Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL): the first year and the future

Tuesday 19th March 2019, 12.30pm to 2.00pm

Speakers: Tamlyn Ryan and Katy Mann Benn
Location: Room H/G/21, Heslington Hall, Campus West

Workshop Summary

Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) is an excellent opportunity to nurture a closer departmental learning community whereby trained higher-year student volunteers lead small, collaborative study groups with lower-year peers. To encourage the development of focused peer-support schemes at York, in 2017/18 the Learning Enhancement team (ASO) piloted a framework aimed at assisting departments in developing their own Peer-assisted learning (PAL) schemes. This workshop will report on the key findings from the pilot and outline the Peer-Assisted Learning at York framework. Come along to hear how the PAL framework can support your students and staff to build effective learning communities.

Workshop Report

by session chair, Glenn Hurst

On 19th March 2019, Tamlyn Ryan and Katy Mann-Benn led a workshop on peer-assisted learning (PAL) with Nicola Johnson and John Parry, undergraduate PAL leaders. PAL has been shown to have a positive effect on transition and retention together with enriching the student experience and strengthening learning communities (both staff-student partnerships and between students).

Essentially, PAL is run by student volunteers for their peers in lower years. Ideally, students will choose the module they feel is the most challenging, meet regularly and enjoy sessions run by trained facilitators known as PAL leaders. Sessions are based on sharing, thinking and clarifying. Although new students are still in the school mind-set that they want to know the answers and what they need to do to pass the module, the PAL leaders are not there to teach or give answers but the focus on the study processes enabling students to learn how to study.

Tamlyn Ryan, project lead for this work, reported that in 2017/18, four different academic departments facilitated PAL schemes where 37 PAL leaders were trained. By 2018/19, the number of contributing departments rose to ten with 110 PAL leaders trained. Through their role, PAL leaders are able to help students realise ‘learning for the sake of learning’ and to move away from goal-oriented surface learning. There is a significant opportunity to develop student employability through acting as PAL leaders with students reporting that they feel so much more part of the department learning community and that it is a massive boost to confidence and the feeling of belonging by being trusted by staff to lead sessions.

Katy Mann-Benn outlined the 21 principles of PAL according to:

  1. is a methodology for learner support
  2. is small group learning
  3. is facilitated by other students acting as mentors
  4. is confidential
  5. is voluntary
  6. is non-remedial
  7. is participative
  8. is content -based and process-oriented
  9. encourages collaborative, rather than competitive learning
  10. benefits all students regardless of current academic competency
  11. gives privacy to practise the subject, make mistakes and build up confidence
  12. gives opportunity to increase academic performance
  13. is pro-active, not reactive
  14. targets high ‘risk’ /threshold courses, not high-risk groups
  15. decreases drop-out rates/aids retention
  16. encourages learner autonomy
  17. does not create dependency
  18. integrates effective learning strategies within the course content
  19. enables a clear view of course expectations
  20. works in the language of the discipline
  21. challenges the barrier between year groups

Following this, Katy described the strong links to the principles of the York Pedagogy together with the Teaching Excellence Framework and York Strengths. The remainder of the session was led by the PAL leaders, Nicola and John, where participants were requested to individually identify which of the 21 principles were most important and then, in groups, collate individual feedback and identify four principles to agree on. Following feeding back to all participants, attendees had to note down what they had learned from the session together with questions they had on a large piece of paper, which was then circulated around the groups and discussed. Being able to practice PAL in this way was certainly the most interactive and engaging part of this excellent workshop, providing participants with a real insight into the benefits of adopting a PAL approach. Finally, attendees were asked to consider as to whether a PAL scheme would be beneficial for their department.

Support in setting up Peer-Assisted Learning is available from the Learning Enhancement team via:

  1. information regarding PAL via advertised ‘Introduction to PAL’ events, direct contact with department staff and presentations for student cohorts;
  2. consultation i.e. assessing if PAL was a suitable approach for a particular programme issue; planning the logistics and timeline of a possible PAL scheme;
  3. recruitment and training of PAL Coordinators and Leaders;
  4. ongoing monitoring;
  5. evaluation.

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