Putting Students in a Position to Give Instruction, Not Just Receive It

A 2019 study regarding what happens when high school students give pep talks to their peers revealed something surprising: The student giving the talk “often benefits even more” than the one receiving it, according to a review of the report written by Amelia Harper for the online news source Education Dive. The study was conducted by four authors, including well-known “grit” theorist Angela Duckworth, who set out to see “whether giving motivational advice raises academic achievement for the advisor.” 

To test this theory, the researchers worked with close to 2,000 high school students in seven “diverse public high schools” from around the United States. The goal of the study, which was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be found on the organization’s website, was to do a “large-scale field test of advice-giving as a zero-cost nudge to improve a policy-relevant outcome: high school grades.” (Simply paying students to do better in school does not typically work, according to the researchers.)

The students’ grades were measured in one core academic course of their choice, in addition to a math class. The study was set up this way to ensure more buy-in from participants (by giving them a choice) and to assess whether giving advice to other students would lead to improved grades in a class that tends to be “anxiety-provoking” (such as math). Along the way, the participating students completed online exercises that asked them to identify some ideal study habits, including recommendations for best places to prepare for a test or get homework done. One group was then assigned to share these insights⁠—including a letter they had been asked to write to a peer in need of school-related advice⁠—with younger students. Meanwhile, a control group did the same activities but did not share their advice with others.

The results showed that those who were asked to commit their thoughts around best practices for studying to paper and directly share them with another student did better in their own classes. Although the researchers acknowledged that more information is needed to more fully understand why giving advice to others seemed to lead to greater success for the study participants, they appear to have arrived at one clear conclusion:

“Most important, our findings highlight the underappreciated motivational power of placing people in a position to give, not just receive.”

Myriad benefits

The Education Dive review of this study lists many benefits beyond the documented rise in participants’ grades, including the following:

  • Students tend to like receiving advice and information from their peers, “especially in the adolescent years,” and may therefore be more inclined to respond well.
  • Allowing for peer-to-peer advice sessions tends to foster closer connections and respect among students, which in turn can help nurture a more positive school climate overall.

  • The act of writing down and thinking critically about how to do well in school helps “cement” the information in an advantageous way for the student tasked with sharing the insights. 

  • The advice-based approach is less costly than many other methods, including incentives such as performance-based pay.

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According to the researchers, one reason why this approach appears even more helpful for those giving the advice could be that “people who advocate for specific opinions or beliefs come to believe what they advocate, to mitigate cognitive dissonance.” For Michigan-based school counselor Nicole Coleman, who has helped create student-to-student mentorship programs throughout her career, this amounts to positive peer pressure. In a 2018 piece for the online education resource site Edutopia, she argued that “we should embrace the power” of students’ ability to influence one another, rather than fear it.

In her Edutopia post, Coleman described the mentorship program she created at the middle and high school level that involves mentors working with mentees diagnosed with either autism or a learning disability. Rather than solely crafting advice to pass on, the student mentors offer direct support that can include accompanying their peers to class, taking notes for them, and otherwise “keeping them on task.” 

Like the advice-centered study, Coleman's program puts students in a position of giving instead of just receiving. According to Coleman, the program is an elective course option that involves students providing social as well as academic support to peers who are often struggling in some way. The mentors are also required to engage in reflection and critical thinking, and to meet with a teacher as a group at least once per week to review any program-related challenges or issues.

The overall impact of Coleman’s work has been similar to that uncovered by the study profiled in Education Dive—students in the mentorship program gained confidence, saw an increase in their grade point averages, and overall felt more socially connected to their school. According to Coleman, seeing even some of the most vulnerable students experience growth “has been astounding.” 

Robust research

According to high school teacher Jessica Lander, writing for the Harvard Graduate School of Education website

There is a large and longstanding body of research measuring the positive impact of peers teaching peers. The effect is twofold. Researchers have found that learning from fellow students fosters deep understanding of the material and a positive attitude toward the subject matter. But studies have also found that the benefit is mutual—that simply preparing to teach others deepens one’s own knowledge. I see the powerful effects of peer education every week in my classroom.

Lander went on to share the history of peer-based teaching and mentorship before noting that tapping into the positive, mutually beneficial power of student-to-student instruction can happen in more than one way. Indeed, the how-to list she presented for her fellow teachers includes providing teacher support for relevant extracurricular clubs and programs, as well as incorporating student instruction opportunities into lesson plans through peer-led activities and the exchange of information.

Although the effects of such programs aren't fully understood, the benefits are certainly tangible—so why not give them a try?

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