Peers and Learning

Background and Resources

 - What is Peer Learning and Why is it Important? (Academic - good citations ) -

"Peer learning is not a single, undifferentiated educational strategy. It encompasses a broad sweep of activities. For example, researchers from the University of Ulster identified 10 different models of peer learning (Griffiths, Housten and Lazenbatt, 1995). These ranged from the traditional proctor model, in which senior students tutor junior students, to the more innovative learning cells, in which students in the same year form partnerships to assist each other with both course content and personal concerns. Other models involved discussion seminars, private study groups, parrainage (a buddy system) or counseling, peer-assessment schemes, collaborative project or laboratory work, projects in different sized (cascading) groups, workplace mentoring and community activities.

The term 'peer learning', however, remains abstract. The sense in which we use it here suggests a two-way, reciprocal learning activity. Peer learning should be mutually beneficial and involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience between the participants. It can be described as a way of moving beyond independent to interdependent or mutual learning (Boud, 1988)." - Excerpt from above

- ConstructivismJean Piaget 1896-1980 )

"Constructivism is a theory in education that recognizes the learners' understanding and knowledge based on their own experiences prior to entering school.[1] It is associated with various philosophical positions, particularly in epistemology as well as ontologypolitics, and ethics.[2] The origin of the theory is also linked to Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development." - Excerpt from above

- Social Constructivism and Recent Criticism ( Lev Vygotsky 1896-1934 )

"View of Knowledge

Cognitivists such as Piaget and Perry see knowledge as actively constructed by learners in response to interactions with environmental stimuli. Vygotsky emphasized the role of language and culture in cognitive development. According to Vygotsky, language and culture play essential roles both in human intellectual development and in how humans perceive the world. Humans’ linguistic abilities enable them to overcome the natural limitations of their perceptual field by imposing culturally defined sense and meaning on the world. Language and culture are the frameworks through which humans experience, communicate, and understand reality. Vygotsky states (1968, 39),

A special feature of human perception … is the perception of real objects … I do not see the world simply in color and shape but also as a world with sense and meaning. I do not merely see something round and black with two hands; I see a clock …

Language and the conceptual schemes that are transmitted by means of language are essentially social phenomena. As a result, human cognitive structures are, Vygotsky believed, essentially socially constructed. Knowledge is not simply constructed, it is co-constructed.

View of Learning

Vygotsky accepted Piaget’s claim that learners respond not to external stimuli but to their interpretation of those stimuli. However, he argued that cognitivists such as Piaget had overlooked the essentially social nature of language. As a result, he claimed they had failed to understand that learning is a collaborative process. Vygotsky distinguished between two developmental levels (85):

The level of actual development is the level of development that the learner has already reached, and is the level at which the learner is capable of solving problems independently. The level of potential development (the “zone of proximal development”) is the level of development that the learner is capable of reaching under the guidance of teachers or in collaboration with peers. The learner is capable of solving problems and understanding material at this level that they are not capable of solving or understanding at their level of actual development; the level of potential development is the level at which learning takes place. It comprises cognitive structures that are still in the process of maturing, but which can only mature under the guidance of or in collaboration with others...

Several cognitive psychologists and educators have questioned the central claims of constructivism. It is argued that constructivist theories are misleading or contradict known findings.[11][39][40][41][42] Matthews (1993) attempts to sketch the influence of constructivism in current mathematics and science education, aiming to indicate how pervasive Aristotle's empiricist epistemology is within it and what problems constructivism faces on that account.[43]

In the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development it is maintained that learning at any age depends upon the processing and representational resources available at this particular age. That is, it is maintained that if the requirements of the concept to be understood exceeds the available processing efficiency and working memory resources then the concept is by definition not learnable. This attitude toward learning impedes the learning from understanding essential theoretical concepts or, in other words, reasoning.[44] Therefore, no matter how active a child is during learning, to learn the child must operate in a learning environment that meets the developmental and individual learning constraints that are characteristic for the child's age and this child's possible deviations from her age's norm. If this condition is not met, construction goes astray.[45][46]

Several educators have also questioned the effectiveness of this approach toward instructional design, especially as it applies to the development of instruction for novices.[11][47] While some constructivists argue that "learning by doing" enhances learning, critics of this instructional strategy argue that little empirical evidence exists to support this statement given novice learners.[11][47] Sweller and his colleagues argue that novices do not possess the underlying mental models, or "schemas" necessary for "learning by doing".[48] Indeed, Mayer (2004) reviewed the literature and found that fifty years of empirical data do not support using the constructivist teaching technique of pure discovery; in those situations requiring discovery, he argues for the use of guided discovery instead.[47]

Mayer (2004) argues that not all teaching techniques based on constructivism are efficient or effective for all learners, suggesting many educators misapply constructivism to use teaching techniques that require learners to be behaviorally active. He describes this inappropriate use of constructivism as the "constructivist teaching fallacy". "I refer to this interpretation as the constructivist teaching fallacy because it equates active learning with active teaching."[47]:15 Instead Mayer proposes learners should be "cognitively active" during learning and that instructors use "guided practice."

