Every Scholar is an Island… or not – Peer Learning & Community

A previous professor of mine used to give this adage: ‘Knowledge comes through learning, but mastery comes through teaching.’

In many ways this rings true with experience being the counterpart to knowledge that aids in gaining mastery of a subject. One may know everything that there is to know about an internal combustion engine, but without the experience in bolting one together, it is unlikely that the resulting engine will hold together. In the physical and practical STEM disciplines it is common that students undertake intern years at the end of their degree to gain practical experience. While in Medicine the SODOTO methodology of See One, Do One, Teach One is widely practiced. But for the disciplines down the theoretical and discursive end of the spectrum, this sort of ‘practical experience’ is commonly quite amorphous. Indeed, if you are studying first century community and identity, then practical first hand experience of the first century is obviously impossible to get.

798443bdfbadee381a4605a1371c9f18However, this is where the last portion of the SODOTO model comes to bear. While practical experience of many aspects cannot be achieved, the ability to teach each other, and thereby reinforce the knowledge gained through learning, on the way to mastery, is possible. In fact I would argue that in many disciplines, as a factor of limited teaching hours and scope, a significant amount of learning happens outside of the classroom, while teaching each other. 1 While no doubt much learning happens solo, alone with books and research, significant amounts also happen in community and with peers. In this regard peer interaction and teaching each other not only reinforces content, but promotes mastery of it.

Teaching Each Other

The most obvious aspect of a social learning, or educating each other, is the nature of teaching. Now, while some of this teaching will undoubtedly be from material that is not covered in classes, there is even benefit from teaching the material that has been covered in various classes. This act of learning amongst peers, whether it be over a coffee or group studying before tests, helps to reinforce the material that has already been taught and learnt. However, in addition to simply reinforcing the existing material it also helps the overall learning process in two other ways.

rodin_thethinkerFirstly, the process of discussing and reinforcing the material already learnt rarely happens by simply repeating the lecture or textbook verbatim. The differing emphases of people in a group will naturally emphasise different aspects of the material. These different emphases will then require reframing the material in their own thought system, and finally in their own words. This reframing and rephrasing helps with embedding the material learnt, and aids in mastery of the material.

Secondly, as material is discussed and rephrased from different viewpoints, it inevitably will need to be explained from those differing viewpoints. This act of explanation ensures that you have firmly grasped the material, and understand the concepts involved. Plus the pushback and challenge from peers will help with being able to explain complex concepts to others, especially those who haven’t had the opportunity to learn the prior material.

Finally, peer learning helps with challenging and extending your knowledge-base. Inevitably in a peer group there will be a range of backgrounds, abilities, and conceptual approaches. Those who have a better grasp on the material can help extend the learning in new ways, and those who may feel like they are playing catch up can hear the material in a different format that may resonate better. In traditional learning it can be tempting to dismiss those in the class who ask all the hard questions and appear to know it all. But with peer learning you can be alongside to challenge and learn from them, just as they will from you.

Encouraging Each Other

However, study is not all about knowledge and learning, even though structures may be set up that way. A significant amount of time in educational settings is enabled by meeting peers and having social interactions outside of a learning mode. As John Donne meditated ‘No man is an island.’ 2 Rather as he continued on: ‘Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ So too the social interactions that we have in our learning environments are invaluable. The contacts and friends you make over coffee, lunch or beers; at your university or college, or at conferences, are often some of the best peer interactions you can have (thanks SBLAAR).


The other SBL-AAR


Overall academia and research can be arduous, with long periods spent reflecting and studying material alone, with only your thoughts, and sometimes family, for company. So take the opportunities to build a solid peer network, at whatever stage of academia you are at. Those peer friendships, even if they don’t stay within the academy, or even in your field, are often a great boon and encouragement.

Community and collegiality is important, even in an introspective individualistic academic space. So make the most of it. Build peer networks, and solidify relationships. Make the time to do social events and meet with your peers. Take opportunities at conferences to talk with people you don’t know, and about things other than your research topics.

As usual, tell me how you build community below.


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  1. By no means am I saying that contact hours are lazy, or shortchanged, but rather there is generally a much greater breadth of material than available contact hours
  2. John Donne, Meditation XVII