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 Margaret Brown. For information on the implementation in the psychology department, see the psychology PAL home page.
"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)]
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).
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.
Miyake,N. (1986) "Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding" Cognitive Science vol.10 no.2 pp.151-177
It can also be related to the educational literature on:
What would I call it? Today's thought might be: "Mentor-assisted peer interaction and reflection". (MAPIR -- not a great acronym.)
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.
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.
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.)
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 Student Network for the first year class in Computing Science. Initial training was donated by Jenni Wallace of London Guildhall University. In 2003-4 it will be run in Computing Science and Psychology.
I have a short and partial literature review of web-available papers about UK implementations of PAL.
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. Here's 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.)
Papers available on the web offer useful perspectives on PAL. Two useful starting points are the collected pointers at  and .
PAL was introduced (it is said) in 1973 in the USA at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which is still using it. By now nearly 60% of research-oriented universities like Glasgow in the USA offer it to at least some undergraduates ( http://www.brevard.edu/fyc/Survey/Curricular/c12.pdf). It entered the UK in 1990 at Kingston university, and at least 12 UK universities other than Glasgow have introduced it so far.
There are some results reporting objectively measured benefits. The chemistry department at University of Manchester introduced PAL in 1995. Their failure rate on the first year course has dropped from 20% to 10%. Analysing their 1997-8 results showed that mean exam results rose with degree of attendance at PAL (47% for non-attenders, 52% for occasionals, 61% for those attending 6 or more of the 14 sessions); and that this association was independent of the students' inherent ability as measured by entry point scores . Similar marked effects on exam scores are reported for 1998 at the University of Queensland , and at Kingston  in the computer science area.
It is clear from the literature that attendance is low, and often very low in the early years. In Chemistry at Manchester , average attendance at a given session / week was 14% in the first year of introduction, 33% the next year, then 44% and 48% in the fifth year. At UCL (University College London) in the first year of introduction in 5 departments, average attendance can be estimated from  to have varied between 1% and 27%. Low takeup is also mentioned at Bournemouth  and Kingston  which discusses it at some length.
Another less useful but more common way of reporting attendance is in terms of the percentage of students attending at least one session. At Manchester in 1997-8 that would be 79% . At Kingston  on their BCS (computing science) course, it was in successive years 39%, 68%, and 84%. At UCL in maths in the first year it was 35%. At UCL in the first year of introduction in 5 departments, it ranged from 11% to 45% across four departments . A fifth department achieved 82% but this was due to it being marketed (by students) as a mystery product: only 34% came to more than two sessions. Similar figures are reported in the USA.
Attendance does not always increase year by year as "word of mouth" spreads. The figures at Kingston  grew strongly in computing science, but fell on some other courses.
Practices for group size vary a lot. Queensland uses 2 facilitators and 25 (max -- probably much less on most occasions) students per group . UCL uses 2 facilitators and perhaps 30 but more usually 5 students per group . Manchester uses 2 facilitators and 5-8 students per group .
Paying for facilitators: According to  the USA model is to pay them but also to require them to attend several first year lectures per week as part of their preparation, where it is a tutoring model rather than a peer discussion one. In the UK, practice is mixed between paying and not paying (i.e. volunteer model). From the papers referred to here, we can say that Queensland does pay, but UCL and Manchester do not pay their student facilitators. According to the conference notes for "the 9th annual supplemental instruction conference" for UK PAL sites held in 2002 in Winchester:
The contributions of department versus outside units in organising PAL varies a lot, though this is not discussed in detail in the literature. At Sussex, PAL is run by an independent unit . At Manchester, they use a trainer from outside the university, otherwise the organisation is all done within the department. At UCL, a central unit promoted it and organised it, but the mixed results in different departments seems to be associated with variable departmental input and enthusiasm. At Kingston it seems to be centrally promoted.
At the other end of the scale, it doesn't seem to be so overwhelmingly beneficial that departments and universities feel they must adopt it. It depends on your theory of institutional change in universities whether you see this as evidence that PAL brings only a small advantage, or that academics resist all change fiercely (they haven't however blocked rather rapid adoption of the WWW, or data projectors). One might estimate from these broad indications that PAL has a definite net benefit because few if any have abandoned it once established (unlike many innovations, entropy is not strong enough to kill it), but only a small one since it doesn't seem to spread rapidly without special promotors being active.
 National PAL site, hosted at Bournemouth  Papers on PAL at UCL  Coe,E.M., McDougall,A.O. and McKeown,N.B. (1999) "Is Peer Assisted Learning of benefit to undergraduate chemists?" University Chemical Education Vol.3, No.2 pp.72-75 [WWW document]. URL http://www.rsc.org/pdf/uchemed/papers/1999/32_coe.pdf (visited 2004, Oct 10).
 Julia Playford , Valda Miller & Barbara Kelly (1999) Peer assessed Study Program (PASS)
 Bidgood, P. (1994) "The success of Supplemental Instruction: The Statistical evidence" Helping students to learn from each other: Supplemental Instruction (pp. 71-79). Birmingham, England: Staff and Educational Development Association
 Maureen Donelan (?) Introducing Supplemental Instruction (S.I) at University College London (UCL): A Case Study
 University of Sussex, CASA: a conference and project management service based in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex.
 PAL project, Bournemouth University (?) Activities and Tools for PAL Sessions
 Maureen Donelan (UCL) & Peter Kay (UCLAN) (?) Supplemental Instruction: Students Helping Students' Learning at University College London (UCL) and University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)
 Evaluation of Year One and PAL Leader Perspective and Experience of PeerAssisted Learning at Bournemouth University
[10.2] Implementation of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) at Bournemouth University PAL Project evaluation of progress up to 15/11/02
 King, P. (1994). "Supervision of Supplemental Instruction leaders: A practical guide" In C. Rust, & J. Wallace (Eds.), Helping students to learn from each other: Supplemental Instruction (pp. 37-39). Birmingham, England: Staff and Educational Development Association
The issue is whether PAL facilitators (students who have already completed the course concerned) should be paid, or alternatively regarded as volunteers. There are arguments for and against.
