Evidence that students can learn from each other continues to grow. The quality of some of the research documenting that fact is impressive. Here are highlights from a study in which peers were used to facilitate discussion groups in a large general chemistry course.
The program at Washington University in St. Louis is based on a peer-led team learning (PLTL) model now used at a number of colleges and universities. At Washington University students self-select to this option of the course. Once selected, attendance at the sessions is mandatory. Students become members of eight-person study groups. A peer leader who has taken the two semester sequence of general chemistry previously and received at least a B+ (most received an A or an A-) meets with the study group for two hours either Saturday or Sunday to work through a series of posted problems. This program replaced tutoring services previously offered by the university.
This model is noteworthy for the training it requires of the peer leaders. They are chosen through an application process and are then required to take a two-credit general studies course, “Practical Applications of Academic Mentoring.” Students may take the course without receiving credit for it. They meet weekly for two hours to work on the problems the students will do during the study group session scheduled that week. They role-play difficult situations, write reflections on the group they are leading, and work on materials development, among other tasks. In addition, they must take a one-credit “Seminar in Academic Mentoring.” During this one-hour weekly course they explore various teaching topics such as group dynamics, participation, and listening skills. The peer leaders do receive payment for facilitating their student group.
In their attempts to assess the impact of the PLTL experiences, the faculty researchers controlled for a number of different background variables and used regression analysis. They found that the PLTL students outperformed students not having the study group experience on three out of four measures of academic performance. The PLTL students withdrew from the course less often, had higher grades on the final, and received lower than a B- in the course less often than students not participating in the PLTL program. All these differences were at statistically significant levels. The PLTL students outperformed the other students by an average of one-third of a grade point.
In addition to these statistical differences, the faculty researchers also surveyed students about their experiences in the PLTL groups. They asked a series of questions about the effect of the group on study skills and performance. The average response to these questions was 4.21 on a 5.0 scale, with students in strong agreement that the experiences positively affected their study skills and performance.
Concerning the interaction with their groups, the 4.05 mean on the 5.0 scale indicates a strong favorable response to group dynamics questions. Students also responded favorably to questions about their chemistry-related abilities, including problem solving and the overall usefulness of the study group.
Based on the success of this program, various forms of PLTL activities have been integrated into general physics, the beginning calculus sequence, and organic chemistry courses at Washington University.
References: Hockings, S. C., DeAngelis, K. J., and Frey, R. F. (2008). Peer-led team learning in general chemistry: Implementation and evaluation. Journal of Chemical Education, 85 (7), 990-996.
Excerpted from When Peers Teach, Students Learn. The Teaching Professor, 23.6 (2009): 7.