Our peers may very well be our best teachers, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Michigan State University have found that students are more likely to excel when guided by their peers rather than authority figures.   

In the study, university students who were given a rationale for why learning is important from people like them – actors channelling young professionals, in this case – wrote better essays and received considerably better grades than students who got the same rationale from a professional educator.

"These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process," said study co-author Cary Roseth, an associate professor of educational psychology.

"In other words, as a student, I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization. When I hear a peer's story, it connects to the story I am telling myself about who I want to be in the future."

The study, conducted in an online college course and published in the International Journal of Education Research, is the first to examine the effects of peer and instructor rationales on students’ success over a whole semester.

In the experiment for the study, students in an MSU educational psychology course were randomly assigned to get the peer rationale, the instructor rationale or no rationale at all for why the course was important to their future teaching careers. The rationales given by peers and instructors were scripted and identical.

Students who got the peer rationale scored an average of 92 percent on their essays, compared to the average of 86 percent scored by students who got the instructor rationale. Curiously, those who received no rationale still scored higher than those who received the instructor rationale, at an average of 90 percent.

"We found that receiving the instructor rationale led to lower final grades than both the peer rationale and no rationale conditions," Roseth said.

"This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students' appreciation of why the class is important."

Maybe those dreaded group projects aren’t the worst things in the world, after all.

h/t Science Daily