Facilitating Peer Learning

Learning circles are facilitated, not taught, which means you don't need to be a teacher or a subject matter expert in order to successfully host a learning circle:

The facilitator's role is to maintain the fidelity of the learning circle model (e.g. cultivating a supportive environment, keeping discussion on track, ending each meeting on time), but you’re not responsible for what happens during each meeting.

All of the resources and methodologies referenced in this handbook—the weekly structure, the activities, the courses—have all been developed to help you lead a successful learning circle. That being said, facilitation can still feel daunting, especially at first.

The good news is that facilitation is a practice, and that you needn’t stress about getting it “perfect” right away. Growing comfortable as a learning circle facilitator will be a continuous process of trying, reflecting, and iterating. And you needn’t do this alone. The P2PU community is here to help -- our welcome committee, community forum, monthly facilitator calls, and weekly reflection prompts are each designed to help you refine your practice and grow confident and comfortable in the facilitator role.

What follows are some of the most common questions and worries we hear from facilitators, followed by specific strategies for addressing them.

Establishing Your Role

Becoming a co-learner

Sometimes when people are new to the learning circle experience, they need some time to adjust to learning without a teacher. Learners will ask you many content related questions, since you are the closest thing to the traditional teacher in the room. When this happens, your response should demonstrate that their peers are a valuable resource, and that most questions are answerable by the group. In a learning circle we are all teachers and learners. As the facilitator you are not responsible for giving all the answers. On the contrary! You too are a learner whose role is to keep conversations flowing within the group and enable lifelong learning opportunities. Encourage all participants to share information by redirecting questions addressed to you as a teacher back to the group, you can use the prompt Does anyone else know, or have any thoughts about…. If you and the group get in the habit of asking questions to the whole group, it can go a long way to relieve the facilitator of the pressures of functioning as a teacher.

Delegating responsibilities

Sometimes facilitators can feel like facilitation may become a burden, or time consuming if you already have lots of other work to do. But it is important to remember that the group as a whole is responsible for this “peer-learning experience” and as a facilitator you can empower your fellow learners to take charge of their own learning making the role of the facilitator smaller and smaller over time. As the learning circle progresses, you can start asking learners to take on some extra responsibility, such as:

  • Summarizing the week’s material at the beginning of each meeting

  • Setting up beforehand and cleaning up afterwards

  • Sharing a resource or article that relates to the course content

  • Helping a fellow learner who is struggling

  • Bringing snacks

Working with a co-facilitator

You can also find support from working with a co-worker or two within your organization to help you manage your learning circle. Co-facilitation with a team might be for you if you would like to have built in support from the beginning without waiting for other learners to volunteer to assist. If you co-facilitate with other people you each can take on a part of the facilitation responsibilities. To make sure that co-facilitation works smoothly make sure to coordinate weekly check-in meetings with your co-facilitators to make sure everyone is on the same page about their part of the facilitation responsibilities which can include:

  • Managing the P2PU dashboard, and sending group messages

  • Leading the discussion

  • Synthesizing discussion/notes

  • Managing chat

  • Asynchronous support/tech support

Providing technical support

The supportive environment of learning circles can attract individuals with little digital skills who had never taken an online course before. In these cases, it is essential to provide technical support so these learners can keep up with the rest of the group. In a face-to-face setting, you can demonstrate how to navigate the online course. In a virtual meeting, tutorials can help them use video conferencing systems. You can also directly share the links to specific materials, such as lectures and course modules. Learners with low digital skills also have lower exposure to lifelong learning opportunities, so your help can open a myriad of possibilities for them!

Managing Conversations

Creating group norms

A big component of peer-based learning is being able to share thoughts, ideas and experiences with the group. One common first step is to collectively create group norms to help your learning circle run effectively. All learners should contribute to the creation of the group norms that will provide guidance on how to have respectful conversation and engagement. (See Group Expectations) The creation of group norms can also help to create social Cohesion. It establishes that “we” as a group have control and input into how “we” operate as a group. Learners are more likely to participate in a process that they feel that they have ownership of.

Mediating conflicts

Depending on the topic and how passionate your participants are about the subject materials conflicts can arise. It’s not possible to know what kind of conflicts will arise but you can handle those by using your group norms that your learning circle established on the first day. (See Group Expectations) Group norms are not just for the first day you can revisit them at the end or beginning of subsequent meetings to make sure that your group norms still fit your group’s needs. It's okay for the group to change them as necessary, to make sure that the learning circle is and continues to be a comfortable and fair exchange of ideas and information.

We also like these tactical tips from this article and TED Talk by Adar Cohen:

  1. Move toward—not away from—conflict: Conflict can be an opportunity to explore a problem or concern more deeply. Engage participants with questions that allow them to explain their opinions or comments.

  2. Act as if you don’t know anything about the situation (even if you do): Acting as if you don’t know anything gives you the space to learn and hear information that you may not have, if you immediately jumped in with your personal assumptions.

  3. Keep quiet, especially at the beginning: Silence is not a bad thing, allow silence to happen, and try to think of it as an opportunity. Silence is an opportunity for people to reflect, and gather their thoughts, and it can also be a space for a different person to speak up and share with the group.

Sitting with silence

Silence can be awkward and nerve wracking for someone trying to facilitate a discussion. You may feel like people are not engaged if they don’t respond quickly, however silence can also be an opportunity for people to gather their thoughts. To encourage others in the group to contribute to the discussion practice keeping quiet. Don’t rush in to fill the awkward silence. If you have trouble with keeping quiet, try counting to 10 or 30 in your head. One of your fellow learning circle participants may then rush to fill the silence. So keep quiet, especially in the beginning.

