UMKC Peer Teacher Manual 

Peer Teaching: Roles,  Relationships & Responsibilities

Professor Barbara Glesner Fines 2008

UMKC School of Law

Table of Contents

 Who is a Peer in Law School?
What Are the Characteristics of Peer Teaching?
Functional Roles: What are Peer Teachers Doing?
What is the Role of Peer Teachers in the Academic Enrichment Programs of UMKC?
What are the Responsibilities of Peer Teachers?


Who is a Peer in Law School?

Peer teaching can be defined either by the relationship between teacher and student or by the method of teaching that occurs. Generally one thinks of a peer as one who is equal in rank or experience. Thus, a pure peer teaching model would have first year law students teaching first years and upper-class students enrolled in the same course teaching each other the material. This model is common among law students in their informal study groups or study partnerships. Law students are urged by "how to succeed" books to join study groups and the popular images of legal study often include the drama of these peer teaching devices.

As a formal method of structuring the standard law school curriculum, however, pure peer teaching is rare. The closest equivalent in formal curricula may be found in student academic activities such as moot court or law review, where students guide one another through the competition or article preparation process. Seminar classes in which students present papers to one another may be the most common example of peer teaching that is structured into the daily classroom setting.

Far more common are the "near peer" teachers.(1) When a second- or third-year student acts as a teaching assistant for first-year legal research and writing courses, for example, it is difficult to characterize these teachers as peers of the first-year students in terms of experience or knowledge. The intense socialization and educational training that occurs in the first year (and in the summer after the first year if students enter clerkships) creates a qualitative difference in the experience levels between these students.

Yet in terms of the relationship between these students, there is much that is characteristic of peer relationships. The students are all part of the same educational process and may have the same faculty teaching their separate courses. The second-year student is much more likely to empathize with the first-year student's learning experience than is a faculty member, an adjunct attorney, or a graduate law student. Likewise, the first-year student is more likely to relate to their upperclass mentors as "recent survivors" than as junior faculty: that is, with less deference and correspondingly less distance.(2)Because of these connections and the relatively small passage of time in the rank differences, the students are likely to function as peers in the process.

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What Are the Characteristics of Peer Teaching?

Beyond defining peer teaching by the relationship between the students, a second definition of peer teaching looks less to age, ranking, or experience to define peers, and more to the relationship between the learners. Where peers interact in learning there tends to be both a cognitive and an affective difference in the approach to the process by both participants. Rather than viewing the relationship as one in which knowledge is given from teacher to student, the peer learner is more likely to see the process of working with a peer teacher as a cooperative process in which both participants are actively learning. From the peer teacher's perspective, the teaching that takes place is cognitively different from that of a faculty member's teaching. Since the peer has only recently learned (or is currently learning) the material being taught, the peer teacher is more likely to consciously think through the steps of the learning process than one who has greater expertise.(3) Thus, the peer teacher and learner will engage in a cooperative, active process of constructing knowledge.

Affectively there are characteristics that define peer teaching also. The relationship between peer teacher and student is generally far more individualized, ranges over a broader arena of learning, and involves significantly more role modeling than a standard faculty-student relationship. (4) The combination of a greater opportunity for empathy on the part of the peer teacher and a lesser need for deference from the peer student creates an affective environment in which the student peers view themselves as partners in a process of learning. Both the cognitive and affective characteristics of peer teaching are enhanced if the peers have the opportunity to switch roles between teacher and student of each other.(5) Competitive pressures within the structure of the peer relationship can change these characteristics as well. For example, the peer teacher who has the power to assign grades to their fellow student (or otherwise provide academic reward or sanction) is more likely to both function and be perceived as a "teacher" more than a "peer."

Obviously, if we use a functional definition of peer teaching as a structure in which cooperative learning occurs, it is difficult to measure how much peer teaching occurs in formal law school curricula. The relationship between a faculty member and a student in pursuing a joint research or clinical project might be characteristic of peer learning more so than the third-year law journal editor who creates guidelines for law review notes for a group of second-year students, evaluates their notes, and then chooses those to be published and those to be rejected in a competitive process.

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Functional Roles: What are Peer Teachers Doing?

When peer teaching is part of the law school curriculum, student teachers may perform a variety of teaching roles: pure teacher, mediator, work partner, coach, or role model. A peer teacher may perform only one or several of these roles depending on their responsibilities and the structure of the program. For example, the rules governing many moot court competitions prohibit any cooperation outside the team in preparing briefs and severely limit the cooperation in preparing arguments. These rules effectively constrain the ability of peer teachers on moot court boards to function in roles relating to active learning.

