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.

About Chris


  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