April 21st, 2009

Peer-Led Team Learning


One of the points made regularly here on the blog and in the Teaching Professor newsletter is that students can learn from each other. It’s one of basic tenets of my educational philosophy, and support for it keeps growing across fields and research methodologies. I also believe that faculty regularly underestimate just has much students can learn from other students.

When students work together, learning isn’t the automatic outcome. Case in point: most student study groups. Students tend to sit around and discuss the course, the instructor, and other students in the class. They try to figure out if the test will be hard, persuade themselves it will be easy, and think that they might need to know is obvious.

But when study groups are structured and led by students who have been trained as peer leaders, the results can be pretty stunning. In an upcoming issue of the newsletter, you’ll find out just how stunning, but here I wanted to highlight what the training for peer leaders facilitating study groups for a general chemistry course at Washington University in St. Louis involved.

First students apply for the program and go through an interview process. If accepted, they sign a letter in which they agree to register in two peer-leader mentoring courses (they may or may not be taken for credit); facilitate weekly two hour meetings with their study group (for which they are paid); maintain familiarity with the course material and participate in evaluation and discussion activities.

In one of the two courses, students meet weekly for a two-hour session during which they prepare for the content for the study session. They work the problems in groups, take turns facilitating, observe each other, and write reflection papers. The second course meets once a week for an hour and it covers a variety of instructional topics like small group dynamics, participation, learning styles, and listening skills, among others.

That’s a serious training effort which paid handsome dividends for students in the study groups.

The peer leaders themselves reported an equally compelling list of benefits accrued from the experience: they gained confidence in problem solving on their exams, focused on effective study skills, developed communication and leadership skills, kept their knowledge of chemistry current (useful for exams like the MCAT), developed an appreciation for different learning styles, and gained a greater understanding of small group dynamics.

What students can learn from each other is a function of how those collaborations are designed and how students are prepared to participate in them. Not everybody can put together a program as comprehensive as this one (which is used in large, 350-student courses), but even some structure and training make a difference when students learn together in groups.

Reference: 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.