It was with some amount of sadness that I had my last peer-driven learning classes  on Wednesday. They handed in their final papers, we listened to the last presentation, and we said goodbye. As we watched an interview with on of the pilots who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, in (partial) preparation for a discussion on the ethics and morals of modern warfare, I looked around the room. Every student was sitting there, raptly watching. The discussion afterwards was engaging and interesting, not to mention that most of the class participated.
It wasn’t perfect (more on that below), but this was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. To watch my students embrace an opportunity to explore, discover, and then share their findings with their peers was amazing. Their presentations were, largely, well-thought out and engaging. There was still an over-reliance on PowerPoint (seriously, if you don’t like it when your professor uses it, why WHY do you insist on using it, too?), but I think it really reflects how these students have been educated throughout their schooling.
This was also reflected in the types of “homework” some of the groups assigned each other. The idea (my idea) was for the homework to read and then write/reflect in a directed way. The students came up with factual/informational questions for their peers to answer that while certainly ensured that the students read, they didn’t encourage any sort of engagement with the text beyond identifying information. Again, it saddens me to think that this is the only way many of these students have ever learned: On Bloom’s Taxonomy, the students think that teaching means engaging students on the lowest level, remembering.
But even if the groups sometimes only required their peers to remember what they read, the groups themselves, in developing ways to teach the materials/subject matter to their peers, had to engage with the texts and topic in ways that move far beyond remembering, ways that I could only hope they do when I assign readings. What was particularly revealing was when the groups shared what didn’t make the cut, what they read/watched, discussed, and ultimately left out. By challenging my students to move beyond the text, they began to experience that learning isn’t confined to what a professor assigns.
This is, however, a writing class, and so, how did their papers turn out? Having just received them (and had three other classes to teach today), I haven’t had the chance to really sit down and look at them. But, on the surface, the students choose topics to write about that were of interest to them, and (because of the varied and rich nature of the presentations) they really explored their topics in depth. Their writing, while not perfect (what writing ever is?) was well-organized, again I’d like to think that it was as a result of having to organize two classes worth of material to teach. It forced them to think about what they “say” and when, leading them to transfer those lessons to their papers.
I will be making a few minor modifications next semester. First one, the projects/presentations come first . Second, I will be modeling the type of open-ended, engaged questions I hope the students to ask in their “homework.” This way, I hope to accomplish two things: push the presenters even more and “require” more writing from the students day-to-day. I am also going to come up with clearer guidelines for the students’ written part of their project, as well as weekly progress reports during their preparation time.
I told my students how proud of them I am and how thankful I am for them this past semester; if they hadn’t bought into this experiment and experience, the class would have flopped, leading me to probably abandon the idea. Maybe the people who should be most grateful for my students’ this semester are those who are taking my class next semester; because of the success of the first peer-driven experience, there will be a second.