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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Effective Ways Students Can Teach Their Classmates

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 16, 2018 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective strategies for having students teach their classmates and other peers?

We educators have big jobs when we’re teaching 35 students at one time. One way to make it a bit easier, and more effective, can be to create situations where students can also teach their own classmates.

This three-part series will explore what this can look like practically in the classroom. Today’s contributors are Bobson Wong, Adeyemi Stembridge, Jennifer Davis Bowman, Starr Sackstein, Kathy Dyer and Rachelle Dene Poth. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Bobson, Adeyemi and Starr on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’m a big fan of leveraging the assets of students by encouraging them to be teachers. Whether it is by first having students brainstorm ways they can help through an Everyone Is a Teacher strategy, or by having intermediate English-language learners in my U.S. History class teach content knowledge to ELL newcomers, or through using the “jigsaw” technique in all of my courses, this belief in a team-approach permeates my practice.

You can read about lots of other similar strategies, as well as research that supports their use, at The Best Posts on Helping Students Teach Their Classmates—Help Me Find More.

Response From Bobson Wong

Bobson Wong (@bobsonwong) has taught high school math in New York City public schools since 2005. He is a three-time recipient of the Math for America Master Teacher fellowship, a recipient of the New York State Master Teacher Fellowship, and a member of the advisory board for the National Museum of Mathematics. As an Educational Specialist for New York State, he writes and edits questions for state high school tests:

Getting students to learn from each other takes a lot of work. If teachers don’t create the proper classroom environment, then any cooperative learning venture will fall flat. Here are some steps that I’ve found will create the right environment for students to teach each other:

First, identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student so that you can determine which students to group together. See who feels comfortable talking to their classmates and who may need additional encouragement. Some groups may form naturally, as when stronger students befriend weaker students. As you identify student groups, you can adjust classroom seating one group at a time to see how each potential group works together.

Second, work gradually and start small. Students need time to develop relationships with you and each other. At first, I allow students to work in groups of two or three to ensure that each person contributes. These brief opportunities need not be large-scale or highly structured. For example, I often use turn-and-talk opportunities, in which students turn to their neighbors in class to discuss a question for a few minutes. I also use dry-erase boards in class as a way for students to answer questions. Students work in groups to answer a question shown on the projector board. Each group then writes its answer on a dry-erase board and shows its board to the rest of the class simultaneously. As students get more comfortable working together, you can give them such as a group exit ticket or group assessment.

Modeling conversations in class teaches students how to speak appropriately and professionally to each other. For example, encourage students to say more with open-ended prompts like, “What do you mean by that?” or “What else can we consider?” Using these as prompts for turn-and-talk opportunities in class or making a list of prompts also helps students learn what questions they can ask each other. Students should also have clearly defined roles when working together (e.g., timekeeper, scribe, skeptic). These roles should require different skills to enable all students to participate.

After developing these strategies in class, students should feel more comfortable working with and learning from each other. You can then introduce more elaborate activities to your class. I’m particularly fond of jigsaws, which work especially well with struggling learners when planned properly. By first working in groups with their peers to learn, students receive additional support that they would not receive in a teacher-centered lesson. Furthermore, by being solely responsible for teaching that task to another group, students take responsibility for their learning.

In short, cooperative learning requires persistence and flexibility. Not every lesson can be turned into a full-fledged activity like a jigsaw, so using a variety of strategies such as the ones I’ve outlined above can help your students teach each other effectively.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

The richest learning environments are animated by dynamic, multi-directional teaching and learning. In fact, one of the coolest things about being a teacher is that we are much more in tune with current pop culture than some of our non-teacher friends because being in the classroom naturally allows for opportunities for kiddos to teach us about the latest youth trends, lexicon, and topics of interests. Students can often explain understandings to each other in ways that don’t always occur to teachers. Because their synapses are more recently established, students literally are better able to remember than teachers what it feels like to not understand.

Student-to-student learning is most powerful not when students are delivering information as it were, but rather when they are re-enacting their emerging understandings. Every time students teach their classmates, they are helping their peers to find their own authentic pathways to understanding. As a result of that discovery process, the student who is teaching is deepening their own learning by reconstructing what they know. In this way, when we effectively leverage students’ talents for sharing their emerging understandings with other students, it not only enhances the quality of instruction but it also contributes to a sense of community that is essential in facilitating the engagement and responsible risk-taking necessary for meaningful learning experiences.