In the USA pay is usual, in the UK there's a roughly even split between universities that do and don't pay. (See this literature review for some details.)
In a feedback Session for Psychology facilitators on 8/Oct/03, in a discussion at the session the main reasons given for volunteering to become a facilitator:
In feedback meetings in November 2003, the psychology facilitators agreed that they would have signed up even if no pay was offered (i.e. it was not a deciding factor), but that pay was extremely welcome. (Of course this was face to face, speaking to me: this could have led to underemphasising the role of pay.)
This page is my pointers to PAL at the University of Glasgow. This is also summarised on a webpage by the Widening Participation Unit.
This is a general home page for PAL (Peer Assisted Learning) in the psychology department: designed equally for students, facilitators, staff, and interested outsiders. (My notes on the general idea of PAL with links, papers etc. are elsewhere.)
PAL is being offered to all psychology classes. We recommend that students attend them approximately weekly. Further information is being circulated to the classes concerned.
PAL for level 1: Boyd Orr 520: Monday 10am, Tuesday 3pm, Wednesday 4pm
PAL for level 2: Boyd Orr 520: Monday noon, Tues 11am, Thur 2pm
Two insights underlie the scheme. The first is that students know what it was like to do a course, and staff do not: they have something to pass on to students in following years that cannot be obtained anywhere else. The second is that peer interaction benefits learning (conceptual development) not only because fellow students are 100 times more available than staff, but because the explainer benefits even more than the listener: this is because to explain something, you have to get it really clear in your own head, and nearly always improve your own understanding in the process.
Or perhaps you prefer this view:
"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)]
For a brief discussion of contrasting schemes see here, and particularly peer mentoring.
If you want to attend PAL sessions, see the pages for the class (level) you are in: the links were given near the top of this page.
Subject to exceeding maximum group sizes, we expect that any student may attend any group as often or as seldom as they wish. We recommend attending once per week. If you have a particular problem, go to a group and ask them to help with it. However in general, you probably won't be able to predict in advance what it is you'll get out of attending, and we believe the best thing is to go regularly for a while and then review whether it has been worthwhile for you. Not to give it a try is like refusing to speak to someone unless they promise in advance to be your friend; not to take a waterproof until after it has started raining; only to ask for a vaccination after you have caught the disease.
If you want to be a facilitator, contact the PAL coordinators: Judith Stevenson, for levels 1 and 2; Steve Draper for levels 3 and 4.
The department also hopes this will prove a useful additional channel for feedback from students to the department on how the courses are going: course teams will be monitoring the public versions of what gets discussed in the groups in order to see what seems to be going well, and what is causing students problems.
The topics and content of what is discussed at each group (but not the identities of the students concerned) will be reported by the facilitators and shared publicly. This is so that everyone knows the topics that interest students that week, and so other groups can also discuss them if they wish.
The major exception to this is if any participant is abusive of others in any way: facilitators are required to report this, and the identity of the alleged offender, immediately.
In contrast to confidentiality about (client) students attending PAL, we are considering publishing facilitator names e.g. in case some students select the groups they attend on the basis of facilitators they know. This issue will be negotiated with facilitators.
If you have a problem with any aspect of this policy please raise it with us (Judith Stevenson, Steve Draper). We are entirely open to changing the policy if that would better serve the aims of the PAL scheme and the students it serves.
Here however are some basic expectations to serve as a starting point for these agreements.
My current ideas on running PAL sessions are here.
More detailed ideas (for facilitators) about how to plan and run plan PAL sessions are here.
PAL promoter: The academic promoting the adoption of PAL in psychology is Steve Draper.
Our scheme derives more directly from an approach developed in the USA under the name of Supplemental Instruction in 1973, and now offered at about 60% of (research-oriented) US universities. It was introduced into the UK at Kingston University in 1990 in modified form as PAL. (One way to find other UK PAL sites is through the PAL network.) In 2002-3, the Student Network introduced it to Glasgow University for a course in Computing Science, supported by a grant from the Chancellor's fund. In 2003-4 the psychology department decided to introduce it on a trial basis.
The scheme in psychology is not exactly the same, nor undertaken with exactly the same set of priorities and aims, even as the scheme in computing science, let alone those in other universities. Furthermore the name "peer assisted learning" is used in the literature for a large range of different activities, some quite different from this scheme. A more exact name for our scheme might be "Mentor-assisted peer interaction and reflection", but this is less catchy, doesn't acknowledge its connection with similar schemes, is harder to understand, and so perhaps for most people is less clear.
The longer term aim is to encourage students to help each other, and to seek help both from others on the course and from those who have done the course earlier.
What's in it for you, the client student? A comfortable atmosphere in which you can pick up some help with the course and enjoy it more. In the short term, it's a place you can get questions answered (or at least find out where to get the answers) without the bother of tracking down a staff member, and find out what questions other students have; whether it's what this week's lectures actually meant, what people think the real implications of the ideas might be, or stuff about administration (what IS a lab?, where is that tutorial room?), about the university, or about being a student. And hearing the inside view from previous students (who run the groups) can be helpful. It's also a place to get to know other students (a hugely important part of university life, for intellectual and academic as well as for social reasons), and to help them as much as they will help you. Discussing being a student, doing this course, this week's work are vital: how else will you get it straight in your mind?
In the medium term, you'll probably end up little by little learning more, doing better, and enjoying it more: hard to tell in any given week, but (some research seems to show) adding up to a real difference over the year. You will not only ask questions and get answers, but also practise identifying the questions you should be asking, and methods for getting answers yourself.
And so, in the longer term, you'll get into the vital habit of monitoring and managing your own learning: checking what you have and haven't got each week by comparing with other students; and it gives you practice at getting more from interacting with your class mates: the biggest secret learning resource any university has. It's useful when they tell you stuff, but there's nothing like trying to explain something to someone else for really sorting out your own understanding. This is a lifelong skill that you'll probably use in most jobs, where learning from other employees is the main source. Thus it's also a place to think about and perhaps extend your study skills, and most centrally your "reflection" i.e. thinking about yourself and your learning in order to manage it better, and to discover routines that may make you more independent in future of organised teaching, including even the PAL groups themselves.
