Do peers influence the learning environment and how individuals in a group learn?

A few months ago, I began teaching English reading and writing to students in Indian villages through AID India’s Learning Beyond Limits (LBL) program. Covid struck these villages like it did the rest of the world and education was almost shut. The LBL program aimed at providing alternate ways to learn and to keep the love of learning going. Since starting in January 2021, I have taught three different groups over a five-week period each. While all groups learned to improve their reading and writing, some learned a lot more than others. The groups that learned more were able to write stories with multiple paragraphs and narrate them with ease. Additionally, those groups were more involved with every aspect of the class and their collective attitude towards learning was superior. The common pattern in these groups was a subset of enthusiastic students whose behavior was mimicked by others! This got me asking the question: To what extent do peers influence classroom learning and how do individuals learn in a group? 

Classroom engagement is an important element of learning as it promotes meaningful learning experiences and pushes the students’ critical thinking (University of Washington). I observed that peers influence that engagement more than teachers do. My second group (the team was called Dora) was a highly engaged one, so much so that I had to work harder to keep up. In the first class with that team, one student (let’s call her Dia) participated actively by asking and answering questions, sent her homework through WhatsApp, and offered to read stories in the class. Her attitude rubbed off onto the rest of the class, causing them to participate and learn more. Soon all began to mimic her behavior and I saw everyone enthusiastically participate in the discussions. The more Día engaged, the more consistently the entire class stayed engaged. In fact, the whole class stayed on video in zoom once she switched her video on! This led to one of the best discussions we had in any class in the program. On the other end, I taught another group (Mickey) that was initially less engaged. No one answered questions unless called out, nor submitted homework consistently, nor volunteered to read in class. I noticed in the first two groups that when one student engaged actively in class, the others did the same. However, a group remained largely inactive when there was no one student who actively engaged. So, I applied my learning from the other groups to the Mickey group. I encouraged one student to participate more to see if that has an impact on the rest. And it did! By the end of last session, we saw all students in the Mickey group come on video in zoom, participate in story reading and even sent their homework back! So, it was clear to me that peers do influence the classroom learning environment in a significant way!

I observed an added anthropological variable in the third group (Mickey) in comparison to the first two groups. While the first two had mixed genders, Mickey students were all females. Is lack of gender diversity a factor that impacts the learning environment? A great topic for another blog that I intend to explore.

Few factors I have noticed contributing to the “peer influence effect” are gamification, peer exchange and peer influence. Watch out for my next blog that covers these factors in detail and how they impact a group’s learning environment. Until then, I hope you enjoyed the read!

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