skills, feel better about their educational experience, and have enhanced self-esteem.

Folks:

The posting below examines the benefits to students who study in

teams. The examples are from engineering, but much of what is said

applies in all disciplines. The excerpt is from Chapter 3 - Academic

Success Strategies in: STUDYING ENGINEERING: A ROAD MAP TO A

REWARDING CAREER, Second Edition, By Raymond B. Landis, former Dean

of Engineering and Technology California State University, Los

Angeles. (e-mail: rlandis@calstatela.edu). Published by: Discovery

Press, Los Angeles, CA 90063. All rights reserved. Copyright ? 2000

by Raymond B. Landis, reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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MAKING EFFECTIVE USE OF YOUR PEERS

 

Your peers can significantly influence your academic performance,

either positively or negatively.

Negative peer pressure put on those who apply themselves to learning

is an age-old problem. Derisive terms like dork, wimp, nerd, geek,

and bookworm are but a few of those used to exert social pressure on

the serious student. You may have experienced this type of peer

pressure in high school if your friends were not so serious about

their academics as you, and you may have been forced into a pattern

of studying alone-separating your academic life from your social life.

The "lone-wolf" approach to your academics may have worked for you in

high school, but it is doubtful that it will work for you in

engineering study where the concepts are much more complex and the

pace much faster.

Even if you are able to make it through engineering study on your

own, you will miss out on many of the benefits of collaborative

learning and group study. We will explain these benefits below, but

first you need to understand how the education process works.

As a student, you are an active participant in the teaching/learning

process. You may not have given much thought to how this process

works. Perhaps most important for you to understand is that the

institution focuses primarily on the teaching part, while the

learning part is left up to you.

TEACHING MODES

The "teaching" part of the teaching/learning process is primarily

achieved by the following well-known teaching modes:

* Large lectures, in which one professor lectures to 300 or 500 students

* Small lectures, in which one professor lectures to 25 or 30 students

* Recitations, in which a teaching assistant reviews the material and

solves the

problems for small groups of 10 to 15 students

* One-on-one tutoring, in which a tutor works with one student

Despite their obvious differences, all four teaching modes have the

following features in common. Each involves a person who is

knowledgeable about a subject (an "expert," if you will)

communicating what he or she knows to a less knowledgeable person

(the student). Generally, most of the communication is one-way-i.e.,

from the teacher to the student. And most important, students learn

relatively little from participating in any of these modes.

That last feature should alarm you, or at least raise some doubt

about its validity. If you are a dedicated, attentive student, how is

it possible that only a limited amount of learning takes place in

these teaching modes? Here's how: Imagine that you are in an

engineering course, and your professor introduces a new principle.

You go to the lecture, you go to the recitation, and you go to

tutoring sessions, but you don't do anything outside those

activities. Then you are given an exam on the principle. What score

would you expect to make?

The limited effect of these teaching modes-especially the lecture

format-becomes quite apparent if you envision the process as one

educator has aptly described it:

The information passes from the notes of the professor to the notes

of the student without passing through the mind of either one.

LEARNING MODES

And then we have learning modes. There are really only two:

1. Solitary

2. Collaborative

Either you try to learn by yourself, or you do it with others.

As I travel the country, I always make a special effort to visit

Introduction to Engineering classes, where I make it a point to ask

students. "How many of you regularly spend some part of your study

time studying with at least one other student?" Generally, in a class

of 30 students, three or four hands will go up. Then I ask, "How many

of you spend all of your time studying by yourself?" This time, the

remaining 90 percent of hands go up.

My anecdotal research indicates that about 90 percent of first-year

engineering students do virtually 100 percent of their studying alone.

Hence, the predominant learning mode in engineering involves a

student working alone to master what are often difficult, complex,

concepts and principles, and then apply them to solve equally

difficult, complex problems.

The fact that most students study alone is indeed unfortunate because

research shows that students who engage in collaborative learning and

group study perform better academically, persist longer, improve

their communication skills, feel better about their educational

experience, and have enhanced self-esteem. We just read essentially

the same message in that excerpt from the Harvard University study a

few pages back. As even more evidence, Karl A. Smith, Civil

Engineering professor at the University of Minnesota and a nationally

recognized expert on cooperative learning, has found that:

Cooperation among students typically results in:

1. Higher achievement and greater productivity

2. More caring, supportive, and committed relationships

3. Greater psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem

In my own anecdotal research, I have tried to understand why students

study alone, so I also make it a point to ask students, "Why don't

you study with other students?" I almost always get one of these

three answers:

1. "I learn more studying by myself"

2. "I don't have anyone to study with"

3. "It's not right. You're supposed to do your own work"

The first of these reasons is simply wrong. It contradicts all the

research that has been done on student success and student learning.

The second reason is really an excuse. You are overflowing with other

students who are working on the same homework assignments and

preparing for the same tests that you are. Third reason is either a

carryover from a former era when the culture of engineering education

emphasized "competition" over "collaboration," or it comes from that

old romanticized ideal of the "rugged individualist" that we debunked

earlier. Today, the corporate buzzwords are "collaboration" and

"teamwork," and engineering programs are under a strong mandate to

turn out graduates who have the skills to work well in teams.

If you are using any of these reasons to justify your "lone-wolf"

approach to your academic work, you should now see their inherent

problems and, thus, you need to change your approach. If you're still

not convinced, then look at the issue from a different perspective.

Instead of focusing on the weakness or problems of solitary study,

consider the strengths or benefits of group study. In this new light,

you will find three very powerful and persuasive reasons for choosing

the collaborative approach over the solitary one:

1. You'll be better prepared for the engineering "work world"

2. You'll learn more

3. You'll enjoy it more