How Do Peers Impact Learning—Virtual Edition?

As education has moved increasingly online, it’s important to understand how peers can help one another learn in virtual settings. Yet, surprisingly, there is very little direct evidence on peer-to-peer teaching in online environments. Erik Kimbrough, Andrew McGee, and Hitoshi Shigeoka designed a simple experiment to understand the effects of peer-to-peer teaching on learning, with special emphasis on investigating whether grouping students by ability affected peer-to-peer teaching.

To provide a measure of initial ability, our undergraduate participants completed a series of logic puzzles after receiving some basic instruction on how to solve them. Using this information, the research team constructed groups that were either very similar or very different in ability, which would allow them to investigate the effects of “tracking,” the practice of grouping similar-ability individuals in classrooms. They provided an opportunity for virtual peer-to-peer teaching.

After the teaching period, participants again completed logic puzzles on their own, providing a measure of how much they had learned. Compared to a baseline without peer interactions, the evidence showed that peer-to-peer teaching substantially improves performance, especially for lower performing participants and especially when they are grouped with high performers.

Is there a take-home message educators can apply when they teach online? According to the authors, “Our results provide valuable guidance for teachers who want to create small group interactions in online (or hybrid) classes, as these interactions can be valuable and seem to work better when groups are composed of students who differ from one another and thus have much to teach one another.”

Read the study in the Journal of Human Resources: “How Do Peers Impact Learning? An Experimental Investigation of Peer-to-Peer Teaching and Ability Tracking,” by Erik O. Kimbrough, Andrew D. McGee, and Hitoshi Shigeoka.

Erik Kimbrough (@bemusement) is at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University. Andrew McGee is at the Department of Economics, University of Alberta. Hitoshi Shigeoka is at the Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.

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