Student-led Peer-assisted Learning (PAL) starts at Reading by Caroline Crolla

Readers of this blog may recall Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman’s “Hot tip: Student-led peer learning: a win-win for everyone” posted on January 2015.  She wrote then that “The University of Reading is about to appoint a peer assisted learning co-ordinator and launch a number of trial schemes in 2015/16.”  Happily, I am that peer-assisted learning coordinator and I took up post on 22 June 2015. I would like to take this opportunity to describe how the implementation of peer-assisted learning is going so far at the University of Reading.

What is PAL?

As Paddy explain in her January blog: 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.

Fact-finding visits

In June and July 2015, I visited other universities and attended national conferences on peer-led learning.  I quickly discovered that there exists a vibrant academic peer-learning community who are very welcoming and generous to a “new implementer” representing the University of Reading.

I visited three universities where PAL is very well-established across all faculties and schools and who have been running PAL – sometimes also called PASS (Peer-assisted Study Sessions) – for decades.  Colleagues at the University of Manchester, University of West England and Bournemouth University were particularly helpful in sharing their resources and experiences.

Reading’s early PAL adopters

During July and August, I met with colleagues in Mathematics, Psychology, Economics, English Literature and Systems Engineering.  I am pleased to say that five academics already would like to ‘pilot’ peer-assisted learning in specific 1st or 2nd Year modules or units that are cognitively challenging and in which students are known to struggle.

It has been a real pleasure to start collaborating with Tristan Pryer in Mathematics, Tom Loucas in Speech and Language, Pat Parslow in SSE and Simon Burke in Economics.   Each of these Academic Contacts is looking at the possibility of setting up regular, timetabled PAL sessions within these modules, as well as inviting successful and willing 2nd or 3rd Year students to agree to be trained as PAL leaders and run the PAL sessions.

As it is now September, the timing for implementation is tricky in some cases, so some academics like Rachel Pye, Jayne Freeman and Lesley Tranter in Psychology are considering implementing PAL in September 2016 in their Introduction to Neuroscience unit, which allows more time for timetabling, PAL recruitment and PAL Leader training.  Additionally, Cindy Becker and Nicole King are discussing how they might incorporate the support of two graduate interns in establishing PAL in English Literature.

How will PAL work at Reading?

PAL will be “discipline owned, student led, and centrally coordinated”.  Different Schools or departments may vary their offer where appropriate, but PAL will have recognisable features which will be consistent:

  • the School selects the module or unit which will have PAL integrated in the term it is taught
  • the School timetables and the PAL sessions
  • the PAL Coordinator will liaise with and support the Academic Contact/module convenor
  • the PAL Coordinator will train all PAL Leaders, and will assist with recruitment and monitoring student attendance at PAL sessions
  • experienced and successful students are trained in facilitation as PAL Leaders and then work in singly or pairs to:

a.  devise a structured approach to each session using their understanding of the material in conjunction with guidance from the Academic Contact

b. run the group sessions encouraging active discussion and collaboration amongst a group of between 5 and 15 students.

  • being a PAL Leader is voluntary, and the students who agree to become Leaders will be recognised and rewarded through the RED Award, inclusion of their participation on transcripts and in references and for some training activities Campus Card credit. We are also developing a credit-bearing module in coaching and mentoring to which PAL Leaders can apply.

What’s in it for…?

PAL participants

The students who attend PAL sessions regularly become part of a team who studies smarter. They share knowledge, experiences, and strategies with peers, helped by the PAL Leader.   PAL sessions offer a safe, friendly environment to revisit learning, compare notes, and ask questions. Participating in PAL sessions deepens students’ understanding of academic material by sharing problems and finding solutions.  PAL sessions can help develop confidence, independence and self-direction, communication skills and social skills further in participants.

PAL Leaders

PAL Leaders develop skills in facilitating learning and coaching other students, and their ability to tailor communication to different audiences. Leading PAL sessions helps develop time management skills, to plan and to problem solve.  These “soft skills” are valued by many employers.   PAL Leadership shows an employer that the leaders have gone above and beyond their degree and that they have been interested in contributing to the wider university community.  PAL Leaders get to know fellow students and develop a wider community of practice in their discipline. PAL Leaders have the opportunity to review and deepen their own understanding of their discipline, when they support the students who follow them in their learning.

Academics

Peer-assisted learning uses the talents many of your students already have to develop more independent learners who are self-directing their learning from where they are to where you would like them to be in terms of success. PAL has been shown to foster communities of learning where students learn more with and from each other.   PAL sessions provide students with additional structured learning time, independent of academics, although sessions are most successful when Academic Contacts provide guidance on the subject matter to the PAL Leaders.  In turn, the PAL Leaders can provide a rich source of immediate feedback to module convenors and to Schools about student learning.  PAL can only be developed in partnership with Schools and Schools identify and select content or modules deemed conceptually difficult.   Finally, offering PAL sessions on your course can develop altruistic and committed students who can help promote the course and meet with internal or external reviewers. Academics involved in PAL report that the scheme enhances a sense of School or Department community and identity.

Next steps

  1. Implement, evaluate and report on the five PAL “pilots” both from the students’ and Academic Contacts’ perspectives (watch this page)
  2. Promote PAL further with students and staff within selected Schools
  3. Extend provision of PAL across at least 5 more Schools in the light of experience of the pilots
  4. Have regular scheduled PAL Leader training sessions and in June / September / November
  5. Come to a Teaching & Learning Open programme session on “Another Student-led Scheme? How Peer-assisted Learning Raises Student Grades” on Wednesday 25 November 2015 from 14:00 – 15.00. Details are available at http://www.reading.ac.uk/cqsd/TandLEvents/cqsd-ComingSoon.aspx

If you are an academic interested in adopting PAL for one or more of your modules or you would like to find out more, please contact: Caroline Crolla, PAL Coordinator, c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk or phone 0118 378 6593.   I work in the Student Success Team which is located in Blandford Lodge, G17, Whiteknights campus.

For examples of PAL / PASS at other institutions, please view:

https://youtu.be/95QLTaWLSuE  and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UERuCYeSzcw

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