• The Grateful Academic

Students as Educators: supporting students to become teachers and co-creators

co-create / kō-krē-ˈāt / verb

to make or produce something by working with one or more others


Working with students and supporting their learning is massively rewarding. In my role as an educator, I see students grow not only in terms of their knowledge and skills but also have the privilege to see them grow as individuals, and see their attitudes and behaviours change as they go through the education journey.

Much of what I do on a day to day basis involves supporting and facilitating students both in small and large group teaching settings, where I get to witness the learning process first hand. One of the things I find most exciting when in a room of students working on projects, seminar or in a lab happens when I'm not talking - the task phase of the learning experience.

Almost immediately when you set a task, you hear the burble of voices start around the room as the students initiate conversations. It is this energy and life of in person teaching that I think I have missed most during covid-19 restrictions. In the classroom, the combined voices of multiple groups fills the air with an energy and excitement. I acknowledge that not all of the conversations might be on the topic at hand, but that's ok too. Being together and having space to chat and build rapport is an essential part of the learning environment feeling safe and friendly. Think of Maslow's hierarchy and the physiological, safety and belonging needs that we all need to underpin a journey towards learning and self actualization [1]. Watching the groups work, you start to see a wonderful learning experience start to unfold, with students learning for themselves, together and importantly from each other they act as each other’s teachers.

Learning collaboratively is such a powerful tool and one that is often underestimated by students. I sometimes chat to students about their preferences around group learning, and particularly with the students in the early stages of learning journeys, I find they show a preference for working independently. The reasons they share range in nature, but much is about control and autonomy over outcomes, and that their previous experiences have encouraged them to work independently, to secure high grades for example. Most have worked collaboratively on projects, but may not had entirely positive experiences of doing so. Often the work has been based around assessment rather than round the learning journey itself - competition over collaboration influencing their point of view. As educators, we have the opportunity during this learning process to take assessment out of the picture, and encourage learning for learning's sake. A wonderful opportunity for students to expand and dive into a subject area that they love.

So back to the energy of the chatting in the room, where our students are busy learning through teaching each other. So what are they gaining, and why is this type of learning so powerful?

Whitman is reported to have introduced the term 'near-peer teaching in 1988, in an Association for the Study of Higher Education Report, Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice [2], and many authors have gone on to explore and evaluate the advantages of such programs.

Grounded in pedagogic social learning theory it is no surprise that we intrinsically learn from those around us. We do so throughout our whole lives, in essence everyone can be our teacher (read more in www.thegratefulacademic.com blogs on learning and support). Engaging students as educators either informally in class or more formally through peer and near-peer teaching schemes has multiple benefits. Not only is it a powerful method which helps the ‘learner’, but it also develops skills in the ‘teacher’. Both gain not only competence, but also confidence. They also learn about each other and the hidden curriculum around professionalism, team working, support and shared responsibility and decision making. There are also advantages for the faculty as this type of scheme can also relieve pressure on teaching and resource pressures (Fig.1).

Fig.1 Rationale for implementing peer teaching schemes
(adapted from Olle Ten Cate and Durning, 2007 [3])

Watching these powerful interactions, and seeing the students grow in confidence as they support each other to learn, is once of the most enjoyable parts of my work, and has led me to get involved in integrating peer teaching schemes at my home institution.

I co-direct a scheme where students act as near-peer teachers in life support skills. It is an absolute privilege to watch these student teachers at work, supporting the junior student learners and sharing their knowledge, all the while gaining in confidence and honing their own skills. The community of practice that developments, facilitates not only learning, but opportunities for collaborations around scholarship of learning and teaching (SOTL) formal research projects and community outreach work. The student voice is central to the success of the scheme and the format and trajectory of the scheme involves the student committee at every stage of development. Many of these students teachers have gone on to undertake educational roles themselves, and alumni return as role models for the next generation.

If you have not yet had the opportunity to work with students collaboratively in this way, here are a few tips for how to foster collaborative learning environments both formally and informally and encourage the development of your students not only as learners, but as powerful agents of change as teachers.

6 top tips for supporting students to be teachers and co-creators


Further reading:

[1] McLeod SA (2020) Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[2] Whitman, NA, Fife, JD. Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, 1988. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED305016.pdf

[3] Olle Ten Cate & Steven Durning (2007) Peer teaching in medical education: twelve reasons to move from theory to practice, Medical Teacher, 29:6, 591-599, DOI: 10.1080/01421590701606799

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