The peer teacher who functions as a teacher is involved in structuring and delivering information and skills to students and providing feedback and evaluation. These students more often are viewed to some degree as experts, rather than peers, by the students with whom they work. Students selected for the boards of a law school's moot court program or law reviews often function in the role of teacher/evaluator, though they may not as often provide the initial training to those students over whom they pass judgment on participation in these programs. For example, in legal research and writing, approximately one-half the programs use teaching assistants to present information in the classroom (though overwhelmingly, this information and the method of its instruction is planned by faculty supervisors). About one-half the schools use TAs to grade or evaluate student work.(7)

 Where a peer teacher has less autonomy or power in these areas, they are more likely to function as a mediator: delivering or translating information provided by the faculty member, supplementing feedback, and interpreting evaluation. When combined with administrative duties, these peer teachers are most often termed "teaching assistants". This role is represented in a significant portion of the law schools using peer teachers in legal research and writing programs. Academic support programs are very often built upon this structure of student tutorial: providing information without the power to evaluate.

Peer teachers may function as work partners when they are involved with students in a cooperative learning project, as where student clinical supervisors work with fellow students in a representation or moot court team members work together on a brief. In this structure, the teaching role switches back and forth between the peers, though not necessarily in an even division. Peer teachers may also work cooperatively with students when functioning as coaches: providing primarily evaluation and encouragement in completing assignments or improving skills rather than transmitting the necessary initial information or training. Legal writing instructors who provide only informal feedback on writing assignments or moot court board students who critique mock appellate arguments often function primarily in this coaching mode.

Finally, peer teaching may also be structured so as to emphasize the role model function. Where peer teachers demonstrate learning skills -- as when study group leaders provide model outlines or sample exam answers -- they are primarily functioning as models for their peer students (though, if poorly structured, many of the students may perceive this as providing only information rather than models.) A substantial number of law schools have chosen to implement an academic support program developed Law School Admission Council's advisor, Dr. Lawrence D. Salmony. That program uses peer teachers to lead large group seminars in reviewing a series of hypotheticals in first year subject matters; small "study groups" to more carefully review specific subject matter of first year courses (approximately three hours in each subject per month) and individual sessions with students in which teaching assistants provide guidance in learning strategies and analysis of substantive legal issues. The peer teachers in these programs combine a number of roles, though the role model/mediator role appears to predominate.

Peer teachers also play roles that are less directly tied to cognitive learning. Often peer teachers are used to provide administrative support for an academic program -- for example, student graders following a faculty devised grading key; moot court board members setting up mock appellate argument schedules and judges; law review editors supervising allocation of cite checking assignments. Where peer teachers are structured into a program primarily for economic reasons, this often may be the sole role assigned to the peer teacher. However, one suspects that student administrative support often leads to informal mediation or teaching, for example, as peer teachers are asked to interpret grades or publication decisions.

A second significant non-cognitive role played by peer teachers is as counselors or mentors. This role provides socialization role modeling, and emotional support to students in the learning process rather than information or academic skills. Where peer teachers are functioning as cooperative peer teachers, rather than as near-junior-faculty, this role is almost inevitable.

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What is the Role of Peer Teachers in an Academic Support Program?

Of the roles described above, different law schools structure their peer teaching role in academic support programs differently. Some schools use peer teachers as tutors – helping students to learn particular material in particular classes, but not necessarily facilitating independent learning skills to transfer to other courses. Other schools use academic support assistants to teach study and learning skills, but not within the context of any particular classes. It is then up to the students to apply what they learn in these sessions to particular settings. The academic skills program at UMKC provides structured and comprehensive study group leaders whose function is primarily as a role model and counselor. Unlike the teaching assistants in the legal research and writing programs, for example, study group leaders should not be functioning as "teachers" of the substantive material. Rather the study group leaders should be devising and modeling study strategies to be used in mastering the subject matter in first year courses. These role choices have significant consequences in the study group leader's relationships with students, professors, and the faculty who direct these academic enrichment programs.

Relationships with Students

The role of the leader is to provide structure to the study session, not to re-lecture or introduce new material. The study group leader is a "model student" who shows how successful students think about and process the course content. Collaborative learning is an important strategy since it helps students to empower themselves rather than remaining dependent as they might in traditional tutoring. Research suggests those tutoring relationships do not promote transfer of needed academic skills (Dimon, 1988; Martin,, 1991a, 1991b, 1990, 1983, 1982, 1981). Study group leaders must resist the temptation to act as experts or tutors for the first-year students. The temptation is indeed great. There is a great deal of ego satisfaction to be found in having the answers for students who are hungry with questions. Study group leaders may easily feel as though they are truly helping the students by "making sure they get it right."

There are several reasons why, as a study group leader, you should resist this temptation. First, you may not have it right yourself. Do you really want to assume the responsibility of expertise? Second, even if you do understand material -- even if you think you can explain much more clearly than the professors do -- consider how it is you acquired that understanding. Did someone plant it in your brain cells? Most likely, the way you learned the material so well is by actively engaging with it --- you struggled. Likewise, the first year students need to struggle some too. That does not mean that you may not help -- by providing approaches to finding answers, by modeling these approaches yourself, or by asking questions or providing feedback appropriate for peer learning. If you have any doubt about whether you have crossed the line too far, ask yourself "if this were a study group of my fellow students in X class, would I function this way?" Keep your goal in mind: a successful academic enrichment program will find first year students able to actively construct knowledge independent of their study group leaders -- not passively depend on them.

