Student Learning: The Role of Peer Interaction

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Introduction

Recently, there has been a growing curiosity about the impact of peer interaction on student learning. People without any scientific background would argue that peer interaction positively impacts student learning. Nevertheless, there is not enough evidence that this statement is true. To prove or refute this statement, one should better understand what peer interaction is and how it can be applied to student learning.

Thus, according to Rotarwut (2021), peer interaction is “the acquisition of knowledge or skill through active helping and supporting among students who are equal in standing or status” (p. 126). It includes paired learning and small group learning when several students assist each other with the acquiring of new material or working on a project. Student learning, or peer learning, can be defined as “collaborative problem solving” that involves two or more children (Hogan & Tudge, 1999, p. 39). When talking about student learning, one refers to the acquisition of knowledge and skills through peer-to-peer interaction and teacher-to-student interaction. Evidence shows that when students discuss mathematical concepts, ethical dilemmas, or scientific education, they absorb more through peer discussion than when they work independently (Cameron & Tenenbaum, 2021, p. 232). This paper will focus on the role of peer interaction in student learning.

Although there are many different theories of knowledge acquisition, the most widely known views are those of Piaget and Vygotsky. At the start of the previous era, the developmental psychologists, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, generated theories of cognitive development that can help students promote their knowledge and facilitate learning (Blake & Pope, 2008, p. 59). In addition, Mugny and Doise introduced the theory of socio-cognitive conflict, according to which competition stimulated learning. Even though these theories have diverse views on peer interaction and student learning, they demonstrate that collaboration and teamwork benefit learning, motivating students and improving their confidence.

Vygotsky’s Theory of Education

Children acquire knowledge through constant interaction with others, especially if these others are in their zone of proximal development. Pursuant to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development (ZPD) “is the primary activity space in which learning occurs” (as cited by Shabani, 2016, p. 2). However, a child can gain mastery only if a person they interact with, be it a peer or an adult, is more able than them. In this case, children learn from their peers or adults through sharing knowledge and a mutual comprehension that occurs in social interaction (Tenenbaum et al., 2019, pp. 3-4). The experimental study that involved 50 students was conducted in the English Reading Comprehension course in 2019 (Rotarwut, 2021, p. 127). The study displayed that students who worked in pairs or small teams could significantly enhance their English reading understanding (Rotarwut, 2021, p. 136). In contrast, those who worked independently showed worse results in the same course. What is more, peer interaction positively impacts student motivation for reading comprehension. One can see that peer interaction facilitates student learning and improves skills and knowledge.

In addition, peer collaboration has a positive influence on second language development. Thus, Tavares (2019) argues that when language learners engage in peer communication, they share thoughts and ideas that are important to them, which makes this interaction meaningful and stimulates them to memorize the information better (p. 114). When the subject is essential to the student, they will attempt to express their thoughts clearly to their peers and learn new words and expressions faster (Tavares, 2019, p. 115). In both cases, peer interaction facilitates student learning and makes students adapt to a new environment and articulate their ideas within specific contexts (Nardo, 2021, p. 336). Moreover, both cases emphasize the importance of asymmetrical relationships between peers, meaning that one student is more competent than another one (Barker et al., 2015, p. 421). However, the question arises: would the children improve their learning process if they were not interested in the subject or had the same competency level? To reply to this question, one should critically examine the evidence mentioned above.

Vygotsky’s theory demonstrates that peer interaction facilitates student learning only if it occurs in the child’s ZPD. However, the theorist does not explain the impact of lower psychological functions (LPF), such as memory and concept establishment, on higher psychological functions (HPF), such as decision-making, cultural transmission of data, and speech and language, in development (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019, p. 6). Thus, it is unclear how memory affects reasoning or language development and what is the role of age and mental development in student learning.

