Collaborative Peer Learning: Guidelines and Resources

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    Guidelines for Successful Peer Learning

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

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    What is Peer Learning?

    A Simple Definition

    While the phrase “peer learning” is used a great deal, it can mean many different things to many different people. Perhaps the best place to start is to offer a simple definition that “peer learning” can be the result from the interactions shared by peers. However, some might see peer learning as a specific format of interaction among the peers. However, let’s get more specific on what we mean by “peers” and “learning”. Also see

    Who Are “Peers” in Peer Learning?

    The term “peers” conventionally denotes two or more people who are considered on par or on the same level with each other while engaged in some endeavor. However, to fully appreciate the benefits from peer learning, it might be more useful to consider the peers to be two or more people who consider themselves to be equals, or peers, in supporting each other’s development. With that definition, secretaries and CEOs could be peers if they are mutually dedicated to supporting each other’s development in some form of peer learning.

    What is “Learning” in Peer Learning?

    Learning is often interpreted as enhanced knowledge, skills, abilities and perceptions. (For definitions of these terms, see Basic Terms in Training and Development.) In peer learning, the peers help each other to learn, for example, by sharing advice, feedback and thoughtful questions. However, additional types of sharing can greatly enrich the learning, for example, by sharing supportive challenges and accountabilities to take actions and to learn.

    What Are the Benefits of Peer Learning?

    1. Peter Senge, in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990), points out that adults learn best when they are 1) working on current, real-life challenges and 2) exchanging feedback with others in similar situations. Thus, various forms of peer learning, especially when applied to real-life challenges and development, provide ideal conditions for adult learning.
    2. In addition, in peer learning, the peers often do most of the work, so expensive consultants and materials often aren’t needed – thus, the learning can be quite cost-effective.
    3. Another advantage is that peers often can manage much of their own learning, including deciding their own learning goals, methods to achieve the goals and also the means to evaluating their learning.
    4. In addition, peers often can schedule and locate their learning, making it very accommodating to busy schedules.
    5. A major advantage of peer learning is that it can be used to deepen and enrich other more traditional forms of training and development, for example, courses, workshops and seminars.

    What Are Some Forms of Peer Learning?

    The particular form of peer learning that is chosen depends on its application, including the kind of learning desired for the peers, as well as whether there is a focus on intentionally generating new actions and learning, or whether one or both of those can just occur implicitly. Here are some common forms that peer learning to consider.

    Action Learning Groups

    These are small groups, usually of the same people, working on current and important real-world priorities by sharing questions, taking actions, and learning especially from reflecting on the questions and actions. There are various formats of Action Learning, but there usually is equal and strong focus on intentionally generating new actions and learning from the sharing in the group. Thus, Action Learning can be very effective for solving complex problems and/or achieving significant goals. (See Action Learning.)


    These are groups of people formally organized around a common project or program in order to make decisions and/or generate recommendations (these are types of intentional actions) to share with others outside of the committee. There is not always a focus on intentionally generating new learning. (See Committees.)


    Debates are a formal activity in which members having a particular point of view attempt to convince others having a different point of view to arrive at the members’ particular point of view. There is not always a focus on intentionally generating new actions and new learning, although members often implicitly learn a great deal about other points of view than their own.

    Dialogues Groups

    These are groups of people organized to engage in deepening their understanding and meaning around a topic, often by sharing thoughtful answers and opinions around a common thoughtful question. There is usually not a focus on intentionally generating new actions. However, well-designed dialogues can implicitly generate new and powerful perceptions for all members. (See Dialoguing.)

    Discussion Groups

    In discussion groups, people share comments and opinions sometimes in a random order in order to make a decision or enhance understanding about a topic or activity. There usually is not a focus on intentionally generating new actions and learning, although implicit learning can occur for the thoughtful members of the groups. (See Discussion Groups.)

    Networking Groups

    In this form, people interact with each other, primarily to form useful relationships and share useful materials. There usually is not a focus on intentionally generating new actions and learning, although implicit learning can occur for the thoughtful members of the groups. (See Networking and Social Networking.)

    Peer Coaching

    In this form, two or more members share various means of coaching, especially thoughtful questions and perhaps other forms of help (such as advice, brainstorming and materials) to help members clarify current and important priorities and also to identify realistic actions to address the priorities. They often share support and accountabilities to take those actions. In this form, one, some or all members might get coached and/or do the coaching. There is always an intentional focus on taking actions. Well-designed peer coaching also focuses on generating new learning for all of those involved. (See Peer Coaching.)

    Peer Mentoring

    In this form, a person (a mentor) who has strong knowledge and expertise in a certain topic or activity shares these attributes to help another (a mentee) to advance in his or her career. A very useful mentoring relationship would include intentional focus on new actions and learning. Peer mentoring is often considered to be a form of peer learning, although the mentor is often perceived by the mentee as not being a peer. (See Mentoring.)

    Self-Help Groups (Support Groups)

    These are groups organized to assist, guide and/or support each member to accomplish a significant development in his or her life. Self-help groups often focus on intentionally generating new actions to enhance personal development. Well-designed groups also focus on intentionally generating new learning for each member. (The phrases “self-help groups” and “support groups” are often used interchangeably, although the latter is certain to include forms of sharing that include support for each member.) (See Self-Help Group.)

    Study Groups

    These are groups organized to learn about a common topic. A typical format is where each member individually learns about the topic and then members meet to enhance their overall learning by sharing and discussing each member’s new learning. There is always a focus on intentionally generating new learning for each member, although members are not necessarily encouraged to take actions to apply that learning. (See Study Group.)


    Teams are groups of people working toward a common purpose or goal. There is always a focus on intentionally generating new actions to address the purpose or goal. Well-designed teams also focus on intentionally generating new learning, especially to enhance the performance of the teams. (See Team Building.)

    NOTE: Participants might refer to their own preferred title or phrase for a particular format of peer learning, for example, peer learning circles, learning circles and Leaders Circles (a registered trademark of Propel Nonprofits.)

    How Do I Develop a Peer Learning Program?

    There are different ways to a develop a program, ranging from unplanned and spontaneous growth to planned and systematic growth. Perhaps the most reliable way to develop a program is the planned and systematic approach.

    Here is a manual about starting a planned and systematic program. It is in regarding to building a peer support program, but the guidelines are applicable to any peer learning program.
    Building an Effective Peer Support Program.

    Here are a variety of articles with suggestions about starting a program.

    Various Additional Perspectives on Peer Learning

    Basic and Overviews

    Various Formats

    Different Applications

    Extensive Online Resources

    Online Group About Peer Learning

    Peer Learning Network’s online group

    Go to main Training and Development page.

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