The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Student-Centered Learning: The Magic of Peer Mentoring

Posted in Ed Tech on April 1, 2014 by

Peer Mentoring: A Productive Dynamic

When one student tutors or mentors another, there is an important dynamic at work. Because the student tutor has recently learned the concepts himself, he understands which areas might be particularly confusing to someone encountering the material for the first time. Not only does peer tutoring confirm and reinvigorate the tutor’s own knowledge of the subject, it also serves as a model for the tutored student. He or she may just be inspired to tutor another struggling student!

According to Christina Yu’s post, Why Students Don’t Like School, Clayton Christensen in Disrupting Class “identifies the self-perpetuating cycle through which the curriculum and methods of instruction for various subjects are tailored for those who are gifted in them.” “Math classes,” for example, “are taught by those who are gifted at math and through texts written by those who are gifted in the subject as well; and class itself is shaped by the questions and comments of gifted math students.” Peer tutoring offers an alternative to this traditional dynamic: through one-on-one and small group exchanges, opportunities open up for all students — regardless of their academic proclivities — to contribute their perspectives and help one another learn.

Developing a Network of Peer Mentors

With each new class every year, it can take a little behind-the-scenes match-making to initiate what quickly becomes an organic network of peer tutors. Software programs today have increasingly sophisticated dashboards that can be used to pair a struggling student with one who has just mastered a concept. Grouping two or three students struggling with the same concept can also work well; sometimes the camaraderie alone helps students move through a challenging stretch. For some students, healthy competition can motivate them. Being paired with someone who is working at the same level can provide this boost.

A few calculated matches early in the year, along with an open floor plan in the classroom and no assigned seating, will lead to an abundance of peer mentoring. If anything, teachers may need to reinforce the value of individual struggle and help students figure out the nuances of how much help is too much help. With a multi-age classroom and an established school culture that honors the individual, differences in placement are accepted as natural. Students might still be motivated by a friend’s success to push themselves a little harder, but there is no shame in receiving help from a peer. The publicly shared goals also contribute to a supportive environment where individual successes are celebrated and peers excitedly discuss each other’s progress.

When Peer Mentoring Isn’t Enough

There may be times when peer mentoring is not the right solution. An observant, thoughtful teacher can use his nuanced knowledge of the learner and the data provided by the analytics in a computerized learning program to provide “just in time support” to the student. Do they need a question to help redirect their energy? Would they benefit from a break in their own work and the confidence boost that would come from mentoring a student working through material they have recently mastered? Or maybe they just need a little encouragement, some acknowledgement that what they are doing is tough, and a reminder of another time when they persevered through something very challenging.

Developing Student Confidence

When a student experiences a dip or regression, sometimes a major change is needed; other times, it’s just a tweak and a little perseverance. After a person has experienced several of these challenging periods and the breakthroughs that follow, he begins to recognize the pattern and develops the confidence and conviction to persevere when challenged.

When a student first comes upon a challenge, his instinct is often to stop and seek help. It can feel unsettling not to know the answers and unpleasant to work through the material multiple times. The student’s reluctance to work through the challenge on his own is not laziness but more likely, a lack of confidence or experience. When students are confident in their ability to seek out necessary resources and have a history of learning from challenges, they typically delight in hard work as a chance to earn another “ah ha” moment.

Ultimately, it is the teacher’s job to use his or her education, experience, and empathy to facilitate as many epiphanies or breakthrough moments as possible. Computerized adaptive software, self-paced individualized study, one-on-one coaching, and a network of peer mentors are all productive components of a learning environment that it is conducive to creating these moments.