Biology students who participated in a one-on-one homework activity with a classmate showed increased learning gains.

The huge sizes of many undergraduate science courses make it rare for a student to get valuable one-on-one interaction with a professor. Teaching assistants and student tutors can help with this problem, but an expert may not actually be required to help students attain deeper levels of understanding—simply engaging with the material with another person might be enough. In CBE-Life Sciences Education, Bailey et al. asked if a simple peer-tutoring homework assignment could help students in a general biology course learn the content.

The authors used two sections of an undergraduate biology class for non-majors. The experimental section was given peer-tutoring assignments in which two students would meet outside of class. One student, the “teacher,” instructed their peer based on a set of learning objectives. The other student, the “questioner,” asked the teacher questions about the material. After 15 minutes, the two students switched roles. These sessions were recorded, and the audio was sent to the instructors for credit. The control section was instructed to study the learning objectives on their own for 30 minutes in lieu of the peer-tutoring exercise.

Based on a preliminary assessment given at the beginning of class, the two sections were essentially equivalent in terms of starting scientific knowledge and interest. After the exercise, students in the section that completed the peer-review assignment performed better on all class tests, averaging 6% higher scores than their counterparts who studied alone.

Interestingly, the highest gains were seen for students who scored lowest on the preliminary assessment, suggesting that this peer-tutoring activity might be particularly effective for students starting out with less developed scientific skills. Additionally, students who asked more questions during the peer-review assignment were more likely to do well on the final exam.

Students in both sections were also given a survey on their perceptions of the peer-tutoring exercise, and they reported it being helpful. Students given the exercise consistently ranked it highly among the class activities that helped them learn, and students in the control section generally reported believing that being required to study with a peer would have been helpful to them. This shows that students are receptive to peer-tutoring exercises.

Although this study only reported on two sections of one class, the methods described are particularly useful to instructors due to their simplicity: the teacher/questioner peer-tutoring exercise does not take up class time, but it still gives students a chance to ask questions and verbally engage with class content. The authors conclude their paper with suggestions for instructors on implementing similar assignments in undergraduate classrooms.


Learning Gains from a Recurring “Teach and Question” Homework Assignment in a General Biology Course: Using Reciprocal Peer Tutoring Outside Class

E. G. Bailey, D. Baek, J. Meiling, C. Morris, N. Nelson, N. S. Rice, S. Rose, P. Stockdale

CBE-Life Sciences Education 11 May 2018;

Science Writing and Communications Intern, Genetics Society of America.

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