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Peer Assisted Learning

By Stephen W. Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

These are my overview notes and pointers on PAL as an educational activity. Originally prompted by an evaluation of the introduction of PAL done in 2002-3 in Computing Science with Margaret Brown. For information on the implementation in the psychology department, see the psychology PAL home page.

Contents (click to jump to a section)

The basic idea

What I here call PAL is, basically, providing in addition to any tutorial groups led by staff, groups for all students in a class that are led by students from a year or two above (mentors of a kind) who act as facilitators rather than tutors i.e. they promote the group members in answering each others' questions rather than being a source of answers themselves.

"The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring."
[From the Introduction in (Illich; 1970):
Illich,Ivan D. (1970) Deschooling Society (Calder & Boyars: London)]

It is called by a number of different terms as well as "PAL" (see below). It is distinctly different from, although not entirely unrelated to, peer mentoring.

Potential pedagogic benefits

  1. If the leaders act as tutors, this would be extra instruction: probably useful as an extra information source. (Supplemental instruction.)
  2. An extra organised contact hour, in which students are led to think about work. Any extra processing is likely to promote learning.
  3. Deep learning! Use the extra learning time to discuss the real meaning of the concepts put forward in the lectures. Since many courses are organised to "get through" a packed curriculum for the average student, lectures and tutorials are often largely designed only to introduce essential material, not to ponder its meaning. These (voluntary) sessions can be used to discuss further implications, counter-arguments, etc.
  4. An extra group in which they meet other students: important for "integration" (see Tinto's model) and a crucial feature, often in short supply, especially for first year students. "Integration" refers to getting to know others, and still more to feeling at home in the class, department, university, city, and in the role of student. Our first year students often report being unable to get to know anyone in the big lectures, as you never sit next to the same person twice. Even tutorials can be poor at this, if the tutor suppresses social chat and students (due to timetabling) have to leave promptly at the end.
  5. If the leaders are more senior students, and contribute from their experience of having done the course before, they are acting as mentors: widely thought to be beneficial in itself. This is information, perhaps tacit, on what it is like being a student, and on what does and does not work.
  6. If the group leaders manage to avoid acting as information sources, but do facilitate class mates learning from each other, that is actual peer assisted learning. This is probably even more use to the information giver than to the receiver, because it requires reprocessing the material. But it is also useful to the receiver, not least because there are 100 times more peers than staff available. It is a habit that successful people use in almost all occupations, including that of student. The sooner it becomes part of each student's practice the better.
  7. The meta-level aim of this ("auto-PAL") is to get students into the habit of using peers and peer discussion routinely in all future learning: a fundamental study skill.

Contrasting but related schemes

The essential value from peers

Another way of looking at it is that PAL is based on the fundamental insight that, for a learner, other learners can help in ways teachers are fundamentally unequipped to do (besides being cheaper, more numerous, and usually more available). Firstly, in giving explanations adapted to the learner. If you ask a teacher to explain something they have told you, many just repeat what they said: and the more scholarly and careful a teacher is, the more trapped they may be in this since they had planned carefully to say it as well as it possibly could be the first time. A teacher less expert in the subject matter, but better at teaching, may be able to paraphrase more or less deeply. But the essential issue is that (as constructivism asserts) learning depends not just on the desired end state but on the learner's beginning state: their prior knowledge and conceptions. Other learners are likely to know that from the inside, teachers cannot; so other learners can use referents and common knowledge they have, know what the difficulties and apparent objections are to the new concept, and so on. The second respect in which learners, especially perhaps students a year ahead, are better at teaching than teachers (especially at universities) is in study methods: they can say from personal experience what was important to do on this course, what worked and what didn't, what should and shouldn't be worried about. The person giving the course has never taken it, and has no direct experience of these aspects; and at university typically actually has no knowledge at all of how students cope with it.

However in addition to these ways in which other learners may "know" or "teach" better than the teachers, there is a profound benefit to do with the process rather than what they know. Explaining a topic to someone else is powerfully conducive to learning in the explainer (apart for possibly helping the questioner). This is the essential cognitive boost from peer interaction, as studied for instance by Howe et al. (1995, 1998).

Introduction to the literature on peer interaction and learning

There is a literature on peer interaction and learning. If you are interested in this then a good introductory chapter might be Foot & Howe (1998). Some interesting empirical work includes Howe et al. (1995, 1998); but (with adults) for me a seminal paper is Miyake (1986). However for a short clear statement about the essentials from the viewpoint of a practical university teacher, then Abercrombie (1960) ch.5 is hard to beat.

Abercrombie, M.L.J. (1960) The anatomy of judgement: an investigation into the processes of perception and reasoning (London : Free Association Press) [Lib: Psychology F570]

Foot,H. & Howe,C. (1998) "The psychoeducational basis of peer-assisted learning" ch.2, pp.27-43 in Topping,K. & Ehly,S. (eds.) Peer-assisted learning (LEA: Mahwah, NJ) [Lib: Education E29.P3 1998-T]

Howe, C J, Tolmie, A, Greer, K and Mackenzie, M (1995) "Peer collaboration and conceptual growth in physics: task influences on children's understanding of heating and cooling" Cognition and Instruction vol.13, pp.483-503.

