“Engaging the Imaginations of Digital Learners,” or, from teacher to peer learner

When I was in undergrad, on top of a full course load each semester because my major was Psychology and Pre-Med and I participated in the Honors program, I worked 30 hours per week–20 hours in the Bursar’s Office and 10 in the Tutoring Center. I started working in the Tutoring Center the summer after my first year as a Chemistry tutor at the recommendation of my Chemistry professor. At first, the idea of tutoring was terrifying because I felt I was in no way an expert in Chemistry and I did not know how to convey the information any better than Dr. Sinski. Even after attending tutor training (our Center required every tutor be at least Level 1 certified by the College Reading and Language Association), I did not feel much more confident. Of course learning about active listening and learning styles and types of difficult students was interesting, but none of it seemed to relate to what actually happened in tutoring sessions. Yes, I had students with different learning styles and some were “difficult” students and I listened to them actively, but I wanted tips for actually making my specific material easier for them to comprehend.

Eventually, I realized I wasn’t going to get those tips from any training, but from experience with what worked and what didn’t. I had the tools in my toolbox to get students thinking–the Socratic method, scaffolding, etc.–and I could build rapport with students such that they would be honest and tell me. That was when I realized that the mantra from tutor training that always seemed the most annoying–“you are not a teacher, you are a peer learner”–was perhaps the most important. The point of being a peer-learner was that you should not re-teach the material as you are not an expert, you should simply guide students to the correct answers and better learning by providing tricks for studying and remembering. However, this realization made me think that perhaps everyone would learn better and have a better classroom experience if teachers considered themselves peer learners.

A teacher as a peer learner would be the classroom facilitator, but they wouldn’t just lecture. They would lay a groundwork and then let the students guide the course, just like we would let tutees guide our tutoring sessions. In Contemporary Pedagogy class, several voiced how students do not do the reading before class, so it is difficult to have meaningful discussion. However, I feel like this stems from the fact that students expect that the teacher will lecture on the material regardless and they will then have all the information to do as well on the test as they feel they need to do. But what if we undermined this expectation by changing the way that readings are used for class–not as materials to be taught for adequate knowledge as obtained by testing, but as materials for completing learning activities in the class. For example, in two readings for this week’s Contemporary Pedagogy, A New Culture of Learning and Setting Students’ Minds on Fire, the authors mention how basing the course on an active learning paradigm, such as having a show and tell aspect demonstrating projects created using the skills from that week’s readings or playing a Reacting to the Past game where every student has a role in a debate making history come to life lead to students reading materials not assigned and engaging with fellow students about the course. By working on these projects with students, the teacher can act as a peer learner.

As a chemistry tutor, I eventually did find those tips about how to better get the content “point” across to students, but it was by working through problems with them and making mistakes. When a mistake is made, and you work to learn how to fix it, you never make the same mistake again. Eventually I felt like I learned all the pitfalls to solving Chemistry problems (I didn’t, but by final year tutoring, I had found all the ones my students would come across). And I had accumulated many tips for making content easier to remember (I had a great 30 minute spiel about how to name compounds properly and a flowchart for any conversion problem), but I did not develop them by myself. As a teacher now, and in the future, I don’t want to teach in the traditional sense. I want to be a peer learner. Even in my own field, new research will continue to develop and I will never be a complete expert in the sense of knowing everything there is to know about psychology (or even my niche within it, biological psychology). So, because as a peer learner you are humble and accept help from outside sources, the idea of having a digital aspect to the class is welcome, rather than something to worry about as a distraction. We’re all human, we all get bored, and some content just doesn’t excite us no matter how much our peer learner tries to show us how it relates to our life and interests (believe me, the beauty and importance of chemistry is challenging to get across to students who only seem to care about running track). But we can try to make it fun, and inclusion of games is just one way. I often directed my students to Sporcle for chemistry practice, and I frequently use Kahoot in presentations for seminar classes in grad school. Our students should want to win. Like the students at Quest to Learn, if learning is focused on developing practical skills to solve more problems (learning like occurs in video games, where you do not move onto the next level if you are not ready to learn it–like scaffolding in tutoring!), then school work becomes not only much more exciting, but also much more practical for doing jobs in the digital age.