In contrast, Kirschner et al. (2006)[11] describe constructivist teaching methods as "unguided methods of instruction." They suggest more structured learning activities for learners with little to no prior knowledge. Slezak states that constructivism "is an example of fashionable but thoroughly problematic doctrines that can have little benefit for practical pedagogy or teacher education."[49] Similar views have been stated by Meyer,[50] Boden, Quale and others.

Kirschner et al. group a number of learning theories together (Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based learning) and stated that highly scaffolded constructivist methods like problem-based learning and inquiry learning are ineffective.[11] Kirschner et al. described several research studies that were favorable to problem-based learning given learners were provided some level of guidance and support.[11]

A rebuttal to the criticisms of Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark

While there are critics of the Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark[11] article, Sweller and his associates have written in their articles about:

  1. instructional designs for producing procedural learning (learning as behavior change);[48]
  2. their grouping of seemingly disparate learning theories[11] and;
  3. a continuum of guidance beginning with worked examples that may be followed by practice, or transitioned to practice[51] (Renkl, Atkinson, Maier, and Staley, 2002)

Kirschner et al. (2006) describe worked examples as an instructional design solution for procedural learning.[11] Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller (2006) describe this as a very effective, empirically validated method of teaching learners procedural skill acquisition. Evidence for learning by studying worked-examples, is known as the worked-example effect and has been found to be useful in many domains (e.g. music, chess, athletics)[52] concept mapping,[53] geometry,[54] physics, mathematics, or programming.[55]

Kirschner et al. (2006)[11] describe why they group a series of seemingly disparate learning theories (Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based learning). The reasoning for this grouping is because each learning theory promotes the same constructivist teaching technique—"learning by doing." While they argue "learning by doing" is useful for more knowledgeable learners, they argue this teaching technique is not useful for novices. Mayer states that it promotes behavioral activity too early in the learning process, when learners should be cognitively active.[47]

In addition, Sweller and his associates describe a continuum of guidance, starting with worked examples to slowly fade guidance. This continuum of faded guidance has been tested empirically to produce a series of learning effects: the worked-example effect,[56] the guidance fading effect,[57] and the expertise-reversal effect.[51]

Criticism of discovery-based teaching techniques

After a half century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, there appears no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge

— Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching by Kirschner, Sweller, Clark[11]

Mayer (2004) argues against discovery-based teaching techniques and provides an extensive review to support this argument. Mayer's arguments are against pure discovery, and are not specifically aimed at constructivism: "Nothing in this article should be construed as arguing against the view of learning as knowledge construction or against using hands-on inquiry or group discussion that promotes the process of knowledge construction in learners. The main conclusion I draw from the three research literatures I have reviewed is that it would be a mistake to interpret the current constructivist view of learning as a rationale for reviving pure discovery as a method of instruction."[47]

Mayer's concern is how one applies discovery-based teaching techniques. He provides empirical research as evidence that discovery-based teaching techniques are inadequate. Here he cites this literature and makes his point "For example, a recent replication is research showing that students learn to become better at solving mathematics problems when they study worked-out examples rather than when they solely engage in hands-on problem solving.[58] Today's proponents of discovery methods, who claim to draw their support from constructivist philosophy, are making inroads into educational practice. Yet a dispassionate review of the relevant research literature shows that discovery-based practice is not as effective as guided discovery."[47]:18

Mayer's point is that people often misuse constructivism to promote pure discovery-based teaching techniques. He proposes that the instructional design recommendations of constructivism are too often aimed at discovery-based practice.[47] Sweller (1988) found evidence that practice by novices during early schema acquisition, distracts these learners with unnecessary search-based activity, when the learner's attention should be focused on understanding (acquiring schemas).[48]

The study by Kirschner et al. from which the quote at the beginning of this section was taken has been widely cited and is important for showing the limits of minimally-guided instruction.[59] Hmelo-Silver et al. responded,[60] pointing out that Kirschner et al. conflated constructivist teaching techniques such as inquiry learning with "discovery learning". (See the preceding two sections of this article.) This would agree with Mayer's viewpoint that even though constructivism as a theory and teaching techniques incorporating guidance are likely valid applications of this theory, nevertheless a tradition of misunderstanding has led to some question "pure discovery" techniques.

