The Power of Students Teaching Students

He outlined his lesson plan, which called for a discussion of the short story he’d assigned for homework. With a smile, I assured him that he was more than ready to teach. He sat silently for a few seconds and then asked in a quavering voice, “What if they don’t do my homework? Then what will we talk about?” As a veteran educator and administrator, I’ve mentored many rookie teachers. The young man worrying about homework compliance was as rookie as it gets: a seventeen-year-old about to make his first presentation to my independent study seminar.

Let me backtrack a moment to tell you how I came to independent study, the program I directed  for many years at the Horace Mann School. I was teaching a full range of English classes when the school announced a new course, an interdisciplinary independent study seminar. Participants would pursue individual projects of their own design—American writers of the mid-20th century, a history of political cartoons, the psychology of superstition, oil painting, the biology of leeches, and so forth. The course design put all those kids in one room twice a week. Was I interested? I was! I was also terrified. Keeping track of individual projects seemed doable, but what on earth would the class do during seminar? I considered assigning general readings, but I rejected this approach because I didn’t want to cut into the time available for students’ projects. I also vetoed a plan to roam around offering helpful hints as the kids worked. There was not enough space in the classroom for the artist’s easel and the leech tank, to cite just one of many reasons.

I decided to put students in charge of the class. The most obvious configuration was a short statement from each: “This is what I learned last week and what I’m planning to do next week.” But a quick skate across the surface of each project would have minimal value. Finally, I hit upon this idea: students would take turns teaching, once per grading period.

What began as a survival mechanism became a series of happy revelations:

  • Students’ understanding deepened. As all teachers know, when you explain something to someone else, your grasp of the subject improves. You delve into details you might otherwise have skipped over lightly. You articulate assumptions, and in doing so, consciously evaluate them.
  • Students worked harder. No one wants to stand in front of the room with nothing to say, especially when the audience is made up of classmates. A bonus: presentation dates serve as natural deadlines, the moment when everything has to come together and make sense.
  • Skills improved. Serving as teacher-for-a-day hones skills such as public speaking, discussion moderation, poise under pressure, and time management.
  • Independence fostered interdependence. A passion for learning and creating is contagious, a response that is amplified when the teacher is a peer. Because all the students take that role at some point, they empathize with their classmates and learn to rely on each other.  

At my school, independent study was a separate course, but I was so pleased with the student-as-teacher model that I adapted it for my traditional classes. To start, I altered one of my go-to English 11 assignments: select a poem, analyze its form and content, and present your findings to the group. I was accustomed to seeing attentive faces during these classes, but I knew that behind the faҫade, minds were wandering. Then I asked presenters to actually teach the poem—to prepare questions, assign short homework responses, and facilitate a discussion. I measure the success of my own lessons by the quality of class responses, so I applied that standard to my student-teachers. Any good ideas class members contributed counted towards the presenter’s grade. Because the “teacher” wasn’t a professional, I didn’t subtract points if someone in the class made an error or if the presenter couldn’t answer a question, unless it related to something the presenter should have known. The result? Kids got more involved and therefore learned more.

I soon developed a repertoire of student-as-teacher strategies, some I created and others I adapted from classes I observed, such as these three:

  • A middle school science teacher identifies any student who has mastered a skill as a “local expert” whom other students may consult if they need help. Can’t focus the microscope? Ask Carl. Having trouble charting data? Jenny can show you how to do it.
  • A math professor parcels out sample problems and asks students to teach each other how to solve them. He requires every “teacher” to write an explanation of the mathematical principles involved and post it on the class website.
  • In a foreign language class, students select a topic that interests them, such as music or cooking or politics. They compile a vocabulary list of useful terms (food names and recipe techniques, perhaps), teach the words, and run practice drills during class. The adult teacher assists with pronunciation as needed.

I should note that although my teaching has mainly been on the high school level, I’ve seen the student-as-teacher model succeed in middle school and college classes and in a homeschooling setting. It works with students of all skill levels, in a variety of subject areas, in time frames as long as an entire academic year or as short as a single class period. Even tiny adjustments can alter the class dynamic, turning passive recipients of information into active learners. And that’s the real power of students teaching students.

Geraldine Woods has taught every level of English from fifth grade through Advanced Placement at both St. Jean Baptiste High School and The Horace Mann School in New York City. She is the author of more than fifty books, including Independent Study That Works: Designing a Successful ProgramSentence.: A Period to Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers, and 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way. She is also the creator of the Grammarian in the City blog, which explores a variety of topics related to language, grammar, and writing. She lives in New York City. 

Independent Study That Works: Designing a Successful Program by Geraldine Woods is now available wherever books are sold!

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