I most like to see students using each other’s thinking as texts to support their own emerging understandings. Students thinking, if captured effectively and shared in meaningful ways, can be an outstanding first-draft for further composition. I like encouraging conferencing models in which students assume the role of co-teachers so that they can consult directly with their peers to think through key aspects of the skills and understandings targeted in the learning. The point of the conference is to explore in close and personal terms not merely the “what” of learning but also the “how” and “why.” Conferencing is used in many language arts classrooms, but it can be applied to any learning experience in which students are asked to develop some product as evidence of their understanding of some aspect of a big idea. Conferencing is a strategy best employed in learning that is adaptive in nature and not technical. (If your goal is for students to memorize a list of facts, conferencing isn’t going to work well.) Conferencing isn’t a tool to be used to address specific errors as much as it is an opportunity to clarify conceptual understandings and how those may be applied in a task.

In their conferencing, students should use questions like these to direct their discussion:

  • Tell me more about [some specific element of the learning experience]?
  • What’s the most important part of this? How can you build on it?
  • What part of this do you have questions about?
  • What other way did you consider [some specific element of the learning experience]?
  • Are there any questions we should be asking that are not covered here? Should we be emphasizing any of the questions that are here?

Another strategy is to have students consider pivotal elements of the enduring understandings through the incorporation of video reflections into the co-teaching model. Ask students to respond to questions like, “What problems did you encounter in learning ---? or “In what ways do you think you need to improve? or “What would you do differently knowing what you know now?” I like to use video so that students can share their thinking on a screen—which is often less stifling for students than trying to capture their initial thinking in writing. I’ve had some exciting success using video to capture students’ reflections during and after lessons. The videos that students make to capture their thinking are texts that can be used to frame the conferencing between students.

In order for any co-teaching strategy to work well, your student co-teachers should be clear on what specifically it is that their peers need to understand and/or be able to do so that they are best able to support their classmates through their thinking. In preparing with your co-teachers, you will need to set aside time to clarify for and with them the big ideas that matter most relative to the learning target. This would be an awesome time to review McTighe and Wiggins’ Six Facets of Understanding (Understanding by Design, 1998) to explore some of the different ways in which students might be able to show what they are coming to know. The more that students have the opportunity to teach and learn with their peers in ways that deepen their relationship to the big ideas, the more likely that students together will be able to both reinforce their own understandings and also confirm classroom spaces as ecosystems in which kiddos are able to give and receive support through multiple relational channels.


Wiggins, G. P., McTighe, J., Kiernan, L. J., Frost, F., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD

Response From Starr Sackstein

Starr Sackstein started her teaching career at Far Rockaway High School more than 14 years ago. She spent nine years as a high school English and journalism teacher at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, N.Y., where her students ran the multimedia news outlet WJPSnews.com. She is a certified Master Journalism Educator through the Journalism Education Association (JEA) and serves at the New York State Director to JEA to help advisers in New York better grow journalism programs. Sackstein is the author of several books, including Peer Feedback in the Classroom: Empowering Students to Be the Experts (ASCD 2017) and Teaching Students to Self-Assess: How Do I Help Students Grow as Learners? (ASCD Arias, 2015):

Teaching is the highest form of learning and when we can provide opportunities for students to teach their peers we offer a learning experience that benefits both the teacher-student and the peer. As educators, we have a duty to put structures in place as we offer these kinds of experiences to our students to ensure success and promote autonomy and mastery of their skills.

One way to put students in the driver’s seat is to ask them to develop tutorial videos where they work in small groups to research a topic and then develop a short video that teaches students the skill or content that needs to be learned. By allowing students to become the experts of the content and then figure out a way to teach it to their peers, we ensure the depth of their understanding.

In one of my English classes, I had students develop grammar tutorials and/or poetry tutorials. In these videos, students researched in a small group a manageable topic like meter and then had to teach it in a 4-6 minute video. They had to come up with a clever hook, build content, and develop a review sheet that would support the learning in the tutorial. Additionally, they presented their learning in class and students could ask questions and later review the tutorial video that was housed in a class library.

