We're All in This Together: How Peer-Assisted Learning Makes Everyone Strong

We're All in This Together: How Peer-Assisted Learning Makes Everyone Strong

Jessica López Espinosa, América Daniela Valero Rodríguez, Amairany Vega Bravo, Gabriela Vázquez-Armenta, Mildred Lopez
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-6756-5.ch008
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Peer-assisted learning (PAL) is a popular learning method in health science education. It involves students assuming roles as teachers and learners and can be categorized based on the academic relationship between students and the teacher-learner ratio. Its effectiveness is attributed to peer interaction and similarity in knowledge levels. This method offers cognitive, pedagogical, behavioral, and social benefits, enhancing critical thinking, professional development, and motivation to learn. Teacher-students gain confidence, knowledge, and teaching skills, while learner-students benefit from improved comprehension and a positive learning environment. For universities, PAL prepares future educators, reduces faculty workload, and is cost-effective. However, concerns about the quality of interactions and teacher-students' qualifications exist. Monitoring content and providing guidance are important. This method is a valuable tool in medical education. With training, support, and quality assurance, PAL enhances the learning experience and develops competent healthcare professionals.
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The subject matter of education in medicine and health sciences is both extensive and complex. In higher education, the prevalent method of teaching often involves passive learning through lectures, which may not actively engage students in the learning process (Zhang & Maconochie, 2022). Consequently, students in these fields have resorted to peer teaching for centuries as an effective means to enhance their learning (Olaussen et al., 2016). Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) has gained global popularity in recent decades as an active learning approach, where undergraduate and graduate students, or even practicing professionals collaborate to teach and learn from one another (Falchikov, 2003). For professionals, Peer groups, a leading-edge format of Continuous Professional Development, were created in the Netherlands in 1979 (Chernysh & Korolenko, 2023).

Within these interactions, students can take on the roles of both teacher and learner. For the sake of consistency, we will use the term 'students' to refer to those enrolled in medicine and health sciences who participate in peer learning, 'professors' to denote those who provide professional instruction, 'teachers' for students taking on the role of instructor, and 'learners' for those acquiring knowledge. Additionally, the terms mentor-apprentice or tutor-tutee may also apply in certain contexts.

How It Works

The PAL strategy is widely used and recognized for its effectiveness in the learning process. According to Guraya and Abdalla (2020), its popularity can be explained by two theories: social constructivism and cognitive learning. The first theory suggests that students feel more comfortable interacting with their peers than with their teachers, making it easier for them to seek help. The second theory proposes that the similarity in knowledge level among peers can enhance the understanding of students' learning needs. As shown in Figure 1, Loda et al. (2019) describe these factors as 'social congruence' and 'cognitive congruence', respectively, and argue that both are key elements for the success of peer teaching.

Figure 1.

The convergence of the cognitive congruence and social congruence theories explains the success and popularity of peer assisted learning among medical and other health-science students

(Loda et al., 2019)


Despite its widespread recognition, accurately defining the scope of PAL remains a challenge, mainly due to the growing interest and research in this field, leading to a multitude of terms and definitions describing its various manifestations. To promote consistency in the literature and ease program implementation, research, and inter-institutional communication, Olaussen et al. (2016) proposed a comprehensive classification system. It considers the academic relationship among participating students (or professionals) and the teacher-student ratio or proportion.

The relationship among students refers to the academic year or level they are currently in. When students are from the same academic year and program or have the same amount of experience, it is considered a relationship between 'peers.' A relationship is classified as 'close peers' or 'near peers' when teachers and students are separated by at least one academic year or belong to different programs or majors. Additionally, the teacher-student ratio categorizes peer teaching into three types: mentoring, tutoring, and didactic. Programs are classified as mentoring when the ratio of teachers to students is 1:1 or 1:2 (creating a microenvironment), tutorial when there is one teacher for every 3 to 10 students, and didactic when the ratio exceeds 1:10 (Table 1).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Didactic: Teacher-centered method of instruction to deliver lessons of factual information.

Student: Person who is learning at a college or university.

Active Learning: Approach that involves actively engaging students in their learning.

Peer: Person who is in the same age group, social position or has the same abilities as other.

Teacher: Student who is helping other students learn.

Faculty/Professor: Teaching staff of a university or college.

Mentoring: To provide academic assistance with a specific subject.

Peer-Assisted Learning: Strategy in which students from similar backgrounds help each other learn.

Tutoring: To provide feedback, advice, and guidance for a small group.

Passive Learning: Approach where all the teaching is provided by the professor and absorbed by the student.

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