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The Devil's Advocate: Peer learning is a waste of time

The second in our series of blogs challenging the status quo, come take a trip down to meet with The Devil's Advocate as he argues the case against peer learning.

In the deepest circle of #MedEd hell, lives the devil’s advocate. Thinking the unthinkable. Voicing your deepest and darkest thoughts about the world of medical education. In this second instalment of a series challenging the status quo, take a trip with us down to meet him?



Peer learning is a bad thing.


This may seem like heresy appearing on a website founded in peer learning, but before the #MedEd and #FOAMed inquisition drag me away, hear me out.


Students have always learnt from one another, and whether that is a good or bad thing is another argument for another day, but that’s not the peer learning I’m talking about, rather the senior medical student/foundation doctor formal lectures to a group of junior medical students.


Because these peer teachers have little to no more experience than the students they are teaching, and may never have fully understood the subject in the first place, in many instance they will simply be passing on their own misconceptions and mistakes, which become reinforced as the pass from student to student; like some colossal game of academic Chinese whispers. Before you know it ‘small cell lung cancer can cause SIADH’ becomes ‘SIADH is caused by lung cancer’ becomes ‘any problem with sodium is undeniably due to lung cancer’ eventually leads to ‘OMG, the patient has a low sodium: break out the CT scanner and ring the oncology team,’ Ridiculous I know, but probably not the most extreme example of misinformation I’ve heard from fellow medical students.


Practically these sessions will never live up to what an experienced expert can deliver. Peer teachers will not have the same teaching experience and won’t have the same access to materials or resources. The presentations that will be used are inevitably taken from their own flawed notes, from lectures they never fully understood in the first place – being too busy being hung-over, gossiping or swiping right. Failing that, it will be copied verbatim off Wikipedia (or if your lucky), adding nothing to the process other than an inaccurate sense of reassurance to the other students.


They normally will have had only a year or two’s more experience that the students they are teaching, and in many universities may have had no further teaching on that subject. It really is a case of the blind leading the blind. No one is able to answer any of the more challenging questions, we can recall the repeated ‘you don’t need to know that for the exams’ which has become the unofficial mantra of peer teaching. It becomes exam based, spoon feeding discouraging the adult learning that is expected of you when you work as a doctor for the rest of the foreseeable future. Rather than encouraging medical students to mature into independent, self reliant ‘adult learners’ it propagates that GCSE-style hand holding education that is restricting and patronising to student and teacher alike.


At best the peer teachers will be over enthusiastic amateurs, and at worst solely interested in CV building, viewing it as simply another ticky box exercise, unable and unwilling to foster any enthusiasm in those they are teaching. A cardboard teacher in skill and integrity.


The devil’s advocate rests his case: students should expect, and deserve, better than the uninterested, insincere and ignorant peer that they get.


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