The math wars and discovery-based teaching techniques

The math wars controversy in the United States is an example of the type of heated debate that sometimes follows the implementation of constructivist-inspired curricula in schools. In the 1990s, mathematics textbooks based on new standards largely informed by constructivism were developed and promoted with government support. Although constructivist theory does not require eliminating instruction entirely, some textbooks seemed to recommend this extreme. Some parents and mathematicians protested the design of textbooks that omitted or de-emphasized instruction of standard mathematical methods. Supporters responded that the methods were to be eventually discovered under direction by the teacher, but since this was missing or unclear, many insisted the textbooks were designed to deliberately eliminate instruction of standard methods. In one commonly adopted text, the standard formula for the area of a circle is to be derived in the classroom, but not actually printed in the student textbook as is explained by the developers of CMP: "The student role of formulating, representing, clarifying, communicating, and reflecting on ideas leads to an increase in learning. If the format of the texts included many worked examples, the student role would then become merely reproducing these examples with small modifications."[61]

Similarly, this approach has been applied to reading with whole language and inquiry-based science that emphasizes the importance of devising rather than just performing hands-on experiments as early as the elementary grades (traditionally done by research scientists), rather than studying facts. In other areas of curriculum such as social studies and writing are relying more on "higher order thinking skills" rather than memorization of dates, grammar or spelling rules or reciting correct answers. Advocates of this approach counter that the constructivism does not require going to extremes, that in fact teachable moments should regularly infuse the experience with the more traditional teaching. The primary differentiation from the traditional approach being that the engagement of the students in their learning makes them more receptive to learning things at an appropriate time, rather than on a preset schedule.

Importance of structure in constructivist learning environments

During the 1990s, several theorists began to study the cognitive load of novices (those with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter) during problem solving. Cognitive load theory was applied in several contexts.[62][63][64][65][56][66] Based on the results of their research, these authors do not support the idea of allowing novices to interact with ill-structured learning environments. Ill-structured learning environments rely on the learner to discover problem solutions. Jonassen (1997) also suggested that novices be taught with "well-structured" learning environments.[67]

Jonassen (1997) also proposed well-designed, well-structured learning environments provide scaffolding for problem-solving. Finally, both Sweller and Jonassen support problem-solving scenarios for more advanced learners.[67][68]

Sweller and his associates even suggest well-structured learning environments, like those provided by worked examples, are not effective for those with more experience—this was later described as the "expertise reversal effect".[51] Cognitive load theorists suggest worked examples initially, with a gradual introduction of problem solving scenarios; this is described as the "guidance fading effect"[57][69] Each of these ideas provides more evidence for Anderson's ACT-R framework.[70] This ACT-R framework suggests learning can begin with studying examples.

Finally Mayer states: "Thus, the contribution of psychology is to help move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and unproductive world of educational ideology—which sometimes hides under the banner of various versions of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of theory-based research on how people learn."[47]:18

 - Intentional Learning - Dr. Margaret Martinez -

"Descriptions for the Key Learning Attributes

Learning Orientations consider these three Learning Attributes to describe how individuals generally want and intend to approach learning. These attributes are critical influences on how successfully individuals learn.

Self Motivation (Conative and Affective Focus on Learning)

This attribute estimates the learner's general feelings and attitudes about learning. It describes the individual's (to some degree) will, intent, drive, or passion for learning and use of learning as a resource to achieve personal goals. This factor refers to the individual's intentions to learn, influenced to some degree by content, people, environments, resources, and instructional presentation. Naturally, learners will be more intentional and enjoy or apply greater effort in specific courses, topics, or situations that interest or appeal to them. 

Commitment to Learning and Strategic Effort

This attribute estimates the degree that learners plan and commit deliberate, strategic effort to accomplish learning. Successful learners place great importance on the act of striving or commitment. They enjoy applying focused, strategic, hard-working principles to learn and improve. Learners that score lower on this factor can be more successful by improving and using key learning strategies (e.g., big picture thinking, self-assessment, and complex problem solving). Most research shows that improved long-term planning and increased strategic effort is a contributing factor to greater achievement.   

Learning Independence or Autonomy

This attribute estimates the individual's desire and ability to take responsibility, make choices, and control or manage their own learning (i.e., make choices independent of the instructor) in the attainment of learning and personal goals. As individuals have different experiences and mature as sucessful learners, they gradually (to some varying degree) 

  • gain awareness of their learning capabilities and processes and use this knowledge to improve
  • develop desires for learning control or autonomy
  • assimilate and develop a unique, personal set of learner-difference variables
  • commit and self-manage sustained effort to attain personal learning goals
  • review and monitor experiences to improve subsequent learning"

 -   Thanks to Dr. Margaret Martinez for reprint