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Stephen W. Draper,
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
all my PAL pages in one document for printing]
These are my overview notes and pointers on PAL as an educational activity.
Originally prompted by an evaluation of the introduction of PAL done in 2002-3
in Computing Science with
For information on the implementation in the psychology department, see
PAL home page.
What I here call PAL is, basically, providing in addition to any tutorial
groups led by staff, groups for all students in a class that are led by
students from a year or two above (mentors of a kind) who act as facilitators
rather than tutors i.e. they promote the group members in answering each
others' questions rather than being a source of answers themselves.
"The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the
search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the
opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of
learning, sharing, and caring."
[From the Introduction in (Illich; 1970):
Illich,Ivan D. (1970) Deschooling Society
(Calder & Boyars: London)]
It is called by a number of different terms as well as "PAL"
It is distinctly different from, although not entirely unrelated to,
- If the leaders act as tutors, this would be extra instruction: probably
useful as an extra information source.
- An extra organised contact hour, in which students are led to think about
work. Any extra processing is likely to promote learning.
- Deep learning! Use the extra learning time to discuss
the real meaning of the concepts put forward in the lectures. Since many
courses are organised to "get through" a packed curriculum for the average
student, lectures and tutorials are often largely designed only to introduce
essential material, not to ponder its meaning. These (voluntary) sessions can
be used to discuss further implications, counter-arguments, etc.
- An extra group in which they meet other students: important for
and a crucial feature, often in short supply, especially for first year
students. "Integration" refers to getting to know others, and still more to
feeling at home in the class, department, university, city, and in the role of
student. Our first year students often report being unable to get to know
anyone in the big lectures, as you never sit next to the same person twice.
Even tutorials can be poor at this, if the tutor suppresses social chat and
students (due to timetabling) have to leave promptly at the end.
- If the leaders are more senior students, and contribute from their
experience of having done the course before, they are acting as
mentors: widely thought to be beneficial in itself.
This is information, perhaps tacit, on what it is like being a student, and on
what does and does not work.
- If the group leaders manage to avoid acting as information sources, but do
facilitate class mates learning from each other, that is actual peer
assisted learning. This is probably even more use to the information
giver than to the receiver, because it requires reprocessing the material. But
it is also useful to the receiver, not least because there are 100 times more
peers than staff available. It is a habit that successful people use in almost
all occupations, including that of student. The sooner it becomes part of
each student's practice the better.
- The meta-level aim of this ("auto-PAL") is to get students into the
habit of using peers and peer discussion
routinely in all future learning: a fundamental study skill.
Another way of looking at it is that PAL is based on the fundamental insight
that, for a learner, other learners can help in ways teachers are
fundamentally unequipped to do (besides being cheaper, more numerous, and
usually more available). Firstly, in giving explanations adapted to the
learner. If you ask a teacher to explain something they have told you, many
just repeat what they said: and the more scholarly and careful a teacher is,
the more trapped they may be in this since they had planned carefully to say
it as well as it possibly could be the first time. A teacher less expert in
the subject matter, but better at teaching, may be able to paraphrase more or
less deeply. But the essential issue is that (as constructivism asserts)
learning depends not just on the desired end state but on the learner's
beginning state: their prior knowledge and conceptions. Other learners are
likely to know that from the inside, teachers cannot; so other learners can
use referents and common knowledge they have, know what the difficulties and
apparent objections are to the new concept, and so on. The second respect in
which learners, especially perhaps students a year ahead, are better at
teaching than teachers (especially at universities) is in study methods: they
can say from personal experience what was important to do on this course,
what worked and what didn't, what should and shouldn't be worried about.
The person giving the course has never taken it, and has no direct experience
of these aspects; and at university typically actually has no knowledge at
all of how students cope with it.
- Supplemental Instruction.
In the USA, there are many schemes with regular meetings run by senior
students, but the emphasis is on their role as, essentially, junior teachers.