In some other schemes, PAL has been targeted at courses with high failure rates, and has sometimes improved the pass rate and average exam marks. This may not be a major effect here: we are aiming more at improving the quality of learning and of the learning methods students adopt and that form the basis for their work in later years.
If you'd like to see this related to concepts from the educational literature, then you could look at my notes on the concept of PAL. This also has some pointers to other universities that run PAL schemes, and papers on that.
Facilitating in PAL groups requires skills at mentoring (grounded on their previous experience of being a student on the course), of effective chairing of the meetings including managing the agenda, and of facilitating mutual help between peers by avoiding "telling" the answers and instead promoting their helping each other. We regard these as skills of value in teaching (e.g. in tutorial groups), but also in chairing any group where agenda must be negotiated to accommodate the needs of the whole group, and limited time managed to best overall benefit. These are skills of value in many organisations today, where achieving effective collaboration between different experts is often more important than simple hierarchic working relationships.
|No. of students||Mean No. of attendances||Mean Exam results||Mean A-level points|
(attended 1-5 sessions)
| Full participant
(attended 6-14 sessions)
Table 1. A comparison of examination results between PASS participants and non-participants at Manchester for the 1997-98 academic year.
Coe et al. (1999) www.ucl.ac.uk/epd/pal/ManUMISTpaper.html
Notes: Figures do not include those students who were absent for one or more exam (18); Based on the average of the final examination marks for the three chemistry courses covered by the PASS scheme (i.e. organic, inorganic and physical); Mean points calculated from each student's chemistry and best other science or Maths A-level results
Some papers you might want to look at include:
The one above, which gives the table above. http://www.umkc.edu/centers/cad/si/sidocs/pbstat94.htm http://www.tedi.uq.edu.au/conferences/teach_conference99/papers/Playford
PAL can improve exam marksPAL has sometimes improved exam marks significantly. This table shows results from a PAL scheme for a first year course in Chemistry at Manchester in 1997-8. Exam marks went up with the amount of PAL attended, but was independent of the students' general aptitude at Chemistry as measured by their previous (A-level) exam results.
No. of students Mean No. of attendances Mean Exam results Mean A-level points
(attended 1-5 sessions)
34 2.7 51.9 11.8 Full participant
(attended 6-14 sessions)
65 9.6 60.7 13.7 All students 126 5.7 55.5 13.2
Coe et al. (1999) www.ucl.ac.uk/epd/pal/ManUMISTpaper.html
Notes: Figures do not include those students who were absent for one or more exam (18); Based on the average of the final examination marks for the three chemistry courses covered by the PASS scheme (i.e. organic, inorganic and physical); Mean points calculated from each student's chemistry and best other science or Maths A-level results
Original URL: http://www.peerlearning.ac.uk/html/activities_and_tools_for_pal_s.html
(Copy taken 7 Dec 2003. Format roughly edited to make it more printable.)
Activities and Tools for PAL SessionsA Peer Assisted Learning session may work very well as a general discussion forum, with first years reviewing together their course material and the Student Leader helping to direct discussion. At times, it will be useful for the Student Leader to have activities and tools to use. Some of these are listed below. They are adapted from the Leader´s Guide produced by Center for Supplemental Instruction at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.
See also training leaders to access various handouts concerned with managing PAL sessions.
Lecture ReviewDuring the first 10-15 minutes of the PAL session, students summarise the most recent lecture, or identify key points from it; students find specific support in their lecture notes for generalisations made; students arrange terms from the lecture into a structured outline; students write a one paragraph summary of the lecture; students formulate potential exam questions based upon the lecture.
Oral Reading of Lecture NotesNote review is a good strategy to use early in the academic term- students see the importance of taking notes, can fill in gaps in their notes, and everyone has a chance to participate.
One student begins reading from their notes at the start of the lecture, reads for a minute or two, then moving onto the next person around the room with each person continuing where the one before left off. Any inconsistencies are discussed and notes amended accordingly.
Incomplete OutlineThe Incomplete Outline helps students recognise the main points and pattern of a lecture. In small groups or pairs, students break a lecture down into 3-5 main points. Each group/ pair then compares their summary.
Visual TechniquesSome students learn well by creating visual aids (or mind maps) condensing notes and helping point out the relationship between topics.
Informal QuizIn pairs, students think of five or so questions from their previous week´s lectures. They choose another pair to answer one of their questions, who try to answer, followed by a group discussion. This pair then goes on to ask one of their questions.
Vocabulary ActivitiesA clear understanding of the technical vocabulary in most courses is important. Students may be given some time to identify new technical terms from a lecture, then to create a vocabulary matrix on the board, as below:
Term Meaning Example from Notes Example from Text New Example
Quick PresentationsPresentations may be used inside PAL sessions to help students review key course material and practice presentation skills. It may be particularly useful at the end of term or other appropriate `review´ occasions. The format of the session is likely to be:
- the Student Leader writes several presentation titles on the white board
- the class is divided into pairs and each pair is assigned a title
- each pair is given perhaps ten minutes to prepare a short presentation
- each pair gives their presentation, is applauded and offered encouragement and constructive advice by the Student Leader
Preparing for Exams
- Review dates: the dates of exams reviewed so students start revising early
- Plan revision: the group discusses revision plans together
- Identify exam format: discuss the kinds of questions to expect on exams and the amount of emphasis on text, lecture, outside readings
- Develop practice exams: students suggest and practice answering some potential exam questions; past papers may also be reviewed
Last changed 10 Nov 2005 ............... Length about 1100 words (8,000 bytes).
(Document started on 26 Nov 2004.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/resources/palactr.html. You may copy it. How to refer to it.
Recipe of the month for running PAL sessionsBy Steve Draper, Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow.
There are 2 things here:
- Avoiding undermining level 1 and 2 classwork
- Generic recipe
Avoiding undermining level 1 and 2 classworkHere's my attempt to write out for myself, a better policy for dealing with lab reports and essays in PAL in levels 1,2.
