A Simple Class Activity to Improve Peer-to-Peer Interaction
Even before the pandemic, student mental health was an increasingly important concern (Auerbach et al. 2018). Now, in the advent of COVID-19, it will only become even more serious.[note 1]
To help ease this problem, one potential avenue involves improving opportunities for peer-to-peer student interaction within an inclusive learning community. Peer-to-peer interaction is likely to improve students’ well-being, mental health, and sense of belonging. Such interaction can also be helpful in enhancing students’ academic development through a variety of channels, such as collaborative learning (e.g. Laal and Ghodsi 2012).
Yet despite its importance, lecturers have traditionally found it hard to promote peer-to-peer interaction. With limited time during teaching sessions, lecturers often feel the pressure to solely focus on teaching the course content. However, in the advent of new technologies, this can change. For instance, to free up more time for interactive activities within teaching sessions, short on-demand videos can be provided for students to pre-watch before attending.[note 2]
Using this as a base, this case study presents a teaching session activity to enhance peer-to-peer student interaction. The activity simply involves encouraging students to regularly talk with each other within class for five minutes, especially those that they do not already know. As later evidenced, the activity is valued by students and may offer lasting benefits to students’ relationships and learning. Further, the activity is easy to implement and widely applicable across different subjects and teaching formats.
"It was rewarding to hear the room filled with happy chatter (albeit through masks); I even saw some students swapping contact details which was great."
I trialled the teaching session activity on two large microeconomics modules within 2020/21. The modules involved second- and final-year undergraduate students. Due to the pandemic, the main lecture content was delivered entirely through on-demand video recordings, together with repeated, socially distanced, in-person sessions. These sessions mostly involved interactive academic content to complement the videos. However, to promote more peer-to-peer interaction, I regularly devoted around five minutes of each session to encourage the students to simply talk with each other (in a safe, socially distanced manner). Students were especially encouraged to speak to those that they did not already know.
To help start conversations, potential topics for discussion were provided in each session (e.g. which modules are you taking this semester, what are you finding hard on this module, or how are your placement/job plans going?).
As the academic year progressed, all teaching went online. I then conducted a variation of the activity within live online lectures by allowing students to chat in breakout rooms via MS Teams. Student engagement within the breakout rooms was a little lower, and so I kept the activity more concise under this format.
To evaluate the activity, I first ran an initial student survey. Students were keen to participate in the survey; 111 students responded. As shown in Figure 1 below, the activity was well received; 76% of students rated it as ‘Really Good’ or ‘Good’.
Figure 1: Student Ratings for the Activity
One student wrote, “I enjoyed the activity it made me comfortable around everyone in the class so I could speak if there was anything to say and it just got me more involved with everyone in class.”
Further analysis indicates that the activity was statistically significantly better received by i) students that had been away from university in the previous year (e.g. on placement or a study abroad scheme), and ii) final, rather than second, year students. There were no significant gender differences.
To find out more about the benefits of the activity, respondents were asked to indicate which positive aspects were most important from a list of possible options (where multiple responses were allowed). The results suggested that the main positives involved being able to meet students they had not before, 64%, and hearing how others were adapting and managing (on the module and within the pandemic), 61%. Only 4% of respondents thought that the activity had no positives.
At the end of the module, I ran a second, follow-up survey to evaluate if the reported benefits from the activity were long-lasting. Respondents were asked to indicate which benefits were still relevant from a list of possible options (where multiple responses were allowed). Although some respondents reported lasting benefits in their direct academic learning, 15%, most reported lasting benefits in their well-being and relationships with either students that they already knew (46%) or students that they did not know before (28%).
On reflection, aside from the student benefits, I felt that this activity had several positives for the lecturer too. First, it was rewarding to hear the room filled with happy chatter (albeit through masks); I even saw some students swapping contact details which was great. Second, it was really easy to implement. Indeed, the use of pre-watch videos made the teaching sessions feel less rushed and pressured. However, there were some issues to be aware of, as indicated by a small proportion of survey comments:
- Some students commented that they valued the suggested conversation topics.
- Some students showed a preference for the time to be spent on academic content instead. Hence, it is important to gauge students’ reactions and to not over-use the activity.
- Some students felt uncomfortable speaking to others. If a student seemed reluctant to participate, I gently suggested they could move to a different (socially-distanced) seat to be nearer to other students if they needed to. Otherwise, I did not push them to engage.
Anything that lecturers can do to facilitate an inclusive learning community where students can make friends and interact is likely to offer benefits for students’ well-being and learning, especially in our current times.
Within this case study, I used pre-watch recordings to provide space for a teaching session activity where students were simply encouraged to talk with their peers, especially those that they did not already know. Two surveys indicated that students valued the activity and that the activity offered lasting benefits to their relationships, and in some cases, their learning. The activity is easy to implement and widely applicable across different subjects and teaching formats.
Auerbach R.P., Mortier P., Bruffaerts R., Alonso J., Benjet C., Cuijpers P., Demyttenaere K., Ebert D.D., Green J.G., Hasking P. and Murray E. (2018) “WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and Distribution of Mental Disorders” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(7), 623-638
Laal M. and Ghodsi S.M. (2012) “Benefits of Collaborative Learning” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 31, 486-490
Lage M.J, Platt G.J. and Treglia M. (2000) “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment” Journal of Economic Education, 31, 30-43
Wozny N., Balser C. and D. Ives (2018) “Evaluating the Flipped Classroom: A Randomized Controlled Trial” Journal of Economic Education, 49, 115-129
 Emmanuel Ojo et al. (4 May 2021) "How the pandemic is hurting university students’ mental health", The Conversation. Accessed 29/09/21
 This approach shares some aspects of flipped learning. For more on flipped classrooms, see references such as Lage et al. 2000 and Wozny et al. 2018. For a wider discussion of different lecture techniques, see Sloman and Mitchell (2016).