- PAL: here and mostly in the UK, the senior students act more as
facilitators eliciting peer interaction, and less as experts teaching concepts.
- Peer mentoring. Some (UK) universities have peer mentoring schemes,
where the senior students have a personal (rather than a group) relationship
with mentees, a bit like a personal tutor or advisor, but most of the content
of the interaction is social: introducing new students to others, socialising
with them, and some general orientation knowledge: basically like a tour guide.
This makes new students feel welcome, enhances social integration, but also
if they later experience a crisis, gives them a more experienced member of the
university whom they already feel they know, which may be crucial in reducing
the likelihood of dropping out.
For more on peer mentoring, see here.
However in addition to these ways in which other learners may "know" or
"teach" better than the teachers, there is a profound benefit to do with the
process rather than what they know. Explaining a topic to someone else is
powerfully conducive to learning in the explainer (apart for possibly helping
the questioner). This is the essential cognitive boost from peer interaction,
as studied for instance by Howe et al. (1995, 1998).
There is a literature on peer interaction and learning. If you are interested
in this then a good introductory chapter might be Foot & Howe (1998).
Some interesting empirical work includes Howe et al. (1995, 1998); but (with
adults) for me a seminal paper is Miyake (1986). However for a short clear
statement about the essentials from the viewpoint of a practical university
teacher, then Abercrombie (1960) ch.5 is hard to beat.
Abercrombie, M.L.J. (1960)
The anatomy of judgement:
an investigation into the processes of perception and reasoning
(London : Free Association Press) [Lib: Psychology F570]
Foot,H. & Howe,C. (1998)
"The psychoeducational basis of peer-assisted learning" ch.2, pp.27-43
in Topping,K. & Ehly,S. (eds.)
Peer-assisted learning (LEA: Mahwah, NJ)
[Lib: Education E29.P3 1998-T]
Howe, C J, Tolmie, A, Greer, K and Mackenzie, M (1995)
"Peer collaboration and conceptual growth in physics: task influences on
children's understanding of heating and cooling"
Cognition and Instruction vol.13, pp.483-503.
Howe, C.J. & Tolmie A. (1998)
"Computer support in learning in collaborative
contexts: prompted hypothesis testing in physics"
Computers and Education vol.3/4, pp.223-235.
"Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding"
Cognitive Science vol.10 no.2 pp.151-177
Given the above bag of desirable attributes, they could be (re)grouped by
considering the underlying theoretical issues.
Essential benefits from peers: Mentoring, peer assisted learning,
acquiring the proactive practice of learning from peers.
Partly from peers, partly an independent issue: Integration, both social
(See Tinto's model)
Deep learning: shouldn't need these groups, but very often courses will
at best only plan to support deep learning in "extra" activities like PAL.
(See deep learning.)
Addressing Laurillard activities 2,3,4 better. These require interaction
and iteration between learner and teacher e.g. asking questions and getting
personal responses, or a learner re-presenting the material (e.g. in an essay)
and getting responses to it. Supplemental instruction and extra processing
i.e. the simple effect of spending longer addressing the subject, and of
having an extra information source, can be put under this heading; and are
necessarily missing in big class sessions.
(See Laurillard's model)
Study skills [a redundant grouping]: PAL, deep learning and reflection,
learning techniques for studying this course from other students, ...
This activity is known as
this list of terminology):
- SI (Supplemental Instruction).
- PAL (Peer Assisted Learning)
- PS (Peer Support)
- PLL (Peer Led Learning)
- PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions)
- A-PASS (At Glasgow in 2002-3)
- PLTL (Peer-Led Team Learning)
CASPIE at Purdue
It can also be related to the educational literature on:
- Adult learning
- Peer tutoring
- Cooperative learning
- Collaborative learning
What would I call it? Today's thought might be:
"Mentor-assisted peer interaction and reflection".
(MAPIR -- not a great acronym.)
