Using Peer Teaching in the Classroom

By Heather Landers

Most teaching faculty would agree that getting students to think critically is a primary goal in any university course. That said, how does one go about achieving it? Research has explored the concept of bolstering the time-honored university mainstay—the lecture—with peer-teaching activities (see, for example, Goto & Schneider 2010; Whitman & Fife, 1988; Cuseo, 1997). The results indicate that such activities can be very effective in getting students to engage in critical thinking; thus, producing deeper learning outcomes.

Students who work in groups perform better on tests, particularly in regard to reasoning and critical thinking skills (Lord, 2001). Having students work with each other is an effective methodology because it forces students to be active learners and to talk through course concepts in their own words. There are many variations on how peer teaching can be used to enhance learning in the classroom.

Peer Teaching Methods

Think-pair-share: After posing a question (particularly a complex one), give students five minutes to think about it, perhaps even jot down some notes, after which you have them partner up for a quick discussion about what they think and why. After giving ample time for discussion, ask partners to share their insights with the entire class.

This strategy is helpful in engaging students in a more meaningful way. Think-pair-share provides time to think about the answer to a question or problem and time to discuss it with a cohort, before proposing an answer or solution to the entire class. Regardless of whether the result ends up being shared in the larger class discussion, the process often leads to more thorough, deeper thinking on the part of each student.

Peer Instruction using Clickers: One well-researched peer instruction model (see, for example, Simon et. al, 2010) involves both individual and group work. Students are assigned a reading prior to class and then quizzed on one or two of the more difficult or complex items using Clickers to submit their answers. Students then form groups, discuss the quiz question, and re-submit a group answer. Instructors can then instantaneously see where clarification is needed based on what the groups struggled with, or when they overwhelmingly chose an incorrect answer.

Reciprocal peer tutoring: Give students time in class to pair up in an in-class tutor/tutee relationship—taking turns between being the tutor and the tutee. They will benefit in two ways: 1) from explaining their own personal understanding of the material to another and, 2) from hearing the other explain, from their understanding or viewpoint, the same material.

In this model, students spend time summarizing information, assessing the work or ideas of a peer, and explaining rationales—all meaningful activities that promote critical thinking and long-term retention of information. This type of peer instruction is associated with the promotion of critical thinking skills as well as understanding of complex scientific concepts (Griffin & Griffin, 1997; Goto & Schneider, 2010).

Use undergraduate teaching assistants. Recruit students who have performed well in a previous semester to serve as teaching assistants in the next. If your department offers credit for Supervised College Teaching—many of them do—offer one or two as compensation. Research shows that students gain the most out of a study or discussion group when that group stays on task. Having undergraduate TAs roaming the lecture hall randomly participating in small group discussions, or leading study groups outside of class, helps ensure more time spent on task. In addition, it makes more people available from whom individual students may turn for assistance. (Fingerson & Culley, 2001).


Cuseo, J.B. (1997). Tips for students when forming learning teams: How to collaborate with peers to improve your academic performance. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 7(3), 11-16.

Dioso-Henson, L. (2012). The effect of reciprocal peer tutoring and non-reciprocal peer tutoring on The performance of students in college physics. Research In Education, 87(1), 34-49.

Fingerson, L. & Culley, A. (2001). Collaborators in teaching and learning: Undergraduate teaching assistants in the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 29(3), 299-315.

Goto K, & Schneider, J. (2010). Learning through teaching: Challenges and opportunities in facilitating student learning in food science and nutrition by using the interteaching approach. Journal of Food Science Education. 9(1), 31-35.

Lord, T. (2001). 101 reasons for using cooperative learning in biology teaching. The American Biology Teacher 63(1),30-38.

Simon, B., Kohanfars, M., Lee, J., Tamayo, K, & Cutts, Q. (2010, March). Experience report: peer instruction in introductory computing. Proceedings of the 41st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 341-345.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

Zilberstein, D. et al. (2012). Peer learning and support of technology in an undergraduate biology course to enhance deep learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 11(4), 402-412.


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