HOT TIP: Student-led peer learning: a win-win for everyone by Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman

Student-led peer learning or peer assisted learning (PAL) is popping up in all sorts of universities up and down the land and is gaining momentum as a global phenomenon. It has been in an existence in the UK since the early 1990s and has been described as a win-win for everyone involved. The University of Reading is about to appoint a peer assisted learning co-ordinator and launch a number of trial schemes in 2015/16, so I thought it would be good to pave the way by wetting your appetite with a brief overview: What exactly is PAL, how does it work, what are the benefits and why is it all the rage?

What is it?

PAL is a framework that fosters cross-year support between students on the same course. Students work in regularly scheduled groups supporting each other to learn through active discussion and collaboration under the guidance of trained students, called PAL Leaders, typically from the year above. 

PAL leaders do not “teach” and they do not help with assignments, rather, they facilitate group activity that help students think through what they have already been taught and to discuss the material with their peers in order to deepen understanding. 

There are different model of PAL but all are based on the principles of SI (Supplementary Instruction) an academic support model developed by Dr D. Martin at the University of Missouri-Kansas in 1973. PAL schemes now exist on all continents of the globe and there is at least one example of peer assisted learning already underway at Reading in the Department of Classics.

How does it work?

The Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK report (Keenan 2014) published by the HEA notes that although there are wide-ranging approaches to the organization and operation of peer assisted learning scheme they all follow similar principles and guidelines

They:

  • support student learning;
  • foster cross-year support for students, facilitated by more experienced students, usually from the year above, who are trained to provide a point of contact and support the learning of new, or less experienced, students;
  • enhance students’ experience of university life;
  • are time tabled and participative – students work in small groups, engaging in discussions and a variety of interactive learning activities;
  • encourage collaborative rather than competitive learning, active rather than passive;
  • address both what students learn and how they learn;
  • create a safe environment where students are encouraged to ask questions and receive guidance from other students about the course and its content;
  • use the language and terms specific to the subject discipline;
  • help students gain insight into course requirements and lecturers’ expectations;
  • assists students develop positive attitudes towards learning, keep up with their studies and complete their course;
  • retain confidentiality within the PAL group;
  • benefit all students regardless of their current academic ability and provide opportunities to improve academic performance;
  • offer students place and time to practise the subject, learn from mistakes and build confidence;
  • create opportunities for PAL leaders to revisit and consolidate their prior learning.

Typically experienced students are trained in facilitation and then work in pairs to a) devise a structured approach to each session using their understanding of the material in conjunction with guidance from the course/module teacher, and b) run the group session encouraging active discussion and collaboration amongst a group of between 5 and 15 students.

Well established schemes such as those at Manchester University have evolved a pyramidal support structure with experienced student leaders performing the role of student co-ordinators who support the student leaders running weekly debriefing sessions and helping them to develop their facilitation skills and resolve issues. The co-ordinators are in turn supported by a central faculty intern role who has oversight of all peer learning. Student leaders are therefore well supported and the framework is sustained without relying entirely on busy module teachers.  

Paddy Woodman 21-01-2015

What are the benefits?

Publications on peer learning are unanimous in concluding that there are tremendous benefits to be gained. PAL schemes are often introduced with the specific aim of raising attainment. Time and again quantitative studies reveal increased pass rates, lower failure rates and high retention rates (e.g. Burke da Silva & Auburn 2009, Ody & Carey 2009), however, the benefits are even greater than this and felt by all stakeholders: participating students, peer leaders and institutions/subject communities.

Paddy Woodman 21-01-2015 table

It is worth expanding on the benefits experienced by participating students based on the findings from the Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK Report (Keenan 2014).

  1. Improved engagement, motivation, grades and retention – The combination of students spending more time and being more active in their studies through PAL sessions has a catalytic affect of enhancing engagement and motivation which is known to have a direct link to attainment and retention.
  2. Confidence, independence – PAL sessions offer safe spaces for students to explore their understanding and build their confidence on specific subject matter. The fact that the group have only themselves to draw on (i.e. no teacher to tell them the ‘right’ answer) develops their independence and confidence further – they have to devise other ways of filling any gaps.
  3. Social and academic integration and sense of belonging – the small and informal nature of the PAL sessions provide for learning in a more social environment, which enhances social interaction between participants spilling over into other activities. It also provides all participants with opportunities to work with students from backgrounds with which they may not be familiar and students who perceive themselves to be in a minority to forge relationships thereby enhancing integration all round. Developing relationships with students in other year groups further enhances the sense of being part of the subject/school community.
  4. Transition to HE – many of the points above on confidence, independence sense of belonging and integration are essential components of a successful transition to HE, but a further dimension is the effectiveness of peer learning in helping students to manage expectations of HE, both their own expectations of study in HE (i.e. what they need to do as students) and HE’s expectations of them (i.e. what will be asked of them). The informal environment, safe space and proximity of the PAL leaders (in age/experience) all help student to set and understand expectations.

The benefits to PAL leaders and to subject communities and institutions are also huge and powerful but if I start to go into them this blog will be never ending!

Check out what students themselves have to say about PAL (also known as PASS in some universities) http://www.pass.manchester.ac.uk

Why is it all the rage?

If you are still reading, you already know why peer assisted learning is “all the rage”. The table above is an attempt to present the impressive and wide-ranging benefits for the different stakeholders. However, breaking the benefits down in this way obscures the holistic impact not just on students as whole individuals but on the University as a whole. Widespread student-led peer learning brings the notion of engagement and partnership with students to a new level. Students engaged in peer learning take real ownership of their own learning but also have an active role in the learning of their peers. It blurs the boundaries between teaching and learning in, what I think is, a very helpful manner, it also breaks down the distinction between teacher/facilitator and learner. Student leaders can become pivotal members of Schools/departments providing valuable insights into T&L as a result of their unique positions being students themselves and having close relationships with new students, but on the other hand also facilitating learning and therefore seeing the challenges of teaching and learning from both sides.

We often talk about universities being learning communities and one of the reflections from schools that have really engaged with PAL is that it is a powerful way of bringing that learning community to life

Student-led peer learning could be the catalyst for significant attitudinal not to say culture change amongst your students. How often have you moaned that students need to take more ownership of their learning? BUT beware it will also require some culture change on behalf of staff.    

 

More information will be available later this term on the expansion of student-led peer learning at Reading.

Burke da Silva & Z. Auburn 2009, The development of a structured “Peer Assisted Study Program” with required attendance (http://www.fyhe.com.au/past_papers/papers09/content/pdf/9D.pdf)

Keenan, 2014, Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK. Higher Education Academy (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Peer_led_learning_Keenan_Nov_14-final.pdf)

M. Ody & W. Carey, 2009, Demystifying Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS): What …? How …? Who …? Why …? (http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=7418)

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