Peer-Led Team Learning bringing success to IUPUI chemistry students
In the late 1990s, when David Malik, then-chair of the IUPUI Department of Chemistry, heard presentations at the American Chemical Society annual meeting concerning the early results of Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), he brought the concept back to his own campus. Conversations with faculty led to implementation of PLTL, with many serving in leadership roles in its evolution and the program continues today.
The test course chosen for PLTL was the first semester of general chemistry for science, pre-medical and pre-dental students -- a challenging "gateway" course for many students.
The concept of PLTL is simple: Engage recent students of the course to serve as guides, coaches or facilitators to direct small student groups towards more effective problem-solving strategies. This small-group activity is distinct from the lecture presentation which often contains 200-400 students. The "peers" are not content experts, but students who can suggest meaningful directions for understanding course material.?Small groups, usually six to nine students and a leader, meet weekly. Peer leaders are trained in small-group facilitation skills, pedagogical techniques, strategies for learning and additional content instruction. Weekly training sessions are required of all PLTL leaders.
PLTL is mandatory for all students enrolled in the chemistry course, and nearly 800 students per year have participated in the program. The intent is to bring together the most talented students with less talented students. The students are self-assigned based on their own scheduling preferences.
The faculty expressed some cynicism that the model would work at all since there was no content expert, such as a graduate student or faculty member, Malik said.
How to ensure that the students are given the correct answers? There is no guarantee that correct answers will appear in session work pages, but that fact has not been problematic. If there is no consensus or agreement, students may be unsatisfied with the outcome but they agree to re-visit any ambiguities in the following week.
How well does it work? The graph below shows the percent students who received a D, F or withdrew (W) from the course prior to completion. The data clearly indicate a high level of success .While data only reflect the first semester of a two-semester sequence, how do student perform after one PLTL semester and one traditional one? On a standardized American Chemical Society examination, students perform about 10 percent better than the historical performances on traditional recitation sections.
The success is no surprise to those aware of the benefits of active learning scenarios. Students learn best by doing, and PLTL offers the paradigm to do just that. The "teaching epiphany" is evident in the process: Students learn best when they are called upon to interpret, explain or understand a different perspective.
Given that student success has risen from about 50 percent to 80 percent, performance improvements continue to be startling. To date, more than 7,000 students have experienced the PLTL model at IUPUI. While many other variables affect success outcomes, the PLTL experiment has resulted in chemistry students who have succeeded across all demographic profiles; student leaders who have embraced their own roles in helping others while receiving substantial intellectual and developmental benefits; and new, enthusiastic majors who often engage in undergraduate research and others with additional advanced study in chemistry.
And some of the most enthusiastic converts have been the faculty.
The Paradigm . Students and the peer leader meet once a week for two hours in a workshop setting. These are highly structured sessions where concepts are discussed, problem solving strategies explored and problems addressed applicable to recent lecture material. Currently, we have a locally constructed workshop book tailored to our student demographic containing the work activities for students.
Prior to the session, students complete a "self-test" that includes required preparatory material for that week's workshop: this establishes a baseline level of content exposure.
During the workshop session, students complete a series of exercises and problems with no answers. If needed, the peer leader provides additional guidance or direction, not so much as a content expert, but rather as an academic "coach". During these sessions, it is important that stronger students help weaker students. In that way, the better students are forced to re-interpret what they know to make it meaningful to the weaker students. Students are relaxed, and a sense of community develops over the course of the semester.
After the group workshops, students have problems to solve independently as a metric of understanding gained -- and finally answers are provided. Students can still bring issues back next week.
Benefits to students include small group attention and guidance, low pressure environment where students have time to seek help and direction, guaranteed time-on-task on problem-solving, improved ability to work in small groups and develop team-building, and all students in course are similarly engaged. Student group members essentially "practice" problem-solving strategies and have opportunities to internalize complex chemical principles.
Benefits to peer leaders:
• Review previously learned material from fresh perspective
• Solve more in-depth problems during preparatory leader meetings
• Practice writing reflective self-evaluations on workshop class conduct and content
• Practice group facilitation skills
• Personal satisfaction in role helping community
• Close faculty/peer contact yields improved mutual awareness and enhanced community of students
• Recognizing student work habits/skills provides an opportunity for self reflection.
(Editor's note: Our thanks to David Malik, director of FACET, for providing materials for this story.)