22 SES 02 A, Teaching and Learning: Feedback and Students' Activities
One of the ways of supporting students on “difficult” courses is using a peer-assisted learning (PAL) approach. PAL (or Supplemental Instruction (SI) as it is called in the US) has already demonstrated its effectiveness at decreasing students’ drop-out rate, improving students’ performance, and developing students’ competences and skills across a broad range of subject areas [e.g. 1].
The most common PAL model is one in which senior students who act as PAL leaders run regular study support sessions for junior students. PAL leaders play an important role in facilitating student-centred teaching and learning practices central to PAL. These practices are underpinned by social constructivist and collaborative learning theories [e.g. 2, 3], which emphasise that learning is constructed in an interactive social context. As a result, students who collaborate with their peers and take an active approach to their learning earn higher grades and develop a deeper understanding of content.
There is a wide body of literature dedicated to evaluating students’ experience and benefits of attending PAL sessions [e.g. 1, 4-6]. However, less comprehensive information is available about how PAL impacts peer leaders’ experience. There is some evidence that PAL leaders, while being an integral part of the rich learning environment that PAL creates, can experience even more profound benefits through their involvement in the scheme than the students who attend PAL sessions.
This paper presents a qualitative analysis of PAL leaders’ experience in running maths support sessions for first-year students on a range of programmes at University West, Sweden. This study is part of an ongoing collaboration between University West (Sweden) and Lancaster University (UK) on using PAL in supporting students who study maths [7-9].
This paper evaluates the experience of peer leaders in providing maths support for students studying maths as a core subject. The PAL sessions were embedded in the programmes’ delivery. Peer leaders ran regular optional sessions as well as provided some additional on-line support, guiding students through the problem-solving process, working with the students in small groups.
The study analyses the benefits that the peer leaders gained while participating on the scheme, looks at the challenges the PAL leaders faced and how the lessons drawn from their experience could influence the future development of PAL.
The objectives of the study are to:
- Evaluate the impact of participating in PAL sessions on the leaders’ leadership skills, competences and pedagogical development;
- Evaluate the impact of collaboration between the peer leaders and course leaders on the PAL leaders’ experience;
- Analyse the challenges of peer leaders face while supporting students enrolled on maths intensive courses.
PAL was implemented at University West in academic years 2017-18 and 2018-19 to support around 70 students enrolled on the ‘Algebra and Calculus I’ on the Land Surveyors programme as well as around 120 students enrolled on ‘Calculus I and II’ modules on the Computer Science, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and Industrial Economics programmes. The PAL scheme ran in addition to lectures and seminars and covered the topics that were introduced in the lectures in the same week. This support was optional, but all students registered on the modules were encouraged to attend. The two-hour PAL sessions were offered twice per week for the duration of 16 weeks. The peer leader normally worked with around 12-15 students. During these two academic years, 10 PAL leaders were recruited from second- and third-year students who were progressing well on these modules; the PAL leaders were paid for their work. Specialist peer leader training based on the training material provided by the SI/PAL Centre in Lund University was provided. The PAL leaders were also given a facilitator’s guide developed by the Centre, containing a range of resources the leaders could use in their practice. Three out of 10 trained peer leaders dropped out of the scheme due to a range of reasons. The peer leaders had control over running the PAL sessions. They could decide how to communicate with the students, how to structure the sessions and facilitate the group work. The leaders had regular meeting with course leaders and the PAL administrator/manager. At the meetings, the peer leaders reflected on how successful the sessions were, the challenges they encountered and the question the students raised. The attendance of PAL sessions varied by year, with 2018-19 being better attended than 2017-18. Generally, variation in attendance could be explained by students’ other commitments, assessments, deadlines and the qualities of PAL leaders. However, the increase in the PAL sessions attendance in 2018-19 could be partially explained by the fact that other types of maths support e.g. additional workshops were not available to the students. To evaluate the peer leaders’ experience, over the two years, the peer leaders, were asked to complete an open-ended questionnaire and participate in a semi-structured interview. Seven remaining peer leaders participated in these activities.
The analysis found that the PAL leaders positively evaluated their experience of running PAL sessions. They developed a range of practical skills that would help them become more employable (e.g. leadership, organisation, decision-making skills, etc.). They explained how they used their training to plan sessions and to overcome challenging situations. Furthermore, PAL leaders thought that the collaboration with module leaders helped improve the success of PAL sessions. The PAL leaders thought that they developed many aspects of leadership skills through organising and facilitating the sessions, being flexible to students’ diverse learning styles and needs, and adapting to new situations if the sessions deviated from the plan. The peer leaders emphasised the importance of clear communication, taking on responsibilities and decision-making while running the sessions. The PAL leaders emphasised the importance of pedagogical knowledge for engaging the students into an active learning process. The peer leaders used the strategies they learned in their training to encourage the students to work collaboratively with their peers and guided the students in problem-solving. Peer leaders also reflected on the challenging situations they faced when the students just wanted to know the answers without developing conceptual understanding and how they handled these situations through questioning the students’ reasoning and showing alternative examples. The PAL leaders highlighted that effective collaboration with module leaders played a significant role in PAL session success. This collaboration provided an opportunity for better preparation and planning of a PAL session, helped with shaping the focus of a session and with achieving students’ learning outcomes. Based on our study, we recommend that institutions considering adopting PAL to supplement students’ learning provide training for PAL leaders, advise PAL leaders to work in pairs to support each other, and ensure that module/course leaders are on-hand for support to achieve successful PAL outcomes.
1.Malm, J., Bryngfors, L. and Mörner, L.L., 2016. The potential of supplemental instruction in engineering education: creating additional peer-guided learning opportunities in difficult compulsory courses for first-year students. European Journal of Engineering Education, 41(5), pp.548-561. 2.Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 3.Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. The growth of logical thinking. New York: Basic Books, 1958 4.Dawson P., Van der Meer J., Skalicky J., Cowley K. “On the Effectiveness of Supplemental Instruction: Systematic Review of SI and Peer-Assisted Study Sessions Literature between 2001 and 2010”, Review of Educational Research, 2014, vol. 84, No 4, pp.609-639 5.Green, P., 2011. A literature review of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL). National HE STEM. 6.Ning N.K. and Downing K. 2010. The impact of supplemental instruction on learning competence and academic performance. Studies in Higher Education Vol. 35, No 8. Pp 921-939. 7.Nilsson G., Luchinskaya E, and Kristiansson L. ’Enhancing students’ performance in maths through Supplemental Instruction’. ECER 2016, Dublin, Ireland. 8.Luchinskaya E. and Nilsson G. ‘Embedded or ad-hoc peer mentoring? In search of best practice of supporting students studying mathematics’. ECER 2017, Copenhagen, Denmark. 9.Luchinskaya E. and Nilsson G. ‘The role of peer leaders in supporting university students studying mathematics’. ECER 2018, Bolzano, Italy.
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