Peer-assisted learning (PAL)

Getting the most from peer-assisted learning, which allows advanced students to help new students develop study skills.

January 3, 2008

Peer-assisted learning allows more advanced students to give 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.

But it is not, he clarifies, a substitute for lecturers’ teaching.

Training students who become PAL leaders is essential, Fleming says. A member of teaching staff should meet them every two to four weeks to offer guidance and materials and obtain feedback. PAL must be fitted into the teaching strategy and embedded in a course programme and timetable.

Fleming recommends choosing bright, responsible students with a sense of altruism: “Avoid people on an ego trip, and those PAL as being primarily social.”

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 module.

Before starting a scheme, academics should discuss why PAL is needed and how it will enhance their students’ experience. But once it is up and running, PAL should not take up too much of lecturers’ time, she says.

Student PAL leaders should feel that they are benefiting from the scheme as much as those they are teaching, says Macbean. They should be given autonomy over how individual sessions are run and organised.

Sarah Mauthoor, a PAL leader in maths at University College London last year, says she found it useful for first-year students to know in which topics PAL leaders considered themselves particularly strong. Distributing topics among the PAL leaders meant that every area was well covered.

Steve Draper, senior lecturer in psychology at Glasgow University, which uses PAL, suggests that PAL leaders should work in pairs or threes. Split up large groups of students with a number of PAL leaders circulating between them or focusing on different topics, he says. Five students per group may be the ideal number.

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

Fleming says PAL works best when it has a specific role, focusing on course units that allow scope for discussion, or those that students see as challenging.

The main task of teaching staff, he says, is to encourage students to attend PAL sessions and suggest topics or issues for discussion. Staff should provide PAL contacts with the teaching schemes and assignment briefs, and speak to PAL leaders about any specific points or advice they would like passed on to students.

Help PAL leaders set boundaries, Fleming says. Leaders should usually refuse students’ requests to comment on assignments in case they get it wrong or encourage plagiarism. Nor should they try to interpret an assignment question. Instead, they should devise a session discussing what the question means.

PAL leaders must “understand where their responsibilities begin and end,” says Fleming. “We don’t want them to re-teach the subject content.”

Whether or not they attend sessions, academics’ support is essential to a PAL scheme’s success.

“The teaching team must take an active interest,” Fleming says. “They have a significant role to play.”

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