Howe, C.J. & Tolmie A. (1998) "Computer support in learning in collaborative contexts: prompted hypothesis testing in physics" Computers and Education vol.3/4, pp.223-235.

Miyake,N. (1986) "Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding" Cognitive Science vol.10 no.2 pp.151-177

Theoretical regrouping of the possible aims

Given the above bag of desirable attributes, they could be (re)grouped by considering the underlying theoretical issues.

  • Essential benefits from peers: Mentoring, peer assisted learning, acquiring the proactive practice of learning from peers.
  • Partly from peers, partly an independent issue: Integration, both social and academic. (See Tinto's model)
  • Deep learning: shouldn't need these groups, but very often courses will at best only plan to support deep learning in "extra" activities like PAL. (See deep learning.)
  • Addressing Laurillard activities 2,3,4 better. These require interaction and iteration between learner and teacher e.g. asking questions and getting personal responses, or a learner re-presenting the material (e.g. in an essay) and getting responses to it. Supplemental instruction and extra processing i.e. the simple effect of spending longer addressing the subject, and of having an extra information source, can be put under this heading; and are necessarily missing in big class sessions. (See Laurillard's model)
  • Study skills [a redundant grouping]: PAL, deep learning and reflection, learning techniques for studying this course from other students, ...

    Alternative terms

    This activity is known as (see also this list of terminology):

    It can also be related to the educational literature on:

    What would I call it? Today's thought might be: "Mentor-assisted peer interaction and reflection". (MAPIR -- not a great acronym.)

    A robust intervention

    So what is the "real" PAL? Like most of the best designs and academic activities, in PAL multiple benefits fit naturally together, and if any one works well it will be worthwhile. The benefits don't all have to work all the time for every student. It is a naturally robust design, and we can reasonably expect benefits overall without being sure of which will prove successful in a particular case.

    In other words, there can be many types of PAL, all worthwhile. Almost certainly, different implementations (consciously or not) aim for different subsets of the potential benefits. On the other hand, we could use the above analysis to try to get all the benefits: each could be specifically tackled in the training of facilitators, in the agenda/lesson plan they use each session, in the advertising to students (suggesting why it is worth attending), and in evaluation measures used.

    A scheme's particular aims

    A particular scheme in a particular department can, and is likely to, have different priorities from other schemes. These can be thought of as ordering the possible aims or educational benefits above in different ways. For instance some schemes may be primarily addressed at reducing failure rates and/or increasing exam scores, and these will give priority to providing an extra information resource and extra processing time for students: essentially being focussed on extra tutoring (supplemental instruction). Another scheme might be focussed on better support for widening participation, and this might give priority to mentoring (how to be a successful student despite less social and cultural access to previous university graduates) and integration. A third type of variant might be focussed on improving the enjoyment and quality of experience for learners despite huge classes, and give priority to integration, peer interaction, and deep learning.

    Each of the potential benefits or aims has implications for training facilitators, for advertising to clients, and for which activities or agenda items to promote or emphasise most. These will give different schemes different characteristics, subject to actual client demand in sessions.

    What are the main costs for a department adopting PAL?

    The main resources a department (in this university) must find to run a PAL scheme are probably:

    In the first year of course it will take a lot of staff time planning and managing, so you better have an enthusiastic advocate who will devote time and attention to it at first. However after a year or two's experience, it will seem routine apart from the above resources. (I hope. But this was what Neil McKeown at Manchester told me.)

    Management decisions

    Above are only educational aims. Schemes also have many practical aspects and features. Some of the key management decisions that have to be made in implementing a specific PAL scheme are:

    Typical weekly actions

    Of course in practice PAL schemes vary greatly between themselves, but here is one list of all the recurring actions that have to be done each week by either organisers or facilitators.

    Other notes

    (For a better short statement on history see here.)

    The approach has been used, it is said, since 1973 in the USA at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and in the UK at least since 1990 at Kingston University.

    At Glasgow it was introduced for the first time in 2002-3 by the Student Network for the first year class in Computing Science. Initial training was donated by Jenni Wallace of London Guildhall University. In 2003-4 it was first run in Computing Science and Psychology.

    I have a short and partial literature review of web-available papers about UK implementations of PAL.

    Evaluation papers

    Many of the papers available through the above links report evaluations, and are of interest if you are doing an evaluation. More directly about how to do evaluation of PAL are:

    The obvious thing is to measure exam results for PAL attenders vs. non-attenders. Since correlation doesn't prove causation, you have to consider other factors. The first obvious one to check on is "ability" e.g. measure exam results prior to the course such as entry point scores. Here's a summary of one case with results like that. The second one is "keenness" e.g. measure attendance and meeting deadlines on the rest of the course. (I haven't yet noticed anyone who measured this.)

  • Smith,J., May,S. & Burke,L. (2007) "Peer Assisted Learning: a case study into the value to student mentors and mentees" Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education" vol.2 no.2 pp.80-109

    Other papers

    Here is a paper by Maggie Pollock on a mentoring scheme at this university that failed.

    PAL at this university

    PAL at the University of Glasgow.

    Other universities' web pages for students about PAL

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