So what is the "real" PAL? Like most of the best designs and academic
activities, in PAL multiple benefits fit naturally together, and if any one
works well it will be worthwhile. The benefits don't all have to work all the
time for every student. It is a naturally robust design, and we can reasonably
expect benefits overall without being sure of which will prove successful in a
In other words, there can be many types of PAL, all worthwhile. Almost
certainly, different implementations (consciously or not) aim for different
subsets of the potential benefits. On the other hand, we could use the above
analysis to try to get all the benefits: each could be specifically tackled in
the training of facilitators, in the agenda/lesson plan they use each session,
in the advertising to students (suggesting why it is worth attending), and in
evaluation measures used.
A particular scheme in a particular department can, and is likely to, have
different priorities from other schemes. These can be thought of as ordering
the possible aims or educational benefits above in different ways.
For instance some schemes may be primarily addressed at reducing failure rates
and/or increasing exam scores, and these will give priority to providing an
extra information resource and extra processing time for students: essentially
being focussed on extra tutoring (supplemental instruction).
Another scheme might be focussed on better support for widening participation,
and this might give priority to mentoring (how to be a successful student
despite less social and cultural access to previous university graduates) and
integration. A third type of variant might be focussed on improving the
enjoyment and quality of experience for learners despite huge classes, and
give priority to integration, peer interaction, and deep learning.
Each of the potential benefits or aims has implications for training
facilitators, for advertising to clients, and for which activities or agenda
items to promote or emphasise most. These will give different schemes
different characteristics, subject to actual client demand in sessions.
The main resources a department (in this university) must find to run a PAL
scheme are probably:
- Training courses for the facilitators. Both the
have offered this. It seems likely that, with negotiation, this can be
covered by the university from outside the department without explicit costs.
- Administration: organising and scheduling groups and facilitators. This is
probably as much work as organising tutorial groups for a course (though the
issues are a bit different).
This is a significant amount of work but can be absorbed by those running the
course if it is thought worthwhile.
- Finding and booking rooms for the PAL groups: an increasing problem in
this university, but particular departments may have their own solutions.
Where possible, finding rooms within the department's space is particularly
desirable as one of PAL's aims is to increase students' feeling at home there.
In fact what is really wanted is student common rooms, and these are more
necessary now than ever before because large student numbers and reduced access
to staff make alternative bases for community more important.
- Paying the facilitators: depending on the arrangement, this may cost
several thousand pounds a year. Possibly support will continue to be
available from special or central funds. Otherwise departments must decide if
the benefits are worth it.
In the first year of course it will take a lot of staff time planning and
managing, so you better have an enthusiastic advocate who will devote time and
attention to it at first. However after a year or two's experience, it will
seem routine apart from the above resources. (I hope. But this was what Neil
McKeown at Manchester told me.)
Above are only educational aims. Schemes also have many practical aspects and
Some of the key management decisions that have to be made in implementing a
specific PAL scheme are:
- What are the priority aims for the particular PAL scheme, and how does
this affect how it is run?
- How many facilitators per session? Two is widely used and works well, but
often one works OK, and we now often have sessions with three facilitators
circulating round many small groups in one large session.
- What is the target number of clients per group? A group size of about 5
may be best, even at first necessary, to get all comfortable talking. On the
other hand, it's possible to get numerous small groups of this size working in
one (large) room, with facilitators rotating between them.
- How many facilitators are required? How to manage this?
- Dropin sessions or allocate students to groups as for tutorials. Or a
compromise (allocate, but allow non-attendance and transfer).
N.B. We have a few client students who attend several PAL sessions a week.
- Is attendance by client students entirely voluntary and confidential from
staff (other than for scheme management and evaluation purposes).
- How to organise for the very large uncertainties in attendance?
- When will the first PAL session be? week 1? week 3? ...
- Oblige facilitators to fill in and return paper attendance records.
If not, you cannot give any real report of whether the scheme is used, let
- Oblige facilitators to return (digital) reports on the discussion
content of each session. Perhaps publish these to the target class.
