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Peer Assisted Learning (PAL): an overview
Information about this web site
The purpose of this web site is to provide a first point for information about Peer Assisted Learning (PAL). The site provides an overview of PAL, the principles upon which PAL is based, the main purposes and benefits of PAL together with some further information on implementing the PAL scheme.
Resources for those involved in PAL at Bournemouth University are provided in the University VLE, myBU in the PAL CENTRAL community.
Peer Assisted Learning: a definition
Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) is a scheme that fosters cross-year support between students on the same course. PAL encourages students to support each other and to learn co-operatively under the guidance of trained students, called PAL Leaders, from the year above.
PAL at Bournemouth University
The PAL scheme has operated at Bournemouth University since 2001, after we had obtained funding for 3 years under the Fund for Development of Teaching and Learning Phase 3 (FDTL3) from the Higher Education Funding Council for England . Our main Project Goals were to promote awareness, enhance understanding, and encourage the effective implementation of Peer Assisted Learning as a scheme that fosters cross-year support for students. You can find more information about the FDTL3 PAL Project and sustainability elsewhere on this site.
Aims of PAL
At Bournemouth University PAL has five main aims and is intended to help students:
Of as much importance are the `intangible´ benefits of PAL, such as increased cohesion of the student group, reassurance about study concerns and increased confidence. PAL offers benefits to students and staff at all levels: to the School, the course, Student Leaders, as well as first year students.
How PAL operates
After receiving training the more experienced students, called PAL Leaders, facilitate weekly or, fortnightly study support sessions for groups of students from the year below. Usually this involves second year undergraduate students supporting first year students from the same course although we also use final year students in the same way to support second year students. These groups are the same as the students normal seminar group, comprising between 16-25 students, depending on the course. For the larger groups, PAL Leaders often work in pairs – planning sessions together, sharing the workload, and supporting each other.
PAL is supplemental to teaching. Content for PAL sessions is decided upon by the group rather than the Leader and content for discussion is based on existing course materials - handouts, workbooks, lecture notes, text books and set reading.
PAL sessions are intended to be structured, organised and purposeful while also being informal and friendly. In PAL, the emphasis is on everyone in the group working co-operatively and interdependently to develop their understanding. PAL is therefore about exploratory discussion led by the PAL Leaders. The more everyone in the group joins in these discussions, the better the sessions work.
This interdependent learning between the students who form the PAL group, and between the group and their PAL Leader, are essential if PAL is to work effectively and are likely to have longer term benefits as well. In his Evaluation Report on the original PAL Project, Professor Paul Light wrote:
What PAL is not intended to do
Peer Assisted Learning is NOT:
Student empowerment and ownership
PAL is run by students for students. Student empowerment and ownership are essential to the successful implementation of the scheme. This empowerment takes two forms:
First, student recipients of PAL are encouraged to identify the topics for discussion in their next PAL session. During the early stages of the academic year it isn’t always easy to get students to do this and this reluctance to be forthcoming can be a source of frustration for PAL Leaders. However we believe that this responsibility, both to choose the topics to be discussed and to come to the PAL session prepared to engage in the subsequent discussion, forms an essential part of student ownership of PAL. This interdependency, learning with one’s peers, marks a significant stage in the journey from being a dependent learner towards becoming an independent learner.
Second, PAL Leaders are responsible for planning their PAL sessions; they are not given session plans. Once Leaders have received an indication from the students about the topics they would like to discuss in their next PAL session, PAL Leaders are encouraged to plan their PAL sessions in advance with a clear focus on the group techniques and activities they will use to ensure collaborative discussions take place. We have observed some very creative sessions. We encourage Leaders to plan their early sessions with other Leaders from the same course.
At Bournemouth Course PAL Contacts may suggest topics for discussion or practise in PAL sessions. These frequently make use of self-learning activities contained in the first year students’ course workbooks.
Basic requirements of PAL
At Bournemouth, PAL operates as a partnership between the academic Schools and Student & Academic Services delivered through the Library & Learning Support section (LLS).
Input from LLS focuses on training, co-ordination of recruitment, general support, observation of PAL sessions and formative feedback to Leaders following observation.
All PAL Leaders are trained in their role by a team of staff led by LLS. Training normally comprises an initial, compulsory 2-day course, which takes place before the Autumn term starts, with further follow-up training sessions being offered to provide further resources, share experiences and consolidate or add to their skills.
Rsources for PAL Leaders are contained in the myBU PAL CENTRAL community and each PAL Leader receives a student leader guide.
PAL Leaders are observed at least once while running a PAL session and formative feedback is given afterwards. The purposes of observation are to ensure that Leaders are doing what they’re supposed to be doing! More specifically this means:
During PAL sessions we are keen to avoid situations in which the PAL Leader might dominate discussion or provide too much guidance on, for example, what students should put into a piece of assessed work. This means that issues such as boundary setting and plagiarism need to be discussed during the Leader’s initial training course.
Input from Schools: In order to run effectively PAL requires a partnership with the course teaching team and administrative staff. One member of the teaching team, the Course PAL Contact, meets regularly, every 2-4 weeks, with the PAL Leaders to guide them, provide them with course timetables and assignment briefs, and obtain feedback from them. This input is essential in order to fine-tune the general principles upon which PAL is based to the more specific requirements of the course. This Course PAL Contact will normally report on PAL to their Course Committee.
PAL works best when it appears as a normal part of course activities and is timetabled at times students will find convenient i.e. immediately after a lecture.
There are a number of variants and synonyms of PAL, but all utilise students from the year above who facilitate understanding and learning among a group of students from the year below on the same course.
The PAL session is the place where PAL `happens´. Usually, PAL takes place in a seminar room with one or perhaps a pair of Leaders facilitating discussion and co-operative learning with their group.
The group will meet for around an hour to review course material, analyse assignment requirements, discuss lectures or project work or to air other matters, such as finance or accommodation issues, which may be of concern to the students. The agenda for a session should be chosen by first year students according to current course and assessment demands. However, particularly early on in the year, the Leader may use some resources from the myBU communtiy PAL CENTRAL to focus the session. Examples include: running a discussion on plagiarism and how to avoid it, explaining how to use the library for research, or giving the students an opportunity to practise citing references correctly.
The session is a chance for first years to consolidate their knowledge of a subject, and share problems or worries within a supportive, informal environment. Although students may do so, the primary aim of a PAL session is not to learn new information.
During their PAL sessions, Leaders are expected to facilitate group discussions and they are discouraged from trying to re-teach course content. This balance is sometimes a fine one to maintain and this is probably the most frequent area for discussion and re-tuning after an observation has taken place. Based upon their experiences and using resources from the myBU community PAL CENTRAL, Leaders might offer help with skills such as essay writing, giving presentations, revision and exam techniques or note-taking. However, they are very strongly discouraged from providing specific answers to questions on course content or answers to assessed work.
During the years in which we have been operating PAL, we have generated several internal publications and links to some of these are included below:
Capstick, S., Fleming, H., and Hurne, J. (2004 ) Implementing Peer Assisted Learning in Higher Education: The experience of a new university and a model for the achievement of a mainstream programme
Capstick, S. and Fleming, H. (2004) The Learning Environment of Peer Assisted Learning
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