One final point: because our students are digital learners, even if it is difficult (for example, I myself am terrible at games and coding and most things related to technology), we need to embrace digital resources. That’s also part of being a peer learner–you have to meet the tutee where they are. You can only be helpful if you can keep up and make the material applicable to how they live. Truly, technology can make all the difference. I often think back to when I attended Thrivals 3.0 at the IdeaFest in Lousville. The readings for this week aligned so perfectly. A researcher there spoke about how kids could teach themselves as demonstrated by his Hole-in-the-Wall project. Basically, he just stuck a computer in a wall with no instructions for use in a slum and kids quickly learned by working collaboratively how to use it. As a teacher who is also a peer learner, we can both be the provider of the “computer” and one of the kids learning from the group.

Join the Conversation


  1. Some of your peer-learner stuff brought back some fond memories of my undergrad. I had two professors who used more of a peer-learner approach (I realize now they were the two female professors that I had…not sure if that means something, but I thought I’d mention it). One of them always led class as a disscusion, and adjusted her notes based on what we asked and showed interest in. She never directly answered a question, but would force all the students to give their two sense, and then try to coral us into agreeing on one anwer. At the time this was frustrating because we never knew if that final answer was correct, but the process was good. The other professor would give us character assignments that we would have to study for. During class we would debate ethics and societal impacts of various science activies in the news. In one example we were designer babies/people, clones, traditional humans, animal/human hybrids, and sentient Artificial Intelligence. The goal was to decide the laws around things like AI-rights or if genetic testing is good or if we should enter A Brave New World type of society.

    Both of these were super engaging and could be tremendously effective for teaching, but at least in my case, they were underdeveloped. I feel like I learned roughly the same as an average lecture, I just enjoyed it more. I’d like to see more classes of this style, but content has to be carefully adapted for that style of teaching to make sure the message gets accross.


  2. Both of those courses sound amazing! I never had a course like that–even my senior seminar was not very discussion based as I always expected a seminar class to be. I do find it interesting that you mentioned they were the female professors you had–I feel like female professors have a greater burden to make their classes more enjoyable or interesting to students due to biased course evaluations (see a quick review of research here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/14/study-says-students-rate-men-more-highly-women-even-when-theyre-teaching-identical). I appreciate you giving the caveat that teachers using peer-learner approaches need to develop the class more. I will certainly keep that in mind.


    1. I think you’re probably right, especially in STEM fields. So much of STEM is built around telling women they can’t do math and other things, that many students (even today) still have doubt in a female professor’s abilities. Sometimes I think that leads female professors to give harder exams and things to knock people down a notch or something. The problem with this is that she’ll get called a b*tch or accused of poor teaching style while a male professor doing the same thing is just a tough grader…which goes back into that article and how they are evaluated. And thank you for sharing that article!


      1. I definitely agree that gender stereotypes affect STEM female professors probably more than any other discipline. I did some research in undergrad examining stereotype threat, and the whole “girls can’t do math” thing really does have an impact on girls’ performance in STEM.


  3. Hey Heather, enjoyed reading your experience as a Chemistry tutor. And it’s very relatable, you get better the more students you engage with, the more problems you tackle. It is so much important to be peer learners! One immediately becomes a better teacher the moment they embrace this truth that they are also students with a few more years experience. I believe teaching would also become easier if we take this burden off us that we have to be all-knowing and always correct! Because that is simply not possible. The ideal approach is to guide the students in what we believe is the right direction, and then observe their take on it.
    I am still not sure where I stand on the fun-based learning approach, specifically in schools. Somehow I don’t see a complete shift to use of technology and games being the ultimate solution to future pedagogy. I mean didn’t old classroom lecture methods have some merits? School education is not just about learning problem-solving skills. We all developed certain social skills like working on homeworks together, discipline to read books on our own, to study for tests. The test results may not be very important but the self-disciplining definitely is. I feel like without such a structure, most kids would choose to learn only what captures their attention, and I fear that would not be a complete school education. My take would be a mix of traditional lecture practices in classroom set-ups and innovative use of technology(like game-based learning), during classes as well as for exams.