However, despite this gap, Vygotsky’s theory is reasonable and can be applied to peer interaction and student learning only within specific contexts, such as age, skills, and other learning conditions (Tenenbaum et al., 2019, p. 22). Moreover, it is not enough to place a student with a more competent peer and focus on their interaction. Such aspects of development as cultural-historical, individual, and interpersonal should also be considered when analysing the impact of peer interaction on student learning (Hogan & Tudge, 1999, p. 40). Nevertheless, one can assume that peer interaction that occurs in the student’s ZPD facilitates student learning. In spite of that, it is essential to understand how peers can affect each other’s learning processes from the perspective of cognitive development.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development differs from the educational theory of Vygotsky in its explanation of the function of social and individual factors in child growth and advancement. Piaget believed that a child constructed knowledge apart from the social context and that peer interaction could affect learning only when there was a conflict between a child’s own and others’ beliefs (DeVries, 1997, p. 4; Fawcett & Garton, 2005, p. 158). From Piaget’s perspective, a child forms information through experience, testing and editing it within a social interaction process (Erbil, 2020; Gelman, 2009). In such a way, the theorist advocates learning as construction that occurs due to a conflict, while Vygotsky supports learning as appropriation (Blake & Pope, 2008, p. 60). Interestingly, Piaget’s approach suggests that a child will improve learning only in cooperation with another peer with whom they have mutual respect (De Lisi, 2002, p. 6). If there is a constraint in peer-peer relationships, student learning will not be improved. In such a way, children learn from each other when they are in equal status and have cooperative relationships.

When applying Piaget’s theory to peer interaction in the classroom, one should consider four stages of cognitive development. For example, research showed that children learned better when their educators or tutors did not participate in learning activity directly but created an environment to let them solve the task by giving them hints or directions (Ahmad et al., 2020, p. 11). Thus, a child would discover and construct knowledge, assimilating the existing familiarity with the new information. However, if all students in a classroom have the same level of expertise, it will not be easy to apply Piaget’s theory to student learning.

During the first three stages of child development, adults play a crucial role in cognitive progress. Thus, teachers guide students in a classroom, engaging them in different tasks and activities and giving them instructions (Blake & Pope, 2008, p. 65). Only when children are in the advanced level of cognitive development and have enough knowledge and critical thinking skills, can they learn through interaction, and Piaget’s theory can be applied (Blake & Pope, 2008, p. 66). In other cases, children cannot facilitate learning through peer-to-peer interaction, which means that Piaget’s theory is not as efficient as Vygotsky’s approach in a student learning environment. Nevertheless, the followers of Piaget modified his theory, focusing more on a socio-cognitive conflict that may occur between peers and affect student learning.

Gabriel Mugny and Willem Doise: Theory of Socio-Cognitive Conflict

Two other theorists who worked under Piaget introduced a new theory of child development: the theory of socio-cognitive conflict. According to this theory, if a communication dispute arises from the confrontation between two peers with different cognitive levels, the child will “be aware of the contradictions of his own mode of reasoning” (Doise et al., 1975, p. 381). It means that a child’s cognitive development is driven by the conflict that occurs within peer interaction. Researchers believed that a child could attain a higher level of cognitive expansion when cooperating with peers “because the disequilibrium [might] come from the divergent point of view of their partner” (Butera et al., 2019, p. 1). Such a conflict stimulates students to explore their questions better to prove their perspective or understand where they are wrong. This theory can be applied to peer interaction and student learning effectively.

To understand the impact of peer interaction on student learning, one should consider the following examples. In one research, scientists asked participants to work on a computer-mediated cooperative learning session (Butera & Darnon, 2017, p. 204). The experiment was aimed to attain educational goals either through mastery or performance. Participants read their texts, answered some questions, and received questions from their peers. If the participants agreed with the peer’s position, there was no difference across goal conditions. However, when one of the partners disagreed, “the mastery goal condition displayed a higher learning score than the performance goal and control conditions” (Butera & Darnon, 2017, p. 204). The study results showed that the partner’s disagreement led to better learning than agreement, but only when the participants were instructed to achieve mastery goals. If they did not receive any instructions and were aimed to attain performance goals, the results would be different.

On the one hand, Mugny and Doise’s theory proves that peer interaction facilitates student learning. On the other hand, if the conflict occurs in a context of social comparison, making students compare their performance and skills, the effect of peer interaction will be negative. Research showed that when a conflict occurred between high-competence participants and low-competence participants, the latter used their defensive mechanisms to protect their point of view instead of improving their knowledge (Buchs & Butera, 2004, p. 81). Therefore, if one peer’s competence may threaten another peer’s competence, the learning process will be affected negatively or will not change. In other cases, socio-cognitive conflict in peer interaction may facilitate student learning.

