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Peer Relations and Learning


Influences on student learning in an academic environment can be numerous and contradictory. Determining the accuracy and relevance of information from teachers, friends, and classroom materials can be overwhelming. Which classroom features an individual student attends to depends, in part, on what that student values and prioritizes.

The interactions among peers in the classroom are a normal and essential part of the learning process that influence the lifelong learning habits of students. The potential effects of peer relationships are reciprocal: Some students are more receptive than others. On one extreme, for example, is the student who values and seeks peer input on every decision; on the other is the social isolate who avoids interaction in and out of the classroom. This entry examines selected variables that can influence learners, including developmental differences, motivational and learning considerations, and the function of the classroom contexts.

Peer Relationships

In a 1953 book, Henry Stack Sullivan outlined a developmental theory describing the changes in inter-personal needs as an individual matures. He observed that elementary school students tend to work with larger peer groups, which are usually the whole class with whom the young student spends their academic days. Classroom peer groups give way to same-sex "chums" in early adolescence. These same-sex chums fit the best friend/confidant role. Late-elementary and middle school students usually confine their social activities to include these one or two friends. High school and early adulthood individuals seek out and spend time with love interests who satisfy emotional and physical intimacy needs.

With entrance into education, the influence of the family plateaus, if not decreases, as the importance of peers increases. Adolescence marks the peak of peer influence. The demands and opinions of friends can overwhelm the needs of family and, at times, can overwhelm the individuals themselves. As the individual matures biologically and cognitively, the culture of education also changes, moving the student through a system marked by a single class in early elementary school to a system of hour-long classes in middle and high school. Student peer preferences also change during these years. Friendships of two to three students give way to larger group networks.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the relative consistency of peers allows them to take precedence over academics and educators in later education. In addition to school structure, factors such as biology, home life, and increased personal responsibilities have also been explanations for students' decreased academic motivation and increased receptivity to peer influence. Whatever the causes, the subculture of the peer group can be very telling in determining students' motivation to succeed in academics.

In short, the relative influence of peers or peer groups typically increases with the age and development of the student. So, too, do the multiple functions of peers increase. A younger student may be able to find the motivation and desire to learn apart from classmates and friends, looking instead to values from home and teacher. Older students are more apt to seek out those who have similar interests and values.

Motivation, Learning, and Relationships

Age of the student is one consideration in weighing the importance and application of motivation to learn. Human relationships have varying degrees of importance in motivational and learning theories. Most approaches tend to agree, however, that students who surround themselves with peers and influences who value learning and the educational process will also value their own learning and strive to enhance their education.

Abraham H. Maslow viewed the need for love and belongingness as a step toward achievement in his hierarchy of motivation model, which he described in 1954. In this view, the deprivation of more basic needs hinders progress along the path to achievement. In Maslow's model, people must have love and belongingness issues satisfied in order to address needs of achievement. For example, a student with deprived relationship concerns will be less able to participate in classroom learning opportunities. The ability to learn is built on a foundation of comfortable relationships with others, including peers and family, and classroom learning is all about learning with and in the presence of others.

"Expectancy by value" theories define motivation as the product of the amount of success on a task that an individual expects to earn times the amount of value the individual places on the task. Thus, a task that the individual values and expects to be successful at will be motivating compared to a task with lower expected success or value. Whereas past experience can predict the expectancy aspect of this model (e.g., the student has done well on prior essay exams), the value placed on the task is more mediated by outside factors, such as peers and family (e.g., the student's opinions are respected). Related motivational theories include the incentive or rewarding aspects of motivation, which may also stem from relationships with others.

Behaviorism provides one way to explain the association between motivation to learn and peer interactions. In basic behaviorist theories, relationships between people affect learning only as much as people reinforce each other (or not) in the academic arena. For example, if the peer group encourages education and learning, then the individual student within that group will value learning, because the individual is reinforced, or rewarded, for behavior that indicates that learning is valued. Students in peer groups that do not value education lack the stimulation and reinforcement needed to encourage personal learning. These peer groups presumably stimulate and reinforce other values.

Albert Bandura's social learning theory speaks precisely to the human interactions involved in learning. Observational, or "vicarious" learning is based upon learning by watching then "modeling" or acting similarly to others. If the student views and works with people who appreciate learning by engaging in learning activities, then the student too will engage in learning and might work harder at learning. Peers with positive attitudes and behaviors toward education will allow and teach each other to set goals that include opportunities to learn and achieve. If peer models do not convey positive attitudes toward learning, then the students observing these models will not prioritize learning in their own lives. They will learn to prioritize other goals.

