The best instructors may be those who just learned the lesson
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The best instructors may be those who just learned the lesson

Workplace learning comes in many shapes and sizes. It can happen formally through mandatory training, informally during peer discussions, and by chance when two co-workers happen to meet in the hallway.

The benefits of informal peer-to-peer learning are well documented (for more, see Rapid Learning Insights Vol. 2, Issue 11). But formal training should be left to the professionals, right?

Not necessarily. Sometimes the best people to teach something are those who recently learned it themselves.

It’s not quite peer training. It’s “near-peer” training: delivered by people who are just a step or two ahead of the folks you need to teach.

According to a recent study, getting near-peers involved in training can significantly improve outcomes.

The research
The study took place at a prestigious medical school in Germany. Researchers divided a class of third-year medical students into two groups.

Both groups attended the university’s standard lecture conducted by an experienced faculty member. For Group One (the control group), lectures were supplemented with tutorials by the professor, who demonstrated proper examination techniques.

Group Two also got supplemental classes, but these sessions were conducted by fourth- and fifth-year medical students – students just slightly more experienced than the learners themselves.

The near-peer instructors covered the same content but were allowed to stray from the tutorial model. They taught the material in their own style, organizing the students into small groups to promote more hands-on learning experiences.

On the final exam, Group Two’s median test scores were 20% higher than those for Group One. What’s more, more than 90% of the Group Two students rated the course “very good” or “good,” compared with only 18% of Group One students.

Why did it work?
One of the benefits of using nearpeers was simply that there were more people to teach. When only the professor was teaching the tutorial, there was no opportunity for hands-on small-group work.

But that wasn’t the only reason the near-peers did better, the researchers concluded. They also were better able to relate to what the students were going through, since they’d recently gone through it themselves.

The near-peers were thus able to avoid the well-known “curse of knowledge” that makes it difficult for experts to teach what they know. Experts literally think differently from novices. Near-peers can still see the training through their students’ eyes.

How near?
In the study, the instructors were fellow students with one or two more years of experience than the learners. They’d recently passed the course they were now teaching.

The right amount of experience was important to the success of the course, researchers said. The near-peers needed to be knowledgeable enough to confidently conduct the course, yet still close enough to remember their own experience as learners.

This combination allowed them to teach the subject matter the way they would have liked to have learned it.

Can you use near peers?
Can near-peer training be effective in the workplace? Yes – if you can find people with the right level of experience. That may be easier in organizations that engage in more formal training, since there’s more likely to be a pool of recent “graduates” to help train the next group
coming up.

Where training programs are less formal, it may be harder to identify nearpeers, but it’s worth trying. For example, you might pair up a newly promoted manager with someone who’s been managing for a year or so, or have last year’s crop of new hires to work with the newbies coming in this year.

Here are more recommendations for applying this research in your organization:

Use it as an add-on. As in the study, use near-peers to support your existing training program, not take the place of qualified trainers.

Be careful about recruiting senior employees. They may suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” Peer instructors should be able to recall being in their learners’ shoes.

Make it a positive experience for the near-peers too. Peer instruction isn’t just good for learners. It helps the “teachers” dive deep into the subject matter, expanding their knowledge base. It also provides valuable leadership experience and can boost instructors’ self-confidence.

Blank, W.A., et al. (2013). Can near-peer medical students effectively teach a new curriculum in physical examination? BMC Medical Education, 13:165. doi:10.1186/1472-6920-13-165.

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