If you’ve ever taught a class, you probably know how interesting it can be to watch students’ behavior when they feel lost or confused. Most don’t proudly shoot their hands up to publicly announce, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Instead, as a first line of defense, many lean over to their neighbors and whisper, “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
Peers are an amazing learning and teaching resource, but I can’t tell you the number of organizations, and even classroom instructors, who have asked me, “How do we stop employees or learners from wasting their time asking or answering each other’s questions?” Two words: You don’t. Trying to stop the peer-to-peer support grapevine is virtually impossible, and if we study the potential effectiveness of peer instruction, maybe it’s not the best idea.
Peers helping one another has actually proven to be an effective form of instruction. There are two forces at work here. One is the relevance factor. The very definition of a peer implies that this is an individual another learner can relate to. They understand the business context of questions in a way that few support resources can equal. Peers have the innate ability to diagnose and react to problems, and there’s an element of comfort that makes learning easier during a fairly stressful time. Another interesting reality is that the helper often benefits from the interaction as much, if not more, than the learner. When a mentor teaches others something he or she has learned, it can be one of the most effective ways to internalize knowledge.
So, with all these things going for it, why is peer instruction so frequently discouraged? It’s the disruption and ineffectiveness factors. Just turning learners loose on one another may not be the best use of their time or the shortest journey to the correct answer. Peer mentors can be ineffective in their instruction and incorrect in their answers. The learner with a question is taking his peer away from work she has to get done. These are legitimate concerns that need to be considered, but they can be managed in ways that will allow this invaluable and unavoidable resource to be utilized.
Peer instruction can be effective, but it needs to be planned, monitored and managed. The problem is that most individuals have developed terrible habits, which can lead to problems. Peer mentoring or coaching needs to be taught. It needs to be built into the classroom instruction process. Instructors can talk about effective peer coaching guidelines and encourage them to be used during labs and group activities. Allow students to work together on projects in class and mentor their interactions. Discuss and post effective peer support strategies. Teach peers to utilize reference materials and job aids instead of simply giving out answers. These and other guidelines will start teaching effective peer instruction in a safe and supportive environment.
When the learners return to their workplaces, the lessons learned in the classroom need to be brought along to their desktops. Many organizations have begun to recognize individuals whom other employees tend to gravitate toward. Instead of ignoring the fact that these local peer experts are constantly hounded for their expertise, companies now recognize them for it and give them the responsibility and time to mentor their peers. These individuals are not only available to answer questions, but also are there to grow and develop the mentoring skills of others. The goal remains an independent and self-sufficient workforce, so the intent of these local experts is not to simply create another help desk. The instructional techniques and resources learned in class are carried over to the work environment and are reinforced and developed. Learning to support each other becomes an ongoing and structured process—not a one-time event that was suggested and tried in class.
These suggestions only begin to tap the many ways peer instruction can be promoted and utilized. No matter which technique is used to manage this resource, the productivity gains are benefits most organizations can’t do without. Peer-to-peer support is happening and can be effective. It’s up to each chief learning officer to decide to ignore it or embrace it.
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning. He has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. For more information, e-mail Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.