Teaching is a hugely important occupation, providing future generations with the skills required to develop their natural talents and grow as human beings. However, the method of educating pupils is likely to vary from teacher to teacher and lesson to lesson.

In particular, teachers that are just starting out in their careers are likely to hear a lot about collaborative learning versus peer-to-peer learning – two equally valid approaches to education that each come with advantages and weaknesses.

Theories of learning.

For educators, the important thing to realise is how to best implement these two methods and which students are responding more positively to each approach. The first time that a teacher experiences either of these methods is also likely to demonstrate an important lesson; namely that children not only learn from teachers but from each other too.

At first, the differences between collaborative learning in the classroom and peer learning can appear insignificant, as in both cases students work together to improve their learning experience, however there are some significant differences.

What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning occurs when students work in groups to discuss ideas and solve problems together.

What is peer-to-peer learning?

Peer-to-peer learning is when one pupil leads another through a task or concept.

A simple way of expressing this difference is that in collaborative learning, students learn alongside one another, whilst in peer learning they learn from one another.

What are the benefits?

When used effectively, the two approaches provide a number of benefits

  • Students can develop their oral communication and leadership skills
  • Their self-esteem is boosted
  • They benefit from taking increased responsibility over their learning
  • Attitudes towards teamwork improve, helping the learning process and preparing for future employment and social scenarios

Both methods can also prove informative for teachers building their careers. They provide an alternative approach to teaching that differs from the traditional teacher-student relationship, which can be stimulating for both parties. Far from being a way of getting students to do the teacher’s work for them, lesson planning remains vital for both methods. In order for the approaches to generate positive results, teachers must provide students with an intellectual framework in which to contribute. 

Teacher input to collaborative and peer-to-peer learning may involve:

  • Coming up with discussion topics
  • Raising questions
  • Coming up with collaborative exercises 

As both ways of group working are open to interpretation, teachers still play a vital role. For example, tasks can be more challenge orientated, where one student poses a question to another, or more team based where individuals are assigned specific roles within a group. The ways in which collaborative and peer learning tasks play out is, therefore, dependent on both teacher and student. 

When should you use each method?

Collaborative learning and peer-to-peer learning work best in differing situations.

The collaborative approach often works well after introducing the class to a new concept, whether it’s through teacher explanation, a video or some reading material. By generating discussion in groups, students are likely to absorb new content more effectively and address each other’s questions and misunderstandings. 

Peer-to-peer learning is often an effective way of managing the different rates at which students learn. Faster learners can take the role of the explainer, developing their own understanding and helping other members of the class. These roles can then be reversed to ensure everyone benefits from a similar experience. Teachers should also remember that both collaborative and peer learning can be used within the same class, and each method can be used briefly to add lesson variety or as an ongoing approach. It all depends on what’s effective for each group of students. 

However, NQTs developing their teaching skills will soon discover that there are also challenges with both methods of learning. Firstly, teachers must provide an environment in which every student feels comfortable contributing, not just the more vocal pupils. They must also strike a good balance between giving students the option to explore concepts freely and not allowing sessions to lose focus. 

When it comes to deciding whether to use collaborative, peer-to-peer or more traditional methods of teaching, the important thing is choosing the right approach for the lesson and your pupils. There is no correct method of education, but experimenting with different approaches is likely to prove beneficial for students and teachers alike.