Lend support to students' PAL

August 17, 2007

Peer-assisted learning allows advanced students, such as third-years, to help new students to develop their study skills. It's not, however, an excuse for lecturers to put their feet up, as Harriet Swain explains.

It sounds like a great idea: get your third-year students to teach your first years, and you might finally get time to send off that grant application - and perhaps fit in a few games of tennis.

But you had better reschedule the tennis. Peer-assisted learning (PAL) is about more advanced students giving less advanced peers extra help in adjusting to university life and developing study skills based on an existing course, according to Hugh Fleming, senior lecturer and learner support tutor at Bournemouth University. It is not, he says, a substitute for your teaching.

High-quality training of those students who become PAL leaders is essential, says Fleming. They also need ongoing support from the course teaching and administrative team. One member of teaching staff needs to meet with them every two to four weeks (more in the early stages) to offer guidance and materials and obtain feedback. PAL also needs to be fitted carefully into the overall teaching strategy and embedded in a course programme and timetable.

"It's about forward planning," Fleming says. Lecturers have an important role in selecting PAL leaders, he says, and he recommends choosing students who are both bright and responsible, with a sense of altruism. "Avoid people on an ego trip, and avoid people who see PAL as being primarily social," he warns.

Judith Macbean, research fellow in the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at University College London, says PAL must be adapted to the needs of the department or particular module into which it is introduced.

She suggests that, before starting a scheme, academics discuss between themselves why PAL is needed and how they hope it will enhance their students' experience. On the other hand, once it is up and running, PAL should not take up too much of lecturers' time, she says.

Student PAL leaders need to feel that they are benefiting from the scheme as much as those they are teaching, says Macbean. This entails giving them autonomy over how the individual sessions are run and organised.

Sarah Mauthoor, who was a PAL leader in maths at University College London last year, says a degree of flexibility is also good. Towards the end of her third year she could not make some of the agreed sessions but had got to know the students well enough to suggest a different time and place if they needed help. "Being flexible made it easier and more enjoyable," she says.

Mauthoor says she found it useful for the first-year students to know in which topics PAL leaders considered themselves particularly strong so that they knew exactly where to go for help. Distributing topics among the PAL leaders meant that every area was covered without forcing each one to revise everything.

Steve Draper, senior lecturer in psychology at Glasgow University, which uses PAL, says it is a good idea to get the PAL leaders to work in pairs or threes so that if they have a moment of panic someone else can help.

He suggests splitting up large groups of students into subgroups with a number of PAL leaders either circulating between them or focusing on different topics. He suggests five students per group as the ideal number. Draper says it is important for PAL leaders to meet once a week to talk about what works or not in the sessions they run, and generally let off steam.

Deciding and advertising a topic for each session in advance both attracts students and means groups have a definite task to do when they are there, he says. "There's nothing wrong with asking those who turn up to a session what else they want to do, and perhaps changing the plan, but having a plan in advance is important to making the session seem purposeful."

Fleming also argues that PAL appears to work best when it has a specific role, focusing on particular course units that allow scope for discussion, or those that students see as especially challenging.

For him, the main task of teaching staff in PAL is to encourage students to attend the sessions and suggest topics or issues they may wish to discuss. It also provides PAL contacts with copies of the teaching schemes and assignment briefs as well as giving an opportunity to talk to PAL leaders about any specific points or advice they would like passed on to their students.

He says that setting a piece of assessed work early in the academic year provides a good focus for discussion during the first few sessions - and helping PAL leaders with boundary setting is essential.

For example, leaders should usually refuse students' requests to comment on their assignments in case they get it wrong or encourage plagiarism. Nor should they try to interpret an assignment question for the students. Instead, they should devise a PAL session discussing what the question might mean.

"It's about PAL leaders understanding where their responsibilities begin and end and where students' responsibilities begin and end," says Fleming. "We don't want them to re-teach the subject content."

Draper says he used to believe that PAL sessions should be exclusively for students but has found that some of the most successful sessions invited staff in to comment on draft solutions.

He believes the real issue is not whether to ban or admit staff but to get students to attempt their own solutions first before getting comments from more knowledgeable people.

Whether or not they attend sessions, academics should not take too much of a backseat when it comes to this kind of learning. Their support is essential if a PAL scheme is ever to get off the ground. "It's very important that the teaching team takes an active interest in it," says Fleming. "It has a significant role to play."

Further information

Bournemouth University's site on Peer-Assisted Learning: www.peerlearning.ac.uk

Steve Draper's web pages: www.psy.gla.ac.uk/steve/resources/pal.htmlNoplans

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