Peers Give Students More Reason to Learn

Students are more motivated to learn when their peers tell them there's a reason to learn about a particular subject, according to research from Michigan State University.

Students everywhere have wondered, at some point, why they had to learn about some subject. It is perhaps more common in high schools and colleges, especially in general education courses. Why should one learn about American history when they want to study packaging science, for example?

Every teacher has a response for these questions, and while they make total sense to the teacher, they don’t always get through to the student. When the rationale for studying something comes from a peer, though, it gets through, even if it’s the exact same wording.

A study from Michigan State University has found that students given peer rationales averaged 92 percent on the final grades, while those receiving a teacher rationale only averaged 88 percent. This implies that teachers, while capable of imparting the information that the students need to learn, aren’t as good at telling them why it’s important.

The researchers posit that this might have something to do with the fact that teachers control grades, so their rationale might be seen as simply justifying what they want to teach. However, if a fellow classmate or a young professional tells a student that a subject is worth studying and why, it activates something in that student’s mind. Such people are seen as someone with more directly relatable experience.

“These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process, said study co-author Cary Roseth of Michigan State University. “In other words, as a student I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization. When I hear a peer’s story, it connects to the story I am telling myself about who I want to be in the future.”

This is also supported by the fact that students in the study who received no rationale for why they were studying a subject averaged 90 percent on their final grades. While hearing such an argument from a peer might help, it seems like getting it from a teacher doesn’t, and might even hurt the student’s grades.

This isn’t so say that teachers shouldn’t tell students how or why something they’re learning is important, but that they may want to consider having a peer impart that information so it has a more positive effect on the student.

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