- Require facilitators to attend weekly feedback groups: for sharing
problems and solutions, further training, ... Without this, the scheme seems
to fall apart; and since facilitators are really learning on the job they need
plenty of contact to talk over their experiences.
- Whether to have organisers sit in, observe, and later discuss a
session with each facilitator.
- Whether to pay facilitators or not; and if so, for what.
Alternatives might have been no pay (pure volunteering), and motivations of CV
development, skill acquisition, having fun, fulfilling a compulsory course
requirement or other assessment credit, paying for everything (attending
training, feedback sessions, and client sessions), paying for some but not
others of these.
[put in link to pay page?]
- How to decide the agenda for each PAL session.
This might be to work on the coursework for that week; to work on whatever
attendees ask for; or to work on a schedule of activities developed in
parallel to (complementary and additional to) the main course.
In 2003-4 in psychology, our policy was to create it out of:
- A generic agenda provided by the organisers
- Modifications/additions provided by the organisers for that week (particular
deep learning topics, ...)
- Possible complete redesign by the facilitators for that group.
- Input and agreement by the clients during or at the start of the session,
particularly to allow them to bring issues, problems, topics of their own.
- Whether to run the scheme internally in the department, or by an external
unit. The latter can increase the sense of privacy and independence, but the
former supports better integration with the course.
- Decide whether or how to do advertising of the scheme to the potential
Of course in practice PAL schemes vary greatly between themselves, but here is
one list of all the recurring actions that have to be done each week by either
organisers or facilitators.
(For a better short statement on history see
- Run the sessions with clients
- Attendance records for every session need to be kept, then entered in records.
- Submit web or email reports on the content or events in each session.
- Private reports to share among facilitators and organisers
- Public reports for the whole class, to give them a sense of what
is going on.
- Trickle of deep learning topics and other content input from the teaching
staff. This may have to be asked for, and shared around.
- Facilitator feedback sessions: meetings of all organisers and
facilitators together to share experience, plan next week.
- Possible new training in the feedback sessions; or acting out techniques
each facilitator has tried.
- Decide agenda for next week's PAL sessions; and get someone to advertise
it to the (client) class.
The approach has been used, it is said, since 1973 in the USA at the
University of Missouri-Kansas City,
and in the UK at least since 1990 at Kingston University.
At Glasgow it was introduced for the first time in 2002-3 by the
for the first year class in Computing Science.
Initial training was donated by
Jenni Wallace of London Guildhall University.
In 2003-4 it was first run in Computing Science and Psychology.
I have a short and partial literature review of
web-available papers about UK implementations of PAL.
- UK peer assisted learning site:
research summary, and
of their PAL pages.
UCL list of papers
- Who does it in the UK?
a different list.
(Currently includes: Bournemouth, CONEL (the FE College of NorthEast London),
Derby, Glamorgan, Glasgow, Kingston, Leicester,
London Guildhall, Manchester, UMIST, Napier, Nottingham, Oxford Brookes,
Surrey IAD, Sussex, University College London (UCL), UNL.)
UCL is a big player,
- Sites around the world:
and another list.
- Kansas: biggest site in the
world? and their
list of papers
- Training resources:
UK national network (with conferences)
Many of the papers available through the above links report evaluations, and
are of interest if you are doing an evaluation. More directly about how to do
evaluation of PAL are:
The obvious thing is to measure exam results for PAL attenders vs.
non-attenders. Since correlation doesn't prove causation, you have to
consider other factors. The first obvious one to check on is "ability"
e.g. measure exam results prior to the course such as entry point scores.
a summary of one case with results like that.
The second one is "keenness" e.g. measure attendance and meeting deadlines on
the rest of the course. (I haven't yet noticed anyone who measured this.)
Smith,J., May,S. & Burke,L. (2007)
Assisted Learning: a case study into the value to student mentors and
Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in
Higher Education" vol.2 no.2 pp.80-109
Here is a paper
by Maggie Pollock on a mentoring scheme at this university that failed.
PAL at the University of Glasgow.
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