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PAL: benefits for students

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

The longer term aim is to encourage students to help each other, and to seek help both from others on the course and from those who have done the course earlier.

What's in it for you, the client student? A comfortable atmosphere in which you can pick up some help with the course and enjoy it more. In the short term, it's a place you can get questions answered (or at least find out where to get the answers) without the bother of tracking down a staff member, and find out what questions other students have; whether it's what this week's lectures actually meant, what people think the real implications of the ideas might be, or stuff about administration (what IS a lab?, where is that tutorial room?), about the university, or about being a student. And hearing the inside view from previous students (who run the groups) can be helpful. It's also a place to get to know other students (a hugely important part of university life, for intellectual and academic as well as for social reasons), and to help them as much as they will help you. Discussing being a student, doing this course, this week's work are vital: how else will you get it straight in your mind?

In the medium term, you'll probably end up little by little learning more, doing better, and enjoying it more: hard to tell in any given week, but (some research seems to show) adding up to a real difference over the year. You will not only ask questions and get answers, but also practise identifying the questions you should be asking, and methods for getting answers yourself.

And so, in the longer term, you'll get into the vital habit of monitoring and managing your own learning: checking what you have and haven't got each week by comparing with other students; and it gives you practice at getting more from interacting with your class mates: the biggest secret learning resource any university has. It's useful when they tell you stuff, but there's nothing like trying to explain something to someone else for really sorting out your own understanding. This is a lifelong skill that you'll probably use in most jobs, where learning from other employees is the main source. Thus it's also a place to think about and perhaps extend your study skills, and most centrally your "reflection" i.e. thinking about yourself and your learning in order to manage it better, and to discover routines that may make you more independent in future of organised teaching, including even the PAL groups themselves.

In some other schemes, PAL has been targeted at courses with high failure rates, and has sometimes improved the pass rate and average exam marks. This may not be a major effect here: we are aiming more at improving the quality of learning and of the learning methods students adopt and that form the basis for their work in later years.

If you'd like to see this related to concepts from the educational literature, then you could look at my notes on the concept of PAL. This also has some pointers to other universities that run PAL schemes, and papers on that.

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