Likewise, just as the study groups you form on your own can degenerate into social groups or gripe sessions, beware of counterproductive study group interaction in the structured study groups. In particular, beware of allowing the study group to become a outlet for the rumor mill. While it is perfectly appropriate for students to feel comfortable airing concerns they have about the process of legal education, your role should be to model successful student behaviors AND ATTITUDES. Successful students do not place responsibility for their learning on the professor but on themselves. Successful students do not waste their time criticizing professors or fellow students, they focus on the task at hand -- the material.

Relationships with Professors

A study group leader will work with one first-year class -- Torts, Section C -- for example. Study groups are offered only in courses in which the faculty member invites and supports the program. However, while faculty members approve the study group leaders content competency and approve selections, the faculty member does not direct or supervise the study group leader. Study group leaders should consider that the professor in the targeted course is just another Torts, section C student in terms of the relationship with the Professor. Study group leaders do not act as teaching assistants for the professor. There should be no sense in the program that the study groups have any special treatment or inside advantage with the professor.

On the other hand, the faculty member is, after all, the course instructor and the expert in the subject area. Study group leaders should feel free to consult with the faculty member about the course: getting feedback on outlines or hypotheticals, asking clarifying questions about the course materials, etc. Equally important, study group leaders should encourage the study group members to interact with the course instructor in these same ways.

Relationships with Supervising Faculty

One or more faculty members, who are not connected with a study group targeted class, will direct the study group leaders. This faculty member is responsible for identifying the targeted courses, gaining faculty support, selecting and training the study group leaders, and monitoring and evaluating the program. Study group leaders should direct any questions regarding planning, presentation, or administration of the study group to the faculty supervisor. The current faculty supervisor for the Academic Skills Program at UMKC is Professor Dan Weddle.

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What are the Responsibilities of Peer Teachers in the Academic Skills Programs of UMKC?

Administrative Responsibilities

Once selected, the study group leader must: attend twelve hour training course; schedule their study group sessions; sign up students for study group in the first week of classes; maintain attendance records and enroll in and successfully complete the Seminar in Legal Education.

Class Preparation & Attendance

Since study group leaders are to act as "model students" their primary responsibilities include attending all of the targeted class sessions, reading all assigned materials, and taking notes. Each study group leader should then plan the study group session using the strategies learned in training and the Seminar in Legal Education. After receiving feedback from the supervising faculty member on the content and method of the study group plan, the leader will then conduct three out-of-class study sessions a week.
During the study group session, the study group leader should model appropriate study strategies such as case briefing or rule dissection, outlining, argumentation techniques, and exam prediction and preparation. The study group leader should use predominantly collaborative learning activities, so that students acquire increasing confidence and independence in applying study strategies to the course material. By the end of the semester, the study group should be operating with much less structuring or direction by the study group leader.

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1. Neal A. Whitman, PEER TEACHING: TO TEACH IS TO LEARN TWICE 14 (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4 1988).

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2. Paul Wangerin, Law School Academic Support Programs, 40 HASTINGS L.J. 771, 782-83 (1989). This factor has been found to be especially important in higher education programs that, because of their very structure, provide little personal contact between teacher and learner. Barbara Goldschmid and Marcel L. Goldschmid, Peer Teaching in Higher Education : A Review 5(1) HIGHER EDUC. 9-33 (1976)

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3. In a study of use of peer teachers in medical school, the authors pointed out that the medical school faculty were "unconsciously competent" and thus may have more difficulty teaching procedures to students than peer residents who, having just learned the steps of a procedure, were more "consciously competent." Whitman, supra note 10 at 9 (citing Thomas L. Schwenk and Neal Whitman, Residents as Teachers (1984). Cf. also, Mitchell, supra note 12 at 283-5 (describing the difficulties of experts teaching novices, the author notes that experts may be unable to articulate unwritten conventions of their area of expertise because they are conciously unaware of the conventions -- recent learners are more likely to be conciously aware of their acquisition of these conventions.)

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4. Thoma Hawkins ,Intimacy and Audience: The Relationship between Revision and the Social Dimension of Peer Teaching, 42(1) COLLEGE ENGLISH 64-68 (1980); Whitman, supra note 10 at 32.

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5. Marcel Goldschmid, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Recent Trends, 5(4) HIGHER EDUC. 437, 441 (1976).

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6. Julie Cheslik, A Study of the Use of Peer Teachers in Legal Writing Programs, 44 J. Legal Educ. 394 (1994); See generally, ALFIE KOHN, NO CONTEST: THE CASE AGAINST COMPETITION 7 (1992).

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7. Julie Cheslik, A Study of the Use of Peer Teachers in Legal Writing Programs , 44 J. Legal Educ. 394 (1994)

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