To ensure learning for all students of all content and/or skill areas, not just the one they presented, students had to apply the learning in an independent writing project that asked them to use the skills they learned. As they went through this process, we employed a peer review process that allowed them to give feedback to each other before the final draft was due. As the teacher in the room, I conferred with students as they worked to address individual needs.

The best learning happens when we allow students to be the drivers of it. So teachers should continue to provide opportunities that promote student experts at all ages.

Response From Jennifer Davis Bowman

Jennifer Davis Bowman envisions classrooms filled with thinking caps—because uniforms are uninspiring—as well as students with plastic utensils—because every student deserves a seat at the learning table. As an educator with a terminal degree in special education and a license in school counseling, she’s written about her classroom and higher education experiences in Edutopia, Teaching Tolerance, ASCD, and Teach Thought. For education research and resources follow her on Twitter: @DrJDavisBowman:

Peer Collaboration: Yes, I’m Including You (Whether You Want to Be Included or Not)

Few things in life are less efficient than a group of people trying to write a sentence. The advantage of this method is that you end up with something for which you will not be personally blamed.

—Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

We are often reminded of the advantages of collaboration and how it is a gift to students. Less often, do we inquire about the downside and look a gift horse in the mouth. Interestingly, the quote listed above, is able to do just that. It sheds light on the potential troublesome nature of collaboration (in terms of both efficiency and accountability). In order to stay mindful of collaboration challenges in the classroom, I offer three considerations:

  1. The need for identifying the necessity of collaboration

Just because collaboration has benefits, does not mean it is the best strategy to use. There should be a clear purpose behind asking students to collaborate on a project. Before implementing a group project, the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo suggests teachers answer the following questions:

  • How will the assignment’s objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups?
  • Is the activity challenging or complex enough that it requires group work?
  • Is there any reason why the assignment should not be collaborative?

To revisit the quote at the introduction, it is important to ask, would implementing a collaborative activity be the most efficient use of class time?

  1. Yes, I’m including you (whether you want to be included or not)

Remember, it is human nature to show resistance if you feel forced to do something. One issue when mandating group work, is that students feel pressured and may be unable to join the group whole-heartedly. A second issue is understanding your role in student resistance. Clifton Mitchell, a professor cautions, “If you feel your student is resisting you, you also must be resisting your student.” A final issue is when the student is placed at a disadvantage in lieu of the collaborative experience. Even when you are proactive in managing typical group struggles, there are personal, under-the-surface issues that can make group work painful for students who have experienced trauma, students with language barriers, or students who have social anxiety.

  1. Students ought to see collaboration

The value of modeling as an effective classroom strategy is not new. When asking students to practice sentence structure and sentence vocabulary, teachers may model this with a mentor sentence. When working a math problem, teachers may have a high-achieving student model the procedure and “show the work.” Just as instructional methods are modeled, teacher-to-teacher collaboration must be demonstrated as well. Many educators interact on social media or in professional learning communities, but there are few scheduled opportunities for teacher-teacher collaboration in front of students. Maybe if this occurred more often, students could see what it would look like to disagree, negotiate, and problem solve in the classroom.

To revisit the quote at the introduction for a final time, how can we help schools be more accountable in modeling collaboration for students?

Response From Kathy Dyer

Kathy Dyer is Manager of Innovation and Learning, Professional Learning at NWEA. Kathy has more than 25 years in education, many spent designing and facilitating learning opportunities for educators. Coaching teachers and school leadership on getting better at what they do is her passion. Follow Kathy on Twitter at @kdyer13 or read her blogs on Teach. Grow. Learn:

How many different strategies do you use to teach others what you know? At work? At home? At play? How many of these strategies do you teach your students so they can support their peers in learning more? If we consider how students already teach each other non-academic stuff, how might we tap into what they do related to life and fun and apply it to academics?

Kids learn from other kids all the time. Now that your juices are flowing, you can see that the list of potential strategies to accomplish this task—empowering students to be instructional resources for one another—is pretty long. Let’s see if we can link some non-academic strategies to academics. Let’s start with something simple like learning to open a locker. The more experienced student sees the newbie struggling a bit. They walk over and offer to demonstrate. Then they stand there and watch as the newbie does it. They may offer suggestions about going a little beyond or being right on the mark (feedback). Success may take a couple of tries, but it happens. Strategies = modeling and focused peer feedback.

