Olena Kychgina/istock/getty images plus
March 2020 was a time of urgent questions without immediate answers. At first, it felt a bit like the end of Poltergeist when that poor teenager returns from a date to find her house on the verge of implosion (“What’s happening? What’s happening?!”) But soon the questions became more focused: How do we maintain the intellectual rigor of our courses and back off a bit at the same time, lightening our students’ (and our own) mental load? How do we make ourselves more available to and encourage solidarity among our students, despite grappling with unprecedented, isolating conditions? And how do we possibly achieve this with (in our case) 20 to 25 tiny heads on a laptop screen? For us, the answer has been a peer-to-peer learning model.
Three intersecting areas related to instruction have informed the remodel of our courses since then: Zoom fatigue, synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and reciprocal peer learning. We’ve all experienced Zoom fatigue by now. It’s the exhaustion that results from a constellation of videoconferencing phenomena: the “constant gaze,” or having to continually stare at the camera to show we are paying attention; the extra energy we use to compensate for the lack of eye contact and nonverbal cues that aid in comprehension; the disjointed nature of the conversations, intensified by patchy Wi-Fi and breakout rooms; the distractions that crop up in our work-from-home situations; and the increased demands for focus in a format that paradoxically decreases our capacity to concentrate.
One way to minimize the discomfort and ineffectiveness of Zoom as a delivery platform is to experiment with asynchronous activities -- online forums, quizzes and so forth -- that can reduce the anxiety related to Zoom (compounded for us by the foreign language anxiety we already witness in the classroom). These tasks create opportunities for autonomy and self-reflection and give students more time to digest the material before meeting in a synchronous format.
Reciprocal (or peer-to-peer) learning is an asynchronous option wherein the students alternate roles as teacher and learner as they work through specific tasks. When carefully planned, it creates learning partnerships, promotes collegiality, provides an opportunity for peer mentoring and encourages reflection. It also develops a sense of mutual accountability among the students; some of ours reported putting in the work when they may have otherwise slept in or slacked off because they knew their partners were counting on them. We’ve also found it to be a powerful measure for combating social isolation and improving student mental health.
So how does it work? For us to implement this successfully -- to mitigate the issues related to Zoom-only teaching, allow time for students to meet for their peer-to-peer sessions and ensure the intensive Zoom sessions were small enough to foster meaningful exchange among students and instructor -- we had to reduce student contact hours with the instructor. Before COVID, we taught two classes of an hour and 45 minutes per week. During COVID, we’ve divided these into two one-hour Zoom sessions, preceded by two 45-minute peer-to-peer sessions. That doesn’t reduce the amount of total class time. It does, however, require a more flexible definition of “class” that includes peer-to-peer work. We’ve also given a lot of thought to:
- Structure. Setting students free requires a clearly articulated weekly routine: before-class preparation, peer-to-peer session, Zoom session, homework.
- Scaffolding. Peer-to-peer sessions are guided by clear documents: detailed itinerary, analysis questions, grammar PowerPoints with interactive exercises. These direct the flow of the conversations, aid in time management and serve as a point of departure for further inquiry.
- Communication and outreach. The weekly structure is spelled out in the syllabus and reproduced on the course webpage, and it does not vary. Students know exactly where to go to find the instructions and materials for each session, and we use the course discussion forum for questions outside class. We have also extended our consultation hours and encouraged students to check in more frequently, whether they have course-related queries or not.
A typical class now looks like this:
- Students meet in their groups of three for the 45-minute peer-to-peer session.
- They work through a detailed itinerary, discussing questions related to a text or issue or solving a series of problems together.
- We meet as a group of 10 to 15 people on Zoom for one hour.
- Each group reports on their findings from their peer-to-peer session and poses us any remaining questions.
- We consolidate and explore the content more deeply, with student presenters leading the discussion, in a more traditional class dynamic. Each student has the opportunity to speak several times without the need for breakout rooms.
This looks very different to pre-COVID structure but doesn’t actually involve much extra work on our part. We repurposed the itineraries from our existing lesson plans, and the comprehension questions and grammar resources were already part of our in-person lessons. We simply extracted those collaborative activities for which we were already breaking our classes into small groups. After all, we need to be kind to ourselves at the moment, too.
A More Sustainable Solution
Other models could look quite different, and peer-to-peer learning won’t work for every class. But it can suit all kinds of courses with a focus on discussion, analysis and small-group work. In fact, when we ran an anonymous survey at the end of semester, with 81 percent of students responding, 94 percent said they preferred this model to Zoom-only class.
In their feedback, students reflected on how the increased opportunity to speak within a familiar, low-pressure dynamic supported them to improve their skills, test out ideas and refine their thoughts before bringing them to the larger group. As one commented,
“It’s great to be able to form relationships with other students and to be able to chat about the content and ask questions easily. The Zoom format following the group meeting is really effective in summarizing content and answering questions -- the combination works really well. It helps provide a group of peers in which we can develop skills and then a place to consolidate.”
Several appreciated the peer-to-peer model for combating Zoom fatigue and anxiety, and they noted the value of “in-person connections in a real-life setting” for their intellectual progress and well-being. Others reported how it “increase[d] [their] sense of responsibility in relation to the course” and fostered a sense of belonging within a learning community: “The structure helped encourage consistent engagement and accountability to other students, as well as mitigate the separation by making us interact with one another on a regular basis.”
That said, we’ve encountered challenges in relinquishing partial control of our classes. After all, we’re not present during the peer-to-peer sessions themselves. We need to trust our students are attending and pulling their weight in their sessions (and, in our specific case, speaking French throughout). For the most part, we’ve found our students respond well to this trust being placed in them, and it becomes clear in the Zoom sessions whether they’ve done the work or not. However, this semester we’ve also introduced a weekly journal task in which students will reflect in French on what they learned and discussed in their peer-to-peer work, and what did and didn’t work. Later in the semester, they’ll turn these reflections into a more polished response that will replace an existing writing task worth 10 percent of the course grade.
The aim of this journal is not just to bolster students’ accountability to their peers but to get them thinking differently about their own learning. We want them to compare themselves less with each other and more with their former selves -- with their performance from the previous week and the previous semester. Ultimately, we don’t want our students to passively follow the instructions we give them but rather to understand why we’re asking them to study in this way -- to think critically about their own learning process and to cultivate the confidence and responsibility required for them to truly progress.
This past year has placed immense pressure on our students’ attention spans, learning needs and mental health. Synchronous online delivery has many benefits. But balancing videoconferencing with asynchronous peer-to-peer work encourages students to take control of the content and connect with one another in authentic ways. What was originally an emergency pivot to online delivery has become a more sustainable solution for the semester (or semesters) to come.
Of course, it isn’t the same as being back in the classroom. But we’ve learned that peer-to-peer work can foster a level of engagement, responsibility and creativity that we wouldn’t have thought possible when the pandemic first began.