The analogy is with learning maths by doing problems solo, with the answers in the back of the book. The learner will only learn by doing it themselves, even though feedback on the right answers from tutors is important afterwards; and available help to get them unstuck when necessary can also be vital.
First year lab reports are like this, in that showing anything like the right answer simply prevents the learning process. Just as if you have the answer to a maths problem in front of you, you can't stop yourself being influenced, so having anything even similar to the current lab report is going to interfere. Even in situations where a proposed "answer" is there (e.g. suggested by a peer), the way to turn this back into a learning situation is to require each learner to produce reasons for and/or against each proposed answer, so again refocussing thought and learning back to the link between general principles and particular answers. Applied to first year lab reports, this means 1) don't show examples of work from the past, because (even though in general exemplars are helpful) it is just too likely to interfere in one way or another. 2) Ruthlessly deflect questions nagging you to say whether something is right or wrong (e.g. should my stats results be put in the methods section). 3) Instead, always get the discussion back to the general principles for what should go in each section. 4) Allow peer discussion of particular "answers", but prompt them to discuss why the proposed answer does or doesn't fit the principles. 5) If the whole group seems to be getting the principles wrong/misunderstood, then intervene: a facilitator should be able to talk about the principles, but should avoid confirming the conclusions for the particular lab study in question (which may be different from what you remember of the one you did). Remember, although tests may be of facts, conclusions, or lab reports, the learning is in the generation: the use of principles to select particular alternatives. Doing it for clients prevents their learning.
First year essays should probably be treated similarly, because so many students must do the same essay that looking at the essay topic itself doesn't then leave them to do the transfer from that topic to another. So if they wish to discuss points they are thinking of including, then get them to give arguments for and against that decision and avoid giving your own value judgements on it. If they seem inclined to copy each others' points, again get them to justify why the point they are copying seems a good idea and defend it.
Some students can be particularly annoying, for tutors as well as for facilitators, in this respect of nagging for "the answer". But the teaching they have to "get" is not in fact the particular items for a report or essay (which only constitute an indirect measure of whether they have grasped the concept of a lab report or essay), but the principles that allow them to make that selection. It's the difference between nagging mummy to tie your shoelaces, and learning to tie them yourself with advice (but not hands-on help) when you get stuck.
Generic recipeHere are some short notes on how to run PAL sessions, assembled in November 2004, based on last year's experience plus getting the scheme restarted.
The key operating objective (from which higher level pedagogical benefits should then flow) main idea is to get client students working together. The most important ingredients for that seem to be:
- Small groups with no more than 5 clients in a subgroup
- Having a task to do, a point for being there.
- Having everyone be introduced, or introduce themselves at the start.
I now think this is so important that the whole organisation of the PAL scheme is affected. Having too few clients (only one or two) is deadly; but having a large crowd is not: they can be split up into small groups which will nearly always work even without a facilitator. So this year we are offering few slots, but are happy to have multiple facilitators attend (if they are available and there is any sign of that being useful). If there are too few facilitators they can circulate between subgroups; if too many, they should perhaps withdraw: outnumbering clients is not good for the atmosphere. Larger sessions also makes a little easier the possibility of different clients wanting to work on different things.
Deciding and advertising a topic for each session in advance has seemed important in attracting clients. It also means the groups have a definite task to do when they are there. There's nothing wrong with asking those who turn up to a session what else they want to do, and perhaps changing the plan: but having a plan in advance is important to making the session seem purposeful. This addresses point  above.
Spending a minute at the start, probably as one large group, is important to get everyone introduced. This addresses . It's particularly important to get any newcomers feeling at home. Personally I'd make them write out and display name plates on the table in front of them. It goes on being important for months, as new attenders will continue to turn up. If you make the mistake of asking "do you all know each other" then the danger is some say yes, and the rest don't answer: you could respond by saying "Great, so now introduce the others then" and see just how much they actually do remember. Improvements on the introductions could be "say why you are here today"; or alternate saying why you like with why you hate studying psychology; or what was the last music album you bought (though that seems to lead to lying, which is hardly a great start); or even "what is the worst ice breaker you've ever had to do?".
This is really a recipe of "good practice" that often feels clumsy to do. Facilitators with exceptional skills at making a whole group of strangers feel cheerful and relaxed may not need to follow such a formula, but it is nevertheless important and effective. Even at its worst, it gets everyone to physically utter a word or two, thus setting a personal precedent of speaking in this group. It was hard at the start of a new academic year to remember how important this is, as our memories were all of the last PAL groups we were in: tight knit groups familiar and very comfortable with each other, without needing anything overt like that. The job at the start of a session is to recreate that atmosphere, and it takes time to build up.
Then split into subgroups of no more than 5 clients (point ): it continues to be the observation that this leads to copious discussion, while any larger groups do not. This in practice probably means splitting up groups as more clients trickle in. Do not ask clients if they agree with this, just make it happen.
It may then be best for the facilitators (having done the introductions, and agreed what the work topic(s) are), to withdraw for 5-15 minutes from all the subgroups to make sure they get on with talking to each other. Joining them after that however may be good as it allows a facilitator perspective to be added, once they've already worked out their own initial answers. Finally, facilitators say it is good to get each subgroup to report back at the end to the whole group. Certainly this makes it feel "resolved" and pulled together at the end; and it allows everyone to see that there is more than one way to approach the task (whatever that was).
Many exercises in PAL are best done by pooling ideas, and having someone write them up on a board. Having a facilitator do this is one tactic for stopping clients looking to the facilitator for ideas (they are demoting themselves to the function of scribe); but even better is to get a client to do that to stop the facilitator projecting more sense and content on to the suggestions than was actually there. Even if it can't be done at first, evolving to getting the groups autonomous in this is highly desirable.
