“When We Teach, We Learn”: Students Who Advise Peers Improve Their Own Grades

“When We Teach, We Learn”: Students Who Advise Peers Improve Their Own Grades

When struggling with an aspect of our education, many of us instinctively ask a peer for help—either because they’re working on the same thing alongside us, or we know they’ve been where we are and can provide some insight.

The benefits of peer-to-peer consults may seem one-sided, as the person receiving the advice is the one who will advance and overcome a roadblock, but according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal, peer teaching and advising can result in improved grades for the student doing the advising.


A psychological nudge
 

Being asked for advice is a good feeling. Not only does it instill confidence in your sense of your own expertise, it engenders a sense of investment in the other person’s success.

PNAS researchers took existing theories that linked advice-giving to increased confidence levels and attempted to prove this hypothesis by focusing on high-school students. In the study, two groups of students—the treatment group and the control group—completed self-assessment measures and a behavioral task. Members of the treatment group were then assigned an eight-minute advice-giving task that required them to write letters to younger students who wanted to do better in school. According to the researchers, “Advice-givers earned higher report card grades in both math and a self-selected target class over an academic quarter. This psychologically wise advice-giving nudge, which has relevance for policy and practice, suggests a valuable approach to improving achievement: one that puts people in a position to give.”

While it may seem questionable that the benefits of an eight-minute activity could really extend over an entire academic quarter, the feeling of being relied upon as a source of information can cultivate strong feelings of leadership and responsibility within a student. Even if the consulted student doesn't know everything about a subject, the fact that they are being looked to for mentorship can be a motivator to conduct a deeper dive into the material—and they may develop a fuller understanding of the concept themselves in the process.

An approach that doesn't break the bank


As the authors of the PNAS study pointed out, peer-advising programs stand to benefit not only students but the school system's bottom line. After all, costs and resources can quickly add up for high schools that rely on two of the most common methods for addressing academic shortcomings: offering financial incentives (i.e. giving monetary rewards to students in exchange for better grades) and providing additional academic help. Moreover, “Both approaches assume that, to improve achievement, people need to receive something they lack … Even worse, offers of help can inadvertently imply to recipients that they cannot help themselves,” the researchers noted. And even if schools are fully equipped to implement financial incentives and academic assistance, there is still no guarantee of improvement—or, as the study authors phrased it, the effects of these approaches “are comparable to, or only slightly larger than, those of this 8-minute, digitally delivered intervention.”


A less anxiety-inducing option


For students struggling academically, the idea of approaching a teacher or other authority figure may feel embarrassing, intimidating, or both. Typically, students find it easier to consult their fellow classmates, and would-be mentors are often only too happy to assist. Through peer instruction, interpersonal skills may blossom, comfort levels stand to increase, and openness abounds; as the advisor builds confidence and self-esteem, the advisee realizes the benefits of “asking questions and receiving immediate clarification.” 

That said, more reserved students may be unwilling to open up to their peers, and tutors might end up having a negative impact by being overly critical or getting frustrated. Educators should also keep in mind the element of parental concern and be prepared to answer questions and address pushback; in fact, some may elect to preemptively speak with or send a note home to parents before initiating a peer-to-peer mentorship program.

When implemented correctly, peer advising can yield immeasurable rewards in the form of more natural interactions, improved social skills, and stronger high-school transcripts for mentors and mentees alike. For peer tutors looking to stand out among a sea of accomplished college applicants, the confidence and leadership abilities developed through peer teaching and advising could very well give them the edge.

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