Peer Assisted Learning for Life Sciences

Authors: Sarah Tindall, Sarah Crellin, Tamlyn Ryan and Setareh S. Chong
Department of Biology and Academic Support Office, University of York

Abstract

Peer learning is a learner-centred approach to learning and teaching which can encourage independent learning. Students learn by explaining their ideas to others and involvement in discussions.

Here we discuss Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) in teaching a first year cohort of 350 Life and Natural Sciences students with diverse academic backgrounds. This is supported by students from latter year stages (PAL leaders) from the Departments of Biology and Chemistry at York in a multidisciplinary, blended approach which uses face-to-face as well as a virtual environment (Padlet). PAL engages students with their studies, supports students with challenging subjects, and expands the scope for learning beyond what is required in the course from the start, in order to enhance independent learning and build a learning community. The success of this study is measured by online surveys and focus groups to assess the effects on both students and PAL leaders.

Report

Chair: James Youdale

Setareh Chong, Sarah Tindall, Tamlyn Ryan and Sarah Crellin facilitated a workshop to outline their approach to embedding Peer-Assisted Learning in the Life Sciences and to discuss some of the challenges that were encountered this year whilst the initiative was running.

Whilst the session focussed on the approach taken with Biology, colleagues from the Academic Support Office (such as the PAL Coordinator) were present to add context to the specific support that they offered the Department.

Reflecting the partnership with students, a number of PAL Leaders who were involved in teaching assisted with the session, with each leading the discussion on a table within the room.

It was concluded that timetabling PAL sessions was useful, but that generic, non-subject specific ice-breaker sessions had limited effectiveness.
It was concluded that timetabling PAL sessions was useful, but that generic, non-subject specific ice-breaker sessions had limited effectiveness.

PAL Within the Life Sciences

This approach to embedding Peer Assisted Learning involved timetabling a one-hour session per week, which was led by a PAL Coordinator – a PhD student within the Department, and several PAL Leaders – students from Stage 2 and 3 of their Degree Programmes.

It was observed that timetabling PAL – even though attendance was not required – was an effective method of increasing the visibility of the scheme, and that the resources that were generated through PAL teaching – such as banks of crowd-sourced questions via Padlet – could be carried forward for future years. 

Discussion between PAL leaders and delegates allowed the sharing and demystification of practice
Discussion between PAL leaders and delegates allowed the sharing and demystification of practice

Dr. Chong reflected on some of the initial challenges with PAL – such as how to embed the scheme into an already-packed schedule, and how they attempted to maintain engagement within the initiative by taking a flexible approach, whereby feedback channels were made open to allow attendees to steer the direction of PAL sessions.

‘The Best but least-confident students attend’

It was reported that 34 – 65 students regularly attended PAL sessions, and that mean examination performance was measured, demonstrating a clear correlation between higher marks in those students who were supported by Peer Assisted Learning.

PAL Leaders discussed with delegates what they got out of being involved in the initiative, including the ability to revisit content that they fully understand in the first year, and to learn through teaching.

It was reported that 34 – 65 students regularly attended PAL sessions, and that mean examination performance was measured, demonstrating a clear correlation between higher marks in those students who were supported by Peer Assisted Learning.

Aligning with a common theme of ‘courage’ and ‘confidence’ in the Conference Keynote, a workshop attendee from the Department of Chemistry considered how, in his experience, it was often the best, but least-confident students who attended PAL sessions, and that one of the challenges with the initiative was to widen participation, and foster some intrinsic motivation to attend in those students who may need Peer-Assisted Learning the most.

What’s in it for a PAL leader?

Another discussion, raised by a colleague from the Department of Psychology, looked at the motivations behind becoming a PAL Leader.

One of the PAL Leaders present shared her experience as a Second Year student, who recalled experiencing difficulty with certain aspects of First Year Modules. Through engaging with PAL, she had the impetus to return to First Year Content to question and compound on her own understanding, through, as she put it ‘teaching as learning’.

Delegates discussed the use of flashcards to test factual recall during PAL sessions. and how this approach has been shaped by PAL leaders to focus on deeper discussion.

It was also discussed how PAL Leaders felt that the trust placed in them by the Department helped them to develop their own confidence and communication skills.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s