In the first year I was rigid for a long time about having PAL as student-only sessions without staff. But it turned out some of the most successful sessions invited staff in to comment on draft solutions. I now think the real issue (and this applies to facilitators as well as staff) is not whether to ban them or admit them, but to get clients to attempt their own solutions first, before getting comments from more knowledgable people. This is almost always best: for confidence, for giving the "expert" comments meaning and context, for making it easy for the "experts" by having something to react to rather than something they have to prepare etc.etc.
This year I have not organised a training session for facilitators in advance. I believe the most important thing is to have experienced (good) PAL sessions before, as clients, so as to know what to aim for. I have also been hoping to rely mainly on those who already have experience as facilitators plus pairing any new volunteers with experienced ones.
Last changed 31 May 2004 ............... Length about 9,000 words (56,000 bytes).
(This document started on 24 Nov 2003.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/resources/palacts.html. You may copy it. How to refer to it.
Designing PAL sessions / activitiesBy Steve Draper, Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow.
Contents (click to jump to a section)
- Some standard activities
- Clients turn up in a panic just before a deadline
- Review their current work activities on the course
- Work over concrete course problems
- Topic review i.e. reconstruct the main message and concepts of recent lectures
- "Deep" learning discussion
- Review, critique, and evaluate finished work: CRs, lab reports, essays.
- Pre-requisites for a course
- Work on non-standard problems
- Tactics for classic problems
- Generic tactics
- PAL as a kind of teaching: more ideas for activities
- More complete examples
- Further successful activities
PrefaceThese are notes, firstly meant for psychology PAL facilitators, on how to design a PAL session.
IntroductionIt's been easy to think up to now (week 8, 2003) that planning a PAL session is about choosing some specific topic i.e. course content such as episodic memory, statistics, doing the critical review. This has been important in pre-advertising agendas which in turn we believe is crucial to attracting clients. It is then natural, if you are preparing a talk, to prepare some content under that heading. But in fact in PAL, facilitators are not meant to be giving talks or teaching content. Instead what they need to do is to plan an activity: a set of actions they will take. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves, some of the key benefits of PAL are side-effects of successful session activities, and not things that can best be used as agenda items, nor even as a structure for activities. For instance, getting clients to know each other and feel at ease talking together will come out of any successful joint activity, but on the whole not mainly out of sitting down to say "now we'll do agenda item 2: making friends"; and similarly getting panicky students to feel more confident but also more constructive about what they might do next on the course will come out of talking through the steps they might take and hearing what peers' plans and actual actions are. Being told "now relax", or an agenda item called "panic reduction" is less likely to be effective.
We have therefore three independent elements to consider, but the key one for which to do detailed plans from week to week is in fact the activity in the session, not the others. I've been extremely slight in the advice I've offered on this: this document is mainly an attempt to offer a set of example activity plans, and share my feeling of insight that it's activities not subject content that is the necessary thing to pre-plan.
It's also become clear from facilitator comments that at least two further issues or dimensions sometimes have a big impact in practice on whether an activity plan works well: the client group size, and whether clients have done preparatory homework for the activity. We therefore have five dimensions or largely independent issues.
Ideas from Bournemouth are here.
Dimensions in planning a PAL session
- Content/topic: both for pre-advertising, and the relationship to the course curriculum. For advertising, it's probably not just deadlines and marks that can be attractive to all; but other (specific) topics, ideas, ...
- Activity in the session. A lecturer's plan is often simply to speak (do monologue), and the details of their plan are then just a long list of points to make. A PAL facilitator's plan will be to interact, and often needs to be full of alternative probes, prompts, suggestions depending on the clients' responses or lack of them. Because it depends on the clients' responses, it needs in some ways to be much more complex than a plan for a talk, BUT it doesn't need to have much or any technical content in it.
- Actual educational benefits / outcomes. These are what we use in the medium and long term to judge our success, as will clients looking back. But perhaps apart from getting feedback in the last 2 minutes of a session, these may not be explicitly related to the activity plans nor the advertised agenda items. I may say I like this salad because of its taste, but the nutritional benefits are in (say) the vitamins; I may say I like hill walking because of the views, but the health benefits are in the exercise, the social benefits in the companionship, the mental benefits in the break from work.
- Preparation and homework: whether each participant did homework in advance; brought their notes; is knowledgeable or not on this topic. Some activities won't work without preparation (e.g. critiquing previously distributed critical reviews), others can exploit differences (e.g. get a knowledgeable student to teach the others), others may be neutral on this.
- Group size. If there are only 1 or 2 clients, it is impossible to get peer interaction. Similarly, if there are more than 6 then far fewer clients tend to talk than in small groups. So it is better to split a group on the spot. Have parallel sessions (same time, adjacent rooms). But all this is only important for discussions: not so much for other aims e.g. mentoring.
Though the advertising is probably about , the planning/preparation is really about . And  depends on  and .
Summary: selecting activitiesThus I think the thing is to pre-advertise a topic, but bring an activity plan rather than topic content, and to know/expect that a substantial part of the actual educational benefit is different again e.g. integration, letting them let off steam, get reassurance. In putting together the following suggestions on activity plans, I also try to take into account group size (some plans won't work groups that are too small or too large, but others may), and client preparation.
In selecting activities I also suggest we should allow for three things that may not be obviously in a PAL remit.
- Firstly don't think the fear of deadlines is the only possible motivator for clients. There is probably a significant, even if minority, taste for "deep" discussions done for interest in psychology, not mere panic about course requirements.
- Also, a regular review of work and content too: perhaps a little like the way people go to exercise classes as a way of making themselves do it because they are not independent enough to keep on doing it alone.
- And finally, we clearly do get some clients who only come because they have a last minute panic about work deadlines. We should be ready with a plan for dealing with them.
Some standard activities
Clients turn up in a panic just before a deadlineThey may in fact be doomed because it is too late to do a good job before the deadline, and they haven't done any work yet, nor even got a plan or made any decisions. They will also be in no position to listen to peers, and be likely to cling to you asking for the answers. This is not your responsibility. But telling them the truth bluntly may not be helpful, as well as unkind. What could help? What is ideal? What is the right aim to have here?
- Turn their blind panic into a realistic view of the task, with a plan.
