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Peer Learning v. Professor-Knows-All

February 1, 2018

Peer Learning v. Professor-Knows-All

When put that way – peer learning v. professor-knows-all – it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want the latter approach. Indeed, we wrote in Peer Learning: Collaboration over Competition that a peer learning approach “builds the ‘real-world’ skillsets that employers are looking for. And, it’s more fun.” Yet it is not peer-to-peer learning alone that is the most effective way to learn.

As Stanford professor Rick Reis explains it, peer-to-peer learning is “students learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways.” In contrast, professor-to-student learning, technically referred to as ‘teacher-centered education’ is an approach in which the teacher talks while the students listen, where knowledge is a one-way street from the teacher to the students.

“It is not peer learning alone that is the most effective way to learn.” – Click to tweet 

Both peer-to-peer and professor-to-student approaches have benefits. We highlight some of them here.

Benefits of peer-to-peer learning

#1: Soft skills development

Peer learning helps students develop the soft skills that are more essential every day for success in global business. According to research by three professors at the University of Technology Sydney, “Peer learning approaches foster certain lifelong learning skills which are not as readily pursued by other means.” Among them: collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and “learning to learn.”

“Peer learning helps students develop the soft skills that are every day more essential for success in global business.” – Click to tweet

In a world in which “collaboration is THE path to innovation,” teamwork is perhaps the single most important skill. As researchers Ray Gordon and Robert Connor write, “Team-based learning programs provide the learning environment that is most similar to the evolving work environments that students are likely to experience…That is, peer learning encourages business students…to deal with emotional issues, question their assumptions and experiment with new ideas and perspectives.”

#2: Better deep learning

Research shows that students learn a concept more deeply when they have to teach it to their peers. In particular, “Students who work in pairs and groups typically perform better on tests that involve reasoning and critical thinking,” according to a writer for the online math platform Prodigy. Why? Because “students must become active learners, discussing and rationalizing lesson concepts in their own words.”

“Research shows that students learn a concept more deeply when they have to teach it to their peers.” – Click to tweet

#3: Expanded global viewpoints

Learning from and with peers expands students’ global viewpoints. As the Australian professors explain, “Peer learning values cooperation over competition and greater respect for the varied experiences and backgrounds of participants can occur.” Describing her experience learning alongside global peers, Thunderbird alumna Fatima Heravy ‘17 says, “I am learning here [at Thunderbird] and seeing the world differently. Going back [home], I can transfer that knowledge, I can encourage my people to learn and see the world through a different lens. Thunderbird gave me that lens.”

As Thunderbird executive program recruiter Suzanne Sanchez explains it, “When the student body is as diverse as the global business world that graduates will enter into, students get to learn firsthand rather than from a textbook why – and how – business is done differently in different regions of the world. Students also get to live the experience of collaborating across cultures, with people who have diverse ways of thinking.”

Benefits of professor-to-student learning

#1: A professor at the lectern means more control

There are clearly some very profound benefits to the peer-to-peer learning approach. But one thing a peer learning environment isn’t: controlled. What students manage to learn depends heavily on each individual student – and his or her peers. In a professor-centered environment, in contrast, learning is much more controlled by the professor. Then, the professor can more easily ensure that students get the information they need – and will be tested on. Hence a professor-to-student learning environment is often cited as ideal for the dissemination of facts.

“There are clearly some very profound benefits to the peer-to-peer learning approach. But one thing a peer learning environment isn’t: controlled.” – Click to tweet

#2: Professors have valuable expertise to share

No professor knows all, of course; but at Thunderbird at least, every professor knows a lot. And that is valuable expertise students want to absorb. For example, Thunderbird alumna Fungai Mandaza '17 recounts a story from her freshman year fall break trip to visit a friend in Michigan. During the visit, her social group began comparing their various graduate schools and the difficulty of coursework.

When one young man mentioned an especially tough finance course and textbook, Mandaza wondered why her Thunderbird finance class didn’t even use a textbook. “So I just asked him, ‘Out of curiosity, what’s the name of your book?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s by this Moffett guy.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute? Moffett? Can I see his picture?’ And there he was... my Thunderbird finance professor, Dr. Michael Moffett. These students were using a textbook he wrote years ago, and I get to be in class with him every Tuesday at 7 o’clock!”

#3: Professors have learned from experience

Faculty with real-world experience is as essential as ever in business education. As Warren Bennis and James O’Toole write in Harvard Business Review, “If the purpose of graduate business education is to develop executives – leaders – then the faculty must have expertise in more than just fact collection.” So one of the benefits of a faculty-led approach is that professors share their often hard-earned experiences with the class.

At Thunderbird, as Sanchez explains, “learning from faculty who themselves have led teams across cultures adds a layer of global subject matter expertise.” As alumna Mohamed explains it, she loved learning from Thunderbird professors because they reach beyond business theory to include experiences in the field. “I’m so glad I’ve had a chance to learn from them but also to chat with them outside of the classroom and have them as mentors,” she said.

“If the purpose of graduate business education is to develop executives – leaders – then the faculty must have expertise in more than just fact collection.” – Click to tweet

Because there are benefits to a peer-to-peer learning environment and benefits to a professor-to-student environment, the most ideal education program combines both. It includes professor-to-student learning for facts-based knowledge dissemination and to guide students in getting the most out of peer-to-peer learning activities. And it includes peer learning to give students the kind of autonomy in the classroom that they’ll have in the workplace, and leaves them free to build the kind of relationships and, yes, overcome the kinds of conflicts that will leave them vastly better prepared for life in the real world.

Join the discussion!

If you’re a T-bird – current or former – what was your experience with the combination of peer-to-peer learning and professor-to-student learning? Share your thoughts with us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.

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