    1. Riya, thank you for your comment! I agree with you, we shouldn’t scrap the old-school lecture. Like the post we had to read for this week—there are at least 4 things (and definitely more) that lecture is good for! Even as a Chemistry tutor, I had to do a little lecturing, because if students never grasped the basic foundation, there was no way to ask them deeper questions. So there does have to be a blend of lecture, discussion, and games as well as some set of readings that sparks a general idea of what the course is about. Not everything can be group work either, as students do need individual performance goals and feedback. I don’t think tests are the only way though, especially as I feel like they spark more anxiety than learning. I can’t deny as a student I always preferred tests and quizzes to essays and projects, but I do feel like I learned more and had more fun (and a greater ability to show what I knew) in essays and projects, especially when teachers required turning them in in steps to give feedback. So, I think when I stress I want to be a peer learner, it’s more of a comment on how I want to be perceived by my students, rather than how I will teach my class. Even for the lab I’m teaching now, I give brief lectures before work time on the final project where I’m having teams compete to create the best psychometric scale, with interspersed quizzes to gauge individual learning of the software and how the equations we use relate to the concepts. However, attendance even counts for more points than the quizzes, which I’m using also to gauge how well I did as a teacher, rather than a pure assessment of the students.


  4. I love your insights on peer learner/tutor. It sounds like you really helped the people you worked with. It is so true that we learn from one another. I used Kahoot for the first time last semester – and I learned about it from another student in the class!
    Great point on the female professors too. I think it would be great if more VT professors would take this course. My daughters have had some interesting ones. One person only gave the top 15% in the class an A…..so your grade basically depends on who ends up in your class for that semester.


    1. Thank you, Cindy! Many of my tutees have stayed in contact, so hopefully that means I really did do a good job helping them! I miss that job frequently. I’m glad more people are using Kahoot though! I love it so much! Oh woah…I’m sorry to hear about some of the grading methods at courses at VT then…I understand they want to incentivize students to do their best, but I don’t think that is the way to do it. One way they tried to incentivize that at my undergrad institution was to give the highest score in the class above a 95% the only A+. So, anyone who got above a 93 still got an A, but only one student got an A+ for the course. Because an A+ wasn’t weighted differently for GPA at my school, this didn’t hurt any students. It did encourage fierce competition amongst the Pre-Med students though. So, I think that could be a better way to push your students to make the grade without hurting anyone whose work is at A level, but it doesn’t make for a friendly classroom amongst the high-achievers, so it’s still not a great idea if the focus is true learning.


  5. Hi Heather,
    Thank you for sharing your experience with tutoring Chemistry students in higher ed. I appreciate how you are thinking through how to work with each of your students on a very human and individual level as a peer-learner; meeting them where they are and being committed to active listening and engagement. Your ideas about changing student expectations of how course material is used is a great way to grab the attention of your students and motivate them to participate. If they know their their success is directly related to the amount of work they put in (VS passively being present for a lecture), they are surely going to either rise to the challenge (or find something else to do with their credits)!


    1. Sara, thank you for your comment! I’m just really hoping that these are ideas are something I will truly be able to implement. My career goal is to return to a small liberal arts college like my undergrad institution, so I expect to have maximum class size of 45, with 25 being the norm, and I think this approach is more feasible in that setting than in large lecture hall classes.


  6. Hi Heather,
    Thank you for this! This is an integral part of my teaching philosophy. I believe each student bring unique perspectives to classroom discussion due to their unique backgrounds, and our job as teachers is to leverage those unique perspectives for the good of everyone – in fact, I learn from my students. I see my job as that of a facilitator who guides discussions in the right direction. This learner-centered approach, I believe, would help students construct knowledge in ways that are meaningful to them, thereby aiding storage in and retrieval from their long-term memory. Interesting post!


    1. Ibukun, thank you for your comment! I am so glad to hear that you have used a similar approach in your classroom and that it is working for you. I only started teaching this semester, so feel like I have a lot to learn, but knowing that my ideal way to do so can function is very inspiring. Also, as a psychologist, I appreciate your mention of self-referenced learning, because data shows it is the best way for improved encoding and retrieval!


  7. Hi Heather,
    I enjoyed so much reading about your experience to move from teacher to peer learner. I highly appreciate your efforts especially that your teaching chemistry. Unfortunately, I think the majority of teachers in STEM majors use conventional way of teaching. I studied engineering and the majority of the engineering and science classes that I studied were taught through pure lecturing. The role of the teacher in those classes was mainly transmitting knowledge to students through a top-down approach and then examine students’ learning through well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and the students are asked to find the correct solution. I believe this is the right way to teach future scientists.
    We need many teachers like you. Thanks


    1. Thank you for your comment! In undergrad, I was psych and pre-med, and only two of my psychology classes had professors that tried different things from the traditional lecture. It wasn’t until tutoring that I even really considered there could be another way to teach. I definitely think more professors would adopt a peer-learner approach if they did work as a tutor, or had to take similar training workshops (or even classes like those that are part of the PFP certificate).


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