Using Peer Learning to Shift the Paradigm in Communication Skills Training

In 1990, Eric Mazur was an award-winning and popular Professor of Physics at Harvard University, with several years of experience teaching at the very highest levels of academia. And yet he found that his students learned better from teaching each other than from his lectures – despite his years of experience.

“That was a very discouraging moment,” he says. This led to some soul-searching about what value he was really adding as a teacher.

This story wouldn’t be that interesting if it weren’t for what followed next. Most professors in colleges would have found ways to justify their value to themselves and continued with the “sage on the stage” approach to lectures, which has essentially remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Instead, Dr. Mazur went back and took a hard look at what his data was telling him, and started experimenting with different approaches to teaching, with the aim of finding an approach that best helped his students learn.

These experiments led him to formalize the innovative style of learning known as “peer instruction” or “interactive learning,” a pedagogical method that has spread far beyond physics and taken root on top college campuses nationally. This approach is described more fully by Dr. Mazur in his book Peer Instruction and his DVD, Interactive Teaching, produced by Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. In essence, he shows that peer-to-peer learning can be as effective, if not more effective, as traditional instructor-led learning approaches – when the instructor set the stage and structured the learning interactions among the students. This is true even when the peers are relative novices in the subject area – just the experience of teaching each other and learning from each other helps them learn the concept more deeply.

Dr. Mazur has won numerous awards recognizing his contribution to the field of learning, including the Millikan Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the inaugural Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education.

Application to Communication Skills Training

So why is this relevant for employee training in general, and more specifically, communication skills (or interpersonal skills) training? Two reasons.

First, interpersonal skills are all about practice, interaction, and feedback. So, perhaps even more than a subject like Physics, interpersonal skills are very well-suited to a training model that leans on peer learning, through structured role-plays and feedback. This can be substantially more effective than most forms of employee training used currently, such as instructor-led workshops on the one hand, or books, and online courses on the other.

Second, informal peer networks in companies are how much of actual learning occurs today. For instance, I recall when I was leading my second company – StorePerform Technologies (now part of JDA Software) – I realized that although the formal lines of communication led from me as the CEO and from my VP of Sales, the real way that salespeople were learning was from one another. The same was true for our middle managers, and our customer success people. In other words, if people learn primarily through informal peer networks anyway, why not make that the formal channel of learning? Surely people would find that more relevant to their jobs than what some training vendor or instructor in the staff training department cooked up?

This is one of the core inspirations behind SkillStore, which uses peer learning (and peer assessment) to build communication skills for professional success. As I dug into Dr. Mazur’s experience, I asked myself, “If peer learning can work for physics, which is very analytical and fact-based, then surely it can apply to communication skills, which are subjective and and experience-based, and rely on people learning from each other”. In many ways, SkillStore is the result of that insight – we hope you will enjoy using it.


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