- Hope that they end up with the perception that the real problem is not having started earlier (but this is the desired END state, not what you start with).
- It is not your job to give them an answer, nor to give them a plan. You need to scaffold them into constructing a plan.
- Either get other clients to suggest plans (perhaps articulate the steps they have actually already done, or that they are planning to do), and write these out. By plan I mean not a simple statement of the objective to be achieved (hand in an essay), but a set of steps, breaking down the actions needed into steps (e.g. choose a topic, find books and papers to read, plan the essay, write each part in the plan, read over the whole and revise it). If different clients have somewhat different plans that is even better: put them up side by side.
Then perhaps get people to pencil in how long would be comfortable to take for each step; and how that relates to when this bit of work was announced (no need to draw the moral explicitly). And then after that, how long this client will actually take.
- If you are dealing with this client one to one, reflect back a series of scaffolding questions, getting them to come out with a plan. Write (either they or you write) on a board or a bit of paper, each component they mention, and gradually shuffle these into order, review for completeness; perhaps add times; then start to elaborate how each step might be done.
"What is the bit of work", an essay, how long, 2000 words, what is the topic, don't know, where is it defined, there are several listed in the handbook, have you got the handbook, no, here's a copy [in the PAL room], OK so the first step is choosing a topic? yes [write this down; and write down finishing and handing in the essay as final steps]. So when you've chosen a topic/title can you start writing? no, what else has to be done .......
Your real job is overcoming the paralysis of panic and of facing a new task not done before, by breaking it down into steps, and perhaps breaking each of these down in turn, until it's down to steps that seem manageable to the client. In fact the idea of breaking down tasks into steps is really the key lesson here; plus having broken them down, assigning time-lengths to each and hence reasoning back from the deadline to when you must start. This is a very simple idea, yet many people don't have it in practice. Don't lecture them however, have them work through it implicitly especially if they are in a panic. Reflecting on it, discussing it explicitly might however be a good exercise for people who have done it once or more already.
Thus this activity can be done (with variations) with either one client or a large group, and with clients who have done nothing and those who have done plenty (provided you get the description of what they have done whittled down to a concise to-do list for those who haven't).
Review their current work activities on the courseGet them first to list ongoing activities; and then to sketch and compare their personal plans for each. Keep it short, breezy: the main aim is to get them thinking about it early and often; and to give them a sense for how different students do this differently.
They will probably only mention the next deadline: but prompt an acknowledgement of later deadlines too. And prompt them to discuss what they do about current lectures i.e. an ideal student might read over and re-structure their lecture notes every evening, and do some reading about each such topic. "Are you going to lectures now, or is the essay the only thing you work on?" "Do you look at your notes, or are you just leaving all that till later? will you remember what they mean then? are you reading the relevant chapter / papers for the current lectures? ... what do each of you think about that? ..."
If an essay, get them to sketch up a plan of the component actions for doing it. Then also for current lectures: actually sketch up alternative strategies e.g. go to lectures, don't look at their notes until week before exam OR 10 min. review each evening OR read textbook chapter before lecture, ....
Do your best to avoid sounding preachy, and to elicit what the clients in the group are each actually doing. Delay saying what you yourself a) did do b) are doing now in your year. Merely raising the topic will do more to make them think about it later than preaching will. Or if you are playful, then act out for them two contrasting imaginary students or tutors: a) hellfire sermon on what they should do; b) the Rake's Progress and how they will feel later in the year, as they drop out, ...
This can be done with one or many clients. It can be done without preparation. The main issue is how to keep it brief, since without preparation clients may tend to chat vaguely for a long time, when really there are only a few activity headings being reviewed.
Work over concrete course problemsCan always get the group to work through in detail a specific task/problem e.g. an exam question from statistics; other exam questions: get clients to propose an outline essay answer, or rival ones. If they haven't prepared in advance, don't hesitate to get them to do 5 minutes silent work individually, then present and argue what they've come up with. Group discussion only happens really if people have different views and are internally committed to them so they have justifications for them. So developing their own outlines individually before the discussion is often important: otherwise they just agree with the first thing suggested because they haven't thought of any alternative.
On the other hand, if it's something they feel daunted or stuck with, then "brain storming" combined suggestions on how to get started at all may be best: but you can suggest that once they are unstuck, it is left to finish individually afterwards (and perhaps report back next week).
This can be done with either preparation or not: adapt the activity to this. It probably can't be done usefully with a single client; could be done with two if they are knowledgeable enough to construct what is needed; can probably be done with pretty un-knowledgeable clients if the group is a bit larger so there is more to pool.
Topic review i.e. reconstruct the main message and concepts of recent lecturesWhenever I've seen a TV documentary of any interest, or go to a lecture, or am in the middle of writing a paper, then I like to lie in the bath and try to list in my head the main point or points; or alternatively go to a pub and answer someone's question about what I've heard or what I'm writing (they'll only want the 60 second version so summarising the key points is the thing).
This is important for re-structuring in the mind from the topic name to the main points, in order of importance. It can also be done as an exercise any time with no preparation in PAL sessions. And it would be a good habit for students to acquire doing for themselves (i.e. it's good as modelling a desirable study skill). I may need to do it up to a dozen times before I'm really fluent on a talk or topic. And this ease of organised recall is the best possible preparation for exams, especially ones that require you to use the ideas for some new question you haven't been told about.
What's the most interesting lecture you've had in the last week?
What was the main message? / why was it interesting? / what was the most interesting point in it?
It's fine if they don't agree with each other (so explicitly check round to see if others have a different view): write up the rival views side by side on the board.
It can be expanded by a) asking for rival views b) asking for a fuller outline of the points covered c) asking for reasons/ explanations of the key points, once these have been established.
Some lectures are not organised, and leave the audience with a jumble of points. But this discussion is still good: clients can decide how it should be organised, and use this as an agenda for followup study i.e. what they need to find out to organise the topic for themselves.
