Because learning experiences built around student collaboration are not prevalent in lecture-based classes (the kind of classes that predominate in many college experiences), you may not have many models for designing an environment that prompts students to help each other learn. It is also true that your students may not have done much successful collaborative learning. Address learners’ inexperience with successful peer involvement in the learning process by providing an explanation of why this approach works and how your students will benefit
. Students helping each other learn mimics humans’ innate learning process, a process for which we are genetically and environmentally engineered. This is enough of an explanation, and a powerful one, to help your students understand why
peer learning is suitable in the college classroom – their brains are built to learn via collaboration. One of the reasons learning is often difficult in college is precisely because it is not collaborative (see Smith  for fascinating reading and plenty of support to convince your students that peer learning works). You can also share with students the idea that most employers will not lecture for fifty minutes and give a test
a week later to determine whether employees have earned paychecks – your students will do in your classroom what they will be doing on the job as they work in groups, make presentations, tutor each other, etc. Their future on-the-job learning will mimic their learning in your classroom, a powerful argument for the process. That peer learning skills help make life-long learning easier is an additional convincing argument given the need for future worker-earners to adapt to, and survive in, a rapidly changing workplace.
That said, there seems to be a natural receptivity to working with and learning from peers, at least for traditional college-aged learners. Much has been written of millennial learners’ engagement with collaborative activities (e.g., 9, 10, 11). Good collaborative learning experiences leverage this propensity. An excellent example is Harvard professor Eric Mazur’s student group discussion technique where groups of students convince each other of correct responses to Mazur’s prompts, then share their choice of correct answers (12, 13).
Since students may not have much experience with peer learning, be sure to describe what the process looks like, what students will do, what outcomes they will produce within what time frame, and how they will access support and resources. This is the key to successful peer learning, and it requires careful planning on your part.
Here are some planning tips. 1) Peer learning can take many forms – use a variety of approaches (group work, presentations to the class by teams or individuals, jigsaw technique , class discussions in which you solicit alternative explanations from students, etc.). 2) For group work projects, provide a group charter in which students specify who will do what, operational guidelines, contact information, deadlines, etc., giving students confidence that you know what you are doing and can help them succeed with peer learning, and it enables assessing performance in many areas. 3) Structure the collaborative learning process so that there are assessment points throughout for you and for the students’ self- and peer-assessment to identify how you and they will know if they are helping each other learn. For example, progress reports, are one way to do this. 4) Support your students by facilitating and acting as a resource in both content and process, a different role from the implicit possessor/dispenser of knowledge role sometimes assumed by lecturers. 5) Celebrate students’ inventiveness as they discover teaching metaphors, techniques, and approaches you may never have considered.