Peer influence: A powerful tool to boost learning
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Peer influence: A powerful tool to boost learning

You’ve no doubt heard that one-on-one coaching is a great way to sharpen your people’s skills and boost their performance. And yes, coaching is a powerful technique for imparting information and driving home lessons.

But you may be surprised to learn that group learning — where employees acquire and share information with their peers — can work just as well, or even better than, individual coaching.

The magic of group learning? A well-known psychological phenomenon: The fact that we all want to look good in front of our peers.

To understand how this plays out in a learning situation, let’s consider a study from Stanford University.

The phantom peer

Researchers gave two groups of people a complex puzzle to solve. Those in Group One were told they were working alone. Those in Group Two were told they had a partner in another room working on the same puzzle. Both groups were permitted to work on the puzzle for as long as they wanted. They could give up and walk away at any time.

Several minutes into the exercise, Group One was given a tip from a researcher to help them solve the puzzle. Group Two received the same tip – but it was scribbled on a piece of paper, which the researcher said came from their partner in the other room.

After receiving the tip, people in Group Two spent an average of 48% longer on the puzzle, compared with those in Group One. And more of them succeeded in solving it. Afterwards, people in this group had a stronger memory of the puzzle and expressed greater engagement and enjoyment in the task.

In short, just the impression of working with a peer significantly boosted participants’ motivation, performance and memory.

Trusted sources

So why is working with others to solve a problem or learn something new so powerful?

One reason is that people feel accountable to their peers. They feel social pressure to perform well and carry their weight in front of their colleagues.

But that doesn’t fully explain the results of this study. After all, the participants had no social relationship with the anonymous “peer” who was supposedly in the other room. And they were working in isolation. So why did they work harder and succeed better?

The researchers concluded that the subjects put a higher value on the “tip” they received when they thought it came from a peer rather than an expert. Subjects believed that information from someone in the trenches, working on the same kind of problem, would be highly relevant and useful, so they were more inclined to use it and keep plugging away.

In short, the source matters. People in a group-learning environment will be more likely to accept and act on knowledge that comes from their peers than from a leader or manager – even if it’s the same knowledge.

Action steps

So what does this mean for how you can leverage the power of peers in your team sessions? Here are some research-based recommendations:

  1. Start by exploring what employees already know. After introducing your topic, you might ask learners to share their knowledge and experiences. This will get employees engaged in the discussion and allow them to identify the behaviors and competencies that lead to improved performance.
  2. Turn around the pushback. Experienced employees often resist learning initiatives. “I already know what I’m doing,” they say. Fact is, experienced people often get stuck in bad behavior patterns that hurt performance. Peer learning allows you to turn that objection around. You might say, “I want you to share your knowledge to help us address the challenges we face.” The veterans will influence their colleagues, and vice versa.
  3. Don’t teach; facilitate. Don’t position yourself as the expert. Instead, be a guide. Facilitate the first meeting or two to model the way, then turn facilitation over to the team. Assign one person to run each meeting. Have them prepare questions to kick-start discussions. Stay in the background. Let people learn from each other.
  4. Create active learning experiences. Instead of having people sit and listen, get them involved in role plays, debates and idea sharing. Active learning creates more opportunities to interact with their peers.
  5. Let the group recap. At the end of the session, ask employees what they learned and what they’ll do differently. When you do this, all or most of the takeaways will come from the group, not you.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “How to Harness Peer Learning in Group Sessions.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based in part on the following scholarly article: Carr, P. B. , & Walton, G. M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

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