This exercise type can be done by a single person or a group; without preparation by clients, or they could come ready to give their 2 minutes' worth each on a different one; without preparation by facilitators: just ask about which was the most interesting or difficult or important lecture recently, or alternatively pick in advance a topic notorious for being problematic. Or spring on them a topic from weeks ago, to test/demonstrate whether they remember anything (if not, what are they going to do about it). This is often a reassuring exercise: that at first they don't think they remember anything, but actually can reconstruct quite a lot given a little time, and collectively reconstruct almost anything.
"Deep" learning discussionAny discussion is good for PAL because it a) practises peer interaction on course material, b) gets clients doing mental reprocessing of the material and so promotes learning, c) is an occasion for them getting to know each other better, feel more part of the class. You can hardly lose.
But "deep" learning is defined as done for interest, and to try to understand, rather than to get marks, and to pass tests to please others. So any discussion not tied to a bit of coursework, but about the real and/or wider meaning of the concepts connected with the course counts. Generally speaking, there is not much right and wrong about views on these topics, but rather discussion about connections, implications, arguments pro and con. So chairing can be aimed at equal speaking time for all (including the facilitator's own views if you like), and keeping people interested, but not at reaching a specific conclusion or action plan. Very often the main learning gain is raising awareness of alternative reasonable views, rather than learning about one best answer.
Types of deep learningA good deep learning discussion could be based on trying to come up with any one (or all) of these different types of connection. (More on types of deep learning.)
- Concept to example(s). Can you give specific examples of the concept? Given a suggested example, can you decide whether or not it is a valid example?
- Concept to personal experience. How does the concept relate to a) things that have happened to you, b) how it looks when you witness it in others.
- Concept to alternative (rival) theories of this topic. What are the rival theories/models?
- Concept to contradictions or inconsistencies, real or apparent, with any other facts and theories (in other areas). What other cases, laws, commonsense can you think of that seem in conflict with the concept?
- What prior basic questions, independent of theory, does this concept address? Is this a neat academic game limited to one experimental paradigm, or does it explain a feature of everyday life, or solve a real problem e.g. make sick people better?
Sources for deep learning discussion topicsHow to get it launched? 3 types of source for this
- Totally generic, you can have prepared for any day, any time, any level. E.g. the nature of psychology: why does psychology have such a range of topics from social to physiological, why such a range of methods and could you do all of psychology with just one method? which do you prefer? and why: because it suits your study patterns, or gives results you value more?
In my view this is a question that is worth revisiting repeatedly (say once or twice a year) by every student, to reflect on their views as informed by doing more and more psychology (which nevertheless almost certainly won't answer the question). In a sense the question is "what is the point of researching/studying psychology?" and it's nice to have a personal answer to that.
- Manufacture a topic on the spot as above for recent lecture topics. You can do this without preparation by either clients or facilitators, apart from getting this recipe ready:
What's the most interesting concept you have had in lectures recently?
[short discussion, pick something]
OK, now lets work on a statement of this concept
[may only take a minute, but get clear what is to be talked about e.g. episodic memory]
OK now lets go through various types of "deep" connection in turn for this concept.
- First: what would count as a personal experience related to this?
[each person comes up with, or you jointly agree an example e.g. going to the first lecture of the term; leaving home this morning]
What do I actually remember about this? do I really remember much detail, or is it controlled by semantic-memory type stuff. Do you know how many others were in the lecture? or the colour of the car passing my front door when I left? is it really episodic then?
- Rival theories: could we possibly not believe in episodic memory? what would be an alternative? if no alternatives it is merely a restatement of commonsense.
* What is the evidence for it? what evidence doesn't support it? ....
- Further consequences. Do I retain all my life a complete memory of every such episode? .... Is it true? if I meet someone will I always connect their face, name, and what we talked about? could I remember some of these pairs but not others?
- Independent judgements of the theory. What would I want from a theory of memory before I read the literature? what prior problems should it solve or explain? E.g. forgetting, having no memory of things you have in fact done, the differences in people's ability to remember things ...How do current ideas like episodic memory stand up to this?
- Are there any other things I know that ought to be connected to this theory? E.g. Proust's famous novel about memory: how does this connect? The Peanuts cartoon "Can I go home Miss? my brain is full". Why do we sometimes feel that laying down new memories is too much effort, ....
- Collect deep learning discussion topics from lecturers in advance (or from their course materials). An ideal such topic is not just a statement but also a sketch of an argument for and against, to get discussion launched.
- [L3 physiological] At birth a baby's brain contains 100 billion neurones. Essentially all the neurones the brain will ever have are present at birth. If this is true, how do we account for the physical changes observed, even in individuals of advanced age, depending on the environment in which they live? What consequences does this have for public policy?
- [L3 cognitive] What is the usefulness of a the distinction between episodic and semantic memory if all memories originate from episodic experiences?
- [L3 cognitive] In order to understand language we have to make all sorts of inferences and we have to assume that much of the knowledge we use to understand the text is shared with the speaker or writer (this is called "mutual knowledge"). Are there limits to the inferences we can make? Are there limits to what we can assume about the speakers intention? If there are limits, what are they and how do they come about?
- [L3 perception] The are more than 20 cortical areas in the primate brain that have some kind of retinotopic coding (neighbouring cells in the brain respond to neighbouring regions in visual space). How is it then that our consciousness is unitary (that is we perceive only one object at one place at one time)?
- [L3 perception] (from Gregory, RL (2003). Seeing after blindness, Nature Neuroscience, 6, 909-910.)
The empiricist philosopher John Locke addressed the issue of whether experience is important in the development of vision in 1694. The question was originally raised in a letter from his Dublin lawyer friend William Molyneux: "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal ... and the blind man made to see. Query whether by his sight before he touched them, could he distinguish and tell which was the globe and which the cube? ... The acute and judicious proposer answers: not. For though he has attained the experience that what affects his touch, yet he has not attained the experience of how the globe, how the cube, affects his touch so and so, must affect his sight, so and so ..."