Sharing information between meetings

If your group has lively discussion and finds that they would rather spend time having discussion rather than reading together it may make your meeting more efficient to do reading outside of the normal meetings. In this case if the learners all agree you can have everyone do readings on their own to make more time for in person discussion. In addition it can be helpful to follow-up with learners after the regular meeting time, you can send meeting wrap up notes to all participants after each meeting in case they were absent or had some technical difficulties or connectivity issues. Weekly Wrap up meeting messages can make sure that all participants have access to any information or important takeaways that were shared during the meeting, or that came up after the meeting.

Encouraging Participation

Building trust

Learning circles participants can have varied previous experiences in educational settings that range from success to a crushing sense of failure. Some of them might be reticent to actively engage in conversations for fear of failing or being unfairly judged. For this reason, it is vital to build trust among group members and re-establish trust in their ability to learn. People tend to feel more comfortable with others when they understand their background. Thus, you can make space for self-disclosure through ice-breaking activities. These activities are critical in virtual settings where people have fewer opportunities to chat with their peers before and after meetings. You can set the tone by being open about your own life experiences to encourage participants to do the same. Only do so to the extent that you are comfortable! Also, take a look at the suggestions under "Cultivating lifelong learning." People can start to rebuild their confidence as learners when someone helps them to set realistic goals, focus on learning strategies, and use relevant learning resources.

Contributing your experiences

What if you do know a lot about the topic at hand? Your experience and skills are as much a part of the learning community as everybody else’s, and you can and should certainly bring in your perspective. Just be mindful of your power in the group -- disclose, but don’t impose…. When disclosing personal knowledge about a subject be mindful not to rush in with the answer but to allow the group the opportunity to explore questions and ideas first. Also instead of always sharing information you know, think about sharing where you found or learned about that information as a resource for others.

Seeking answers

What if the group is stuck? If you are not a subject expert and your course content is not as clear as you would like, it's time to explore other external or supplemental resources. If you don’t have an answer it's okay to look it up, both facilitator and learners can look up answers and share back with the group in the following meeting. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to look for answers you can try looking through some of P2PU’s Topic guides on various subjects. You can also ask a reference librarian at your local library for assistance with finding resources. Or you and other learners can search on your own for some resources and bring those back to the group to discuss. Remember we are all learners and teachers in a learning circle and so anyone and everyone can help find answers.

Using diverse modes of communication

When you think about discussion you probably think about people gathered together and speaking out loud to one another, and this is the normal expectation for in person and virtual meetings with video conferencing. However, sometimes you may need to promote other types of non-verbal communication to get a group to interact. Maybe you have some shy people in person or you may have some people who might have technical difficulties or limitations with their personal set up.

Here are a few alternatives to try:

  • If you can see everyone you can try hand gestures such as thumbs up or thumbs down. This allows for participants to give a quick check in and may spark more verbal conversation when they see the responses of other learners.

  • In online meetings, the embedded chat channel can serve as a nice space for conversation and an essential place for link sharing. It may also be the case that some participants do not have access to a working microphone and are therefore only able to communicate via the chat. If you use the chat function in addition to verbal communication make sure to check it regularly so that people who use the chat don’t feel left out of the conversation or start running a side conversation.

Cultivating lifelong learning

Managing expectations with realistic goals

When learning something new, optimism can quickly turn into discouragement. For instance, it’s unlikely that somebody with no programming background will get a fancy tech job after one HTML/CSS Learning Circle.To navigate this, express confidence that learners can achieve their goals, while also being realistic and aware of what is possible in six weeks. However, they will gain a better understanding of how to build a website, get a sense as to whether this is a subject they’d like to continue in, and have a peer group of like-minded individuals they’ve gotten to know.At the beginning of a learning circle, it is important to check-in and ask everyone what their goals are for the learning circle. It is very likely that your learners will have a wide array of goals. Once you have an understanding of each learner’s goals, you’ll be able to respond to this energy productively. You can have learners share their goals with the group if that is appropriate or have them write down their goals for their own personal reflection if the learning circle focuses on sensitive or more personal topics. And remember to check in periodically on the goals you set at the beginning of the circle as they may change throughout the process.

Exchanging learning strategies

Lifelong learners are equipped with strategies that can guide their own progress in a variety of situations. The good news is that you can help your group cultivate these abilities through exchange and reflection. For instance, after doing a course activity together, you can ask people about their problem-solving approaches and time management techniques. These questions can differ depending on the course you’re facilitating. In a public speaking or writing circle, you can have conversations about how people find the inspiration and space to work. For more technical topics, you can ask students to walk you through their thinking process when tackling different tasks. In a nutshell, discussions do not need to focus only on course content but also on learning strategies.

Here are some ideas on how to start these conversations:

  • How do you structure your study routine outside a learning circle?

  • How do you find help when you don’t understand something?

  • Please, walk us through the process that you used to solve this problem.

  • Where do you generally find answers to your questions about [learning circle topic]?

  • How are you applying the knowledge acquired in this learning circle?

Sharing learning resources

Being able to locate reliable pieces of information is crucial for lifelong learners, and you can expand people’s repertoire of relevant resources. Make a habit of sharing materials related to your learning circle, and ask for learners’ recommendations as well. They are probably already relying on content beyond the online course, such as podcasts, YouTube videos, TED talks, movies, books, newspaper articles, among others. You can create a shared document to keep track of all additional resources and encourage people to write down suggestions. The online course is not the only source of information in a learning circle, and people are more likely to attend meetings that provide them with a wealth of information.