Student Engagement

Hacking Teens’ Desire to Impress Their Peers

You can get teens to work harder by giving them an audience they really care about—each other.

February 24, 2017

If you’re going to work with teenagers all day, you need to figure out a way to hack the teenage brain. Discovering what motivates them goes a long way toward getting them engaged and learning. One of my favorite tricks is to get students writing for each other.

I first learned the power of peer audience about 12 years ago. When I gave my end-of-school-year questionnaire, one of the questions was “If I were never to collect and grade your reading logs [one-page responses to a night’s reading] and you only read them out loud to your class, how would that change the quality of your work?” The unanimous response I got was that students would do a better job on their logs. I was sort of shocked by this response—but it made a lot of sense.

Most students want to do well in school and please their teachers. But here’s the fact I’ve taken advantage of since that questionnaire: Teenagers really, really, really care about impressing their peers. When I can get my classes writing and creating for their peers, they naturally work harder to craft better pieces or more informative presentations.

Exercises to Get Students Writing for—and Teaching—Each Other

The satirical how-to. Nothing quite beats the thrill of getting a laugh out of someone with something that you wrote. My favorite and most effective way to get my students writing to impress their peers is the satirical how-to—also known as an ironic process essay. Topics such as “How to Thoroughly Annoy Your Classmates” or “How to Procrastinate” or “Shakespeare’s Ten-Step Guide to Gaining and Keeping Power” get students sharing drafts, giving each other tips, and working to make their essays as funny as possible.

Reading logs and dice. My favorite way to get students sharing ideas involves their reading logs and dice. First I assign each student a number between one and six. Then they do a reading assignment for homework and write a one-page reaction to what they’ve read. The following day, I roll the die. Whoever got the number that is rolled has to read their log out loud. Students hear some original ideas, and it’s a great way to start the class discussion. I still collect their logs and grade them in the end, but they think harder and write better because their peers may hear what they’ve written.

Two truths and a lie. Another fun activity that utilizes the peer audience is playing two truths and a lie. For this game, I task students with writing three paragraph-length stories, two that are true and one that is a lie. Students volunteer to read their stories out loud, the rest of the class guesses which one is the lie, and then we get the answer. Because this activity is couched as a game, students don’t feel as self-conscious about reading their work out loud. But since they’re excited to trick their classmates into picking the wrong stories, they craft interesting paragraphs full of rich detail.

Jigsaw presentations. When I have a lot of content that I want students to absorb, I get them to teach each other, jigsaw style. The basic premise of the jigsaw is that students first master a small part of the material. Then they are tasked with presenting what they’ve learned to their classmates. In the end, they’re responsible for all of the material. Since they’re teaching their classmates who don’t already have all of the answers and need the information they present, they’re more likely to work hard to present that material thoroughly and clearly.

A bonus of this kind of peer-to-peer assignment is that I have seen it as a way for introverts to shine in the classroom. In my experience, being an introvert doesn’t mean that someone has no desire to communicate their ideas to the world. Often, introverts have the most to say and the best ideas on a topic. But they also often aren’t comfortable sharing those ideas in a spontaneous or informal discussion. They prefer to have the time they need to work through their thoughts on paper. And even though they may not be entirely comfortable reading out loud in front of a class or giving a presentation, they’re usually a little more comfortable reading something that they’ve prepared in advance.

Ultimately, what I most love about having my students write for each other is that they realize how great their classmates are. They discover that the kid in the back who doesn’t talk much can tell a hilarious story, or that the girl who never participates in class discussion has some insightful ideas on the night’s homework. And when they see what their peers can do, they set higher standards for themselves.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Literacy
  • 9-12 High School

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