Better together: the power of learning in groups, by Emily Spicer

photo (c) John Cairns

Date of Publication: 28 March 2019

Imagine a couple of scenarios.

Firstly, it’s exam season. The library is full of students huddled together in groups, writing notes, discussing urgently, asking each other questions. Are these students fooling themselves? Is this just a form of procrastination? Would they be better off taking themselves off to a quiet space, free from distraction and just learning on their own?

Secondly, school has finished for the day. As a gaggle of friends step off the school bus on their way home, instead of going their separate ways they head to one house together, to work on their homework as a group. Are they hindering their learning by not working on it individually? Would they get more out of it by just getting to it, putting their heads down and working alone?

The short answer to each of these questions is ‘no’. Communities of students learning together are curiously powerful.

A few weeks ago I discussed the need for connected learning – a sense of being known rather than learning in isolation – even when learning online. But there’s more to it than that. Students can make the learning experience more effective for each other.

In the Lego Foundation’s recent Creating Creators report, Mitchel Resnick of MIT Media Lab discussed the four guiding principles which most enable effective, creative learning: projects, passion, peers and play. Each of these ‘P’ factors has an intrigue to it, but as I read I was most curious about peers; students learning with each other.

Resnick points to Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker; a famous study of a lone figure deep in contemplation.

Sometimes we can be tempted to believe that to do our best learning we need to take ourselves away to a quiet space, stare into the middle distance, and wait for the ideas to come. And while we encourage all of our students to be independent learners, we also believe, like Mitchel Resnick, that often the peak of creative learning does not come through isolated thinking, but through student community and collaboration. He writes this:

‘Most creative learning doesn’t happen when individuals sit by themselves, in deep contemplation. Creative learning is a social activity, with people sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, and building on one another’s work.’

Our students often tell us that one of the best parts of our courses was the other students they learned with. And while some of that is about the friends they have made and the fun they have had together, it is also because fellow students have the capacity to enhance the learning experience for one another. They tell us that they enjoy the diverse perspectives their peers offer, which broaden their horizons and expand their understanding.

Research has shown that as students learn from and with each other, the learning process is reinforced by students explaining concepts to one another, working collaboratively, and giving and receiving feedback. This is what is called ‘peer learning’ and its power should not be underestimated.

We know that good teachers are key to a great learning experience. That’s why we provide the best tutors to teach the students who come on our courses. But we also believe that the students who come on our courses have a lot to offer, as well as a lot to learn. Both teachers and students contribute to the exceptional educational experiences we want to provide.

Our project-based courses in London particularly encourage students to participate in project work, together, learning from each other as well as from their tutors and industry experts. And as we move towards online courses (watch this space!), and our students are scattered across the globe, creating student learning communities will remain a vital part of our offering.

When it comes to learning, you’re better together.

 

References

D. Boud, Chapter 1, ‘Introduction: Making the move to peer learning’, in D. Boud, R. Cohen, and J. Sampson (eds), Peer Learning in Higher Education (London, Kogan Page, 2012)

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