In 1978 Lev Vygotsky also presented ideas on the facilitation of learning through experiences mediated by other people. In his explanations, the learner cannot reach full potential without the aid of others. The processes of guiding the learner to higher stages of cognitive functioning rely on interactive human relationships. Mentorsfor example, teachers or more capable peerscan raise the student's competence through the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD is defined as the gap between what a student can do alone and what the student can achieve with assistance. In this view assistance is transitional, a "scaffold" that is removed when it is no longer needed and the student has internalized another's support.

In sum, varied theories agree that the values and attitudes of the peer group are essential elements in motivation and learning. Students who surround themselves with academically focused, goal-oriented peers will be more likely to appreciate, internalize, and exhibit these features themselves.

Classroom Dynamics

With consideration of these social determinants, how then can the educational process be structured to boost the learning of individuals? For younger students, providing a whole-class environment that enriches learning opportunities with teachers who model positive learning values will set the new learner on a path toward academic achievement. Encouraging elementary students to interact with peers, adults, and family members who have strong learning desires can support the students' development as learners. Although peer influences may not yet be as powerful as they will become in student achievement motivation, the effects of young students' interactions cannot be disregarded.

As the learner matures, the importance of how peers view the learner's actions and decisions may well supercede the opinions of others, possibly even the views of the learners themselves. The academic environment needs to be structured in a fashion that allows for student interaction but sets boundaries that afford pro-social behavior. Students who are concentrating on unresolved issues in their social life, whether these issues result from social isolation or from social or home crisis, will be less able to profit from classroom opportunities. Recognition of the strategic effort required to maintain classroom social and academic order can help both the learner and the teacher decide how to approach problems addressed in either domain.

Within the classroom, time and organization can be established to focus students on their learning. Pairing and grouping students by their devotion to academics, for example, may benefit all involved. Those who value learning can share their enthusiasm and act as mentors for those who have other priorities. Students who motivate themselves in nonacademic directions can view and appreciate the choices of peer learners.

These dynamics must include consideration of the types of classroom curricula. The well-known and intended analytic curriculum taught to preservice educators and recorded in the lesson plans and assignments may easily disregard the underlying informal curriculum of social and human interaction. As Mary McCaslin and Tom L. Good noted in 1996, "Learning is socially situated" (p. 642); the achievement of the student is a small part of who the student is and what she does. The responsibilities of education include helping students recognize their own place as social contributors and maximizing the resources available to them through interpersonal relationships. For example, cooperative learning and help-seeking behaviors are essential resources for students in the classroom that facilitate both student achievement and social competence. Some students and educators view help-seeking as a sign of dependence or weakness, but research supports the contention that help-seeking is a sign of social competence that increases students' chances of academic success. Negative attitudes toward help-seeking may discourage low-achieving students from approaching peers and teachers and may further isolate them. This is especially detrimental to older students.

Students are not isolated in the pursuit of knowledge. They are social beings who need to interact and establish social contacts. Social learning is as much a part of any classroom curriculum as the printed guidelines. At a minimum, the influence of peers and a student's relationships with them can be understood as a function of student age, motivation, learning, and classroom opportunities.

See also: Adolescent Peer Culture; Cooperative and Collaborative Learning.


Bandura, Albert. 1996. "Multifacted Impact of Self-Efficacy Beliefs on Academic Functioning." Child Development 67:1,2061,222.

Eccles, Jacquelynne. 1983. "Expectancies, Values, and Academic Behaviors." In The Development of Achievement Motivation, ed. Janet T. Spence. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Eccles, Jacquelynne; Midgley, Carol; Wigfield, Allan; Buchanan, Christy M.; Reuman, David; Flanagan, Constance; and Mac Iver, Douglas. 1993. "Development during Adolescence: The Impact of Stage-Environment Fit on Young Adolescents' Experience in Schools and Families." American Psychologist 48:90101.

Good, Tom L.; Slavings, Ricky L.; Harel, Kathleen H.; and Emerson, Hugh. 1987. "Student Passivity: A Study of Question Asking in K12 Classrooms." Sociology of Education 60:181199.

Maslow, Abraham H. 1954. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

McCaslin, Mary, and Good, Tom. L. 1996. "The Informal Curriculum." In The Handbook of Educational Psychology, ed. David C. Berliner and Robert C. Calfee. New York: American Psychological Association/Macmillan.

Newman, Richard S., and Schwager, Mahna T. 1992. "Student Perceptions and Academic Help Seeking." In Student Perceptions in the Classroom, ed. Dale Schunk and Judith Meece. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sullivan, Henry S. 1953. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: Norton.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heidi Legg Burross

Mary McCaslin

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