Incorporating semester-length peer groups into classes enhances participation among students and leads to more productive group work as well as stronger bonds among the students. Here’s how I design and implement these peer groups in a class that meets MWF.
Design and Structure
I begin working toward peer groups early in the semester. Once we complete the two-day community building classes, I divide our class time for the next 4 class meetings into teaching and both small group discussion. The teaching component of the class depends on the early course needs. For example, in a Composition I course, the early classes will include notes on the writing process and foundations of rhetoric in writing, among other foundational materials. The class discussions cover topics related to the course content but designed to get students talking, not learning. In my writing courses, I give students at least one day to discuss their own writing experiences. Discussions occur in 3 steps:
- Introduce yourself to a peer you’ve not spoken to in a previous one-on-one discussion and spend 5 minutes discussing the day’s topic.
- Find another pair of students in the class, creating a group of 4, have each person introduce their partner, and spend 10 minutes discussing the day’s topic.
- We come together as a full class (and when I can, I bring students together in a circle so that they can better see all their peers) and spend 10-15 minutes discussing what each group learned about their peers. Students must use names of their newly-met peers in the discussion.
Also during these first 4 days, I assign short homework assignments that require collaboration with first one peer and then with two peers. The goal of this homework is to see how their peers assist with group work outside class, anticipating that students will use this collaborative activity to make more informed decisions about their peer group members.
At the end of the 4 days, students have met most of their classmates in small groups and learned about all of them through the class discussions. I encourage students, as homework, to make a personal list of peers they would like to have in their peer group for the semester and bring this with them to the following class.
The following class meeting (Monday, week 3), I begin class by reviewing the peer group dynamics. This information includes:
- A peer group has 3-4 members, and these members sit together in class
- Group members must arrange a means of communication for absences and group projects
- Groups will work together on all collaborative projects
- Each peer group has a designated leader, and the peer leader is responsible for:
- keeping the group on task during peer group work
- notifying me of any group member absences and ensuring the absent member receives class notes and homework assignments.
- a side note on this responsibility: I instruct my students to notify their peer leader in case of absences and to secure class notes and assignments from the peer leader, not me. At the start of class, peer leaders inform me informally of a peer’s absence, and I record the absence. I include this as a part of the peer leader’s duties both to emphasize the leadership role and to eliminate the emails (especially from first-year students) asking me for assignments and notes.
- coordinating and submitting group projects
The students spend the remainder of this day forming peer groups, swapping contact information, choosing a peer leader, and getting to know each other better.
Peer Group Activities
When I plan a class discussion over course readings, these class discussions follow at least 5 minutes of peer groups discussing the work. When we come together as a class for discussion, these are often led by peer group responses. Early in the semester, I’ll ask a peer leader what the main talking point of their group discussion was, and when the larger group discussion on this topic ends, I’ll ask the same of another leader. Students begin taking more initiative in the class discussions as the semester progresses.
I use collaborative homework whenever possible. My writing classes often have supplemental homework that builds on lessons learned and requires all students to participate, so a collaborative homework might involve students reading a specific essay or piece of literature and working together to write a thesis statement for a possible paper on the topic.
Peer assistance and feedback are significant components of my writing workshops. I divide the class time into three sections–instruction, application, and feedback. I encourage students to assist struggling peer group members in workshops, and I require students to provide feedback to at least one group member’s workshop materials.
Students become confident providing feedback to their group members through the writing workshops, so I keep peer review to the peer group. The only requirement I put on the peer review is that students should not have the group member who read their work during the workshops be the only group member to peer review their work.
Designing and implementing peer groups does not have to follow this format; this format and the activities I use are what works best for my classes. The key to successful peer groups is creating a structure that works for your classes and deciding how to use the groups in your own classes. The one thing I would argue should not be changed is the size of the peer groups. Peer pairs are too small for robust discussions and workshopping, and peer groups of 5 or more become places where peer pairs occur in the group, often isolating one of the members (especially in groups with an odd number). Ideally, all peer groups should have 4 members, but I find groups of 3 to be successful as well.