Or what about learning a new swing in baseball? This lesson might start with some feedback from a peer about stance and bat position. Ideas are offered about what to look for when the ball is thrown and how to move the head and arms. The batter swings, and more feedback is provided about what worked and where to adjust. Modeling by the peer might even follow. Strategies = instruction, peer assessment, peer feedback, and modeling.

Have you ever participated in a jigsaw activity to process multiple pieces of information? Imagine doing the same with students. Divvy up the content needed to be learned and let small groups become experts on one piece of content (expert jigsaw strategy). These experts then go teach their peers this information. Any of these three jigsaw strategies provide opportunities for learners to teach peers.

Expert Jigsaw: Form multiple groups of five or six learners. Count off one to five, or however many learners are in the group. The “ones” from each group form an expert group to work through a scenario or complete research. They then return to their original groups to share what they learned. Think about distributing tasks that will take a similar amount of time to complete, even though the readings may differ in topic and length.

Pieces-Make-the-Whole Jigsaw: Split a reading into multiple pieces with each learner in a small group taking a part to read individually. When learners complete their reading, they share their parts with the whole group. In this way, each part is essential for the entire group to understand the whole picture of the text.

Building Jigsaw: Distribute different readings connected in some way to the topic to each small group of learners. When each learner has finished reading individually, the small group shares and uses each reading to find connections and build deeper knowledge.

How can you establish a classroom environment where students learn with, from, and for each other?

Response From Rachelle Dene Poth

Rachelle Dene Poth is a French, Spanish, and STEAM Teacher and attorney from Pittsburgh, Pa. She is the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and Communications Chair for the Mobile Learning Network. She was named one of “20 to watch” by the NSBA, the PAECT Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2017 and is a Future Ready Instructional Coach Thought Leader:

Students sometimes have a little bit of fear when asked to present in front of their classmates. I did not fully understand this until a few years ago when I observed two 7th grade students presenting to a room full of teachers at a professional-development session. These students were doing something that I would not feel comfortable doing, and yet I had been asking my own students to present to their peers, not understanding their hesitation to do so. From that day on, I decided to find ways to help students to become more comfortable not only interacting with their peers in the classroom within groups, but also by taking the lead and presenting both in and out of our classroom.

  1. Step 1: Start off by having students work with one of their classmates and become comfortable engaging in different activities. For example, I had students become the “teacher “and create a lesson to teach one of their classmates. The next step was to have the other student teach a lesson the very next day. While the lessons were being taught, it gave me an opportunity to learn from the students and also to have conversations with each group. It gave students an opportunity to move from learners to leaders, which helps to build their confidence progressively.

  2. Step 2: Once students develop some comfort and build confidence through the paired activity, combine two groups and have each student share what they learned from their teachers. Adding a few more classmates together will continue the relationship building process and also provide students with more authentic ways to learn. Encourage students to provide feedback to one another as well, and do so by modeling how to give feedback so that students have a good understanding of how to provide effective feedback.

  3. Step 3: The next step that I have taken is asking for the small groups to share their new knowledge with the rest of the class. Depending on how the students are feeling at this point, the “sharing” could come in the form of a gallery walk, where each small group can engage in a small discussion, or invite each group to present to the entire class. Students will continue to become more comfortable by having peers with them as they build more confidence.

In smaller classes, you may not need these individual steps you may just need the right topic that students are passionate about sharing with others. For example with project-based learning, the students are excited to share what they have learned on their own exploration. Even though they may still be a little bit nervous about presenting, they are comfortable in sharing something that is more meaningful to them. I have the benefit of having some students in my class each year as the only Spanish teacher in my school. By creating these small or opportunities it has led to bigger opportunities for students to not only present and feel comfortable doing so in front of their classmates, but for them to step out and present at technology conferences in front of other students, educators, and the public.

Creating these ways for students to teach not only gives them an opportunity to build confidence and become leaders, but it opens up different ways for them to learn as well. The benefit for teachers is that it creates more time for us to become the facilitators of learning and to develop a better understanding of how students learn as well. There are many ways to provide instruction, and if we limit the role of the teacher to ourselves, we will miss out on developing a clearer understanding of how students learn best. It just comes down to finding a way to build a comfortable and meaningful connection between students within a class and having a time to work with them to build their confidence.

Thanks to Bobson, Adeyemi, Jennifer, Starr, Kathy and Rachelle for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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