Does Peer Interaction Support Student Learning? Critical Evaluation

Despite the existing controversy about the effect of peer interaction on student learning, research shows that this effect is rather positive than negative. Students who participated in the study reported that peer collaboration stimulated “students to think, read, conclude, summarize, question, etc.” (Hurst et al., 2013, p. 382). Some students replied that learning with peers was more effective than learning on their own, while one student said that the whole was better than “the sum of the parts” (Hurst et al., 2013, p. 382). Most participants agreed that peer interaction facilitated student learning, created a positive working environment and allowed them to view topics from multiple perspectives (Hurst et al., 2013, p. 390). Research by Byl et al. (2016) complements these findings, showing that “peer learning provides important opportunities to help new students cope in the first year of university and beyond” (p. 300). However, it is important that all students were like-minded and had equal levels of preparation to attain positive results. Here, Piaget’s theory fits these examples the best since it claims that children learn better when they are in equal statuses and have divergent views.

Peer instruction will also facilitate student learning if one of peers is more able than others, and if they are within a zone of proximal development. Research in chemistry and physics education showed that peer-led team learning increased student learning and enhanced “retention while maintaining rigor” (Linton et al., 2014, p. 244). Moreover, cyber charter high school students reported that “their learner-learner interactions were valuable to their learning (83%) and motivational (81%)” (Borup et al., 2020, p. 210). Thus, even if students collaborate and communicate online, these interactions positively affect their learning.

Another research study showed that students effectively used peer-to-peer interaction, communicating online and sharing course materials via social media platforms, like Facebook (Ukwishaka & Aghaee, 2020, p. 111). However, the main limitation of such online interactions is students’ limited knowledge; consequently, not all questions are answered by peers (Ukwishaka & Aghaee, 2020, p. 112). Here, Vygotsky’s theory might be helpful since it demonstrates that peer interaction would facilitate student learning if one of the peers were more competent than others. In addition, Mugny and Doise’s approach may also be applied to these cases, suggesting that students learn better when there is a conflict between their and their peers’ knowledge.

At the same time, there is evidence that peer interactions can affect student learning negatively. Thus, if learner interactions occur without “purposeful and knowledge-constructive collaboration,” they will lead to low task efficiency and low students’ engagement (Moon & Ke, 2020, p. 311). Moreover, when students interact with lower-achieving friends, they have lower academic achievement than those who interact with high-achieving friends (Monyamane & Keletsositse, 2021, p. 68). One can see that the conditions and means by which peer interaction happens play an important role in student learning.

Conclusion

Having analysed three different theories of education and cognitive development, one can conclude that each of these theories supports the argument that peer interaction facilitates student learning. However, Piaget’s approach can only be applied to student learning when one of the peers has more competence than other peers have, thus contradicting the belief that peers are equal. Moreover, this approach is effective only when children are in the final level of cognitive development, which means they can make decisions and critically analyse new information. In other cases, children will not develop their skills and knowledge without additional instructions.

In some cases, the theory of socio-cognitive conflict can also be applied to student learning. For example, if students are high-achieving, and a socio-cognitive conflict occurs between them, they will likely increase their knowledge and motivate them to learn. However, children with lower-achieving status may feel less valued or unappreciated. The conflict will lead to either isolation or to an attempt to prove their righteousness instead of increasing their knowledge. Therefore, Mugny and Doise’s approach can only be used deliberately.

Finally, Vygotsky’s theory of education is the most appropriate approach since it helps explain how peer interaction supports student learning and how it can be used effectively. Vygotsky believed that peer interaction supports learning when the person has more competence and is within a student’s ZPD. In such cases, students perceive knowledge as appropriation and become motivated to learn something new to adjust to a new environment and prove their ideas. Although Vygotsky’s theory has some limitations and needs to consider the conditions in which learning occurs, this approach helps better comprehend the impact of peer interaction on student learning. Still, future research is required to analyse what peer activities are the most effective in facilitating learning and what conditions are the best for students to improve their knowledge. In conclusion, even though there is some evidence that peer interaction negatively affects or has no impact on student learning in some cases, the learner-learner collaboration will support learning if it is used properly.

References

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