Review, critique, and evaluate finished work: CRs, lab reports, essays.The main aims are probably
a) to reveal to clients examples of how rather different pieces of work for the same "task" can be equally good in their way. And hence aspects of examples we may want to try to imitate.
b) to give practice at judging what is good and bad about a piece of work. We all have to govern our own work by such judgements: we need more practice at making them. And also relating bits of work to the (abstract) statements of what we were asked to do: an example of an introduction, of being critical in a review, ...
Best format is probably to have 2 or 3 people (only) read the same thing, and compare comments. After that, more people don't generate much that is new in comments. This implies very small groups to work in.
A CR takes say 30 mins to read: so must be done in advance. A lab report can be read in a few minutes so could be done on the spot. If at all possible pick substantially contrasting examples, and usually ones that are neither great nor terrible (though another tactic would be to give a very bad and a very good one, maybe).
My formula for critiquing in such exercises is:
- Everyone MUST say what is the best and what is the worst aspect of the item (not just one or the other).
- If possible, (it isn't always) when saying what is bad say specifically how it could be done better.
- Preferably give best and worst about each section or part, in addition to overall.
- If the person who wrote it is there, they should give their (self)evaluation first.
If it's a level 1 essay: pick a topic not being set this year.
If it's a lab report or something that is set this year, do not reveal what marks it got or even your own judgement: focus discussion on good and bad features of the examples, and what makes them good or bad.
This is about getting them better at exercising judgement of work and giving reasons for the judgement, not about agreeing with the marking of a particular member of staff.
Pre-requisites for a courseSome courses or course elements assume students already know material which in fact many may not, or may not feel comfortable with. Facilitators will probably know from their experience of the course which these are. A good standard practice, only occasionally organised by staff, is to lay on a "pre-lecture" session. The simple version is: to advertise this topic, and have the group assemble basic knowledge on it, guided by the facilitators who know roughly what will be assumed.
A full version of this, organised only by particularly good course teams, is a session where a set of "self-assessment questions" (SAQs) have been provided for each student to test themselves, and then tutors (or in this case PAL groups) are available so that students can then get the help their self-diagnosis shows is necessary. Even students who do well on the SAQs in fact usually benefit from this as a warmup exercise so that they can take in the first lecture with technical terms etc. flying around.
Work on non-standard problemsAs mentioned above, working on standard problems that the staff set like past exam questions is one obvious possible activity. Another, though, is to consider different kinds of task not usually suggested by staff but which may help. Thus for any repeated task such as exam questions on a course, it is generally enlightening for a learner to:
- Work on examples set by staff
- Mark answers on such examples by other students, discussing what is good and bad about the answer, and what mark they each think it deserves. This encourages explicit discussion of the judgements, and also gives exposure to how differently different students answer the same thing. The CR activity above is a form of this, but doing it for exam answers can be useful too. It gets learners to think about exams from the other side as well. If you cannot mark and critique answers, you won't be able to tell how good your own work is as you produce and try to improve it.
- Setting exam questions. Again, gets learners to think about the course from another angle; and also to pay attention to the wording of questions.
- Set multiple choice quizzes (MCQs). Setting and answering tests of a quite different format than the one you will actually be assessed on won't help by way of being a direct rehearsal, but again it gives a different kind of exercise by chopping up and exercising the knowledge in a different way.
- Do a vocabulary exercise like Bournemouth suggests. I.e. pick a technical term, look up or discuss its meaning, and then look up or come up with examples of it.
Tactics for classic problems
Too many clientsSplit into groups. Even if not enough facilitators, split, and the facilitator just rotates round groups which get on with it themselves. For discussion, 5 or 6 may be the best number. If more, the discussion proceeds, but many stay silent.
Too few clients
- Tell them you (the facilitator) will now simulate (role play) another client
- Merge with another group if there is one in parallel i.e. at same time but in another room.
Largish group (e.g. 20 in a tutorial)Facilitator asks a question, no-one replies.
What shall we talk about?
OK, the agenda topic is Episodic memory. Who knows anything about this?
What is the most important thing about it; its definition?
OK we'll do a quick group reconstruction of what you've been told about it. The person who speaks first has the easiest job because others have to think of something new to say. So who knows the absolute least about this?
[if silence, pick someone at random or on your left "OK we'll pretend you're the most ignorant about this"; otherwise pick the volunteer]
So what's the first thing that comes into your head on this?
[write it up]
Is this right?
OK, what else should be added in?
Yes? why?: how would you justify that? [ask the next person]
No? what is wrong with that?
[Go round whole group in turn. If new contributions run out then start prompting with:
Does that look like it all, or do you think there is other stuff no-one can remember that should be there?
Or alternatively, put up a stupid suggestion yourself and have them improve it: because by setting the standard of contribution low, you reduce fear of saying something unworthy; AND you get them thinking of reasons, AND it is easier (for them, for most of us) to say what is wrong with something than what the right solution is -- destructive criticism is an easy starting point.
"OK, I'll make a suggestion and you correct it. Memory is just like a tape recorder except you can't hear the tape whirring. How do we know it's not like that?"
Only one client, so the facilitator is bound to give answers?Really we must try very hard to prevent this: merge groups ruthlessly, and so on, because an important subset of PAL benefits require peer discussion, and this cannot be done with only 1 or 2 clients in a session.
However, here you are this time with a single client. Best substitute may be a "counselling" mode of discourse, where the facilitators relentlessly reflect back the client's questions, and scaffold them into constructing a solution themselves. If that seems too socially deviant (too unhelpful in manner), next best may be to, not give them answers just like that, but construct them in front of the client to demonstrate the construction method.
What do I do about CRs?
Well, where's your handbook right, lets look at the section on CRs, ... get the deadline, find the ref to the web document, .... work out a schedule and component actions, ....
I can't do stats
Where are your notes? lets pick a problem and see if we can use your notes to work through it.....
Pre-advertising agenda itemsWe (in the psychology PAL scheme) seem to have found that pre-advertising agenda items for PAL sessions is crucial. Contrary to intuition, it looks as if this is most successful (in attracting large numbers of clients, and then having a session they say is good) if:
- The topic is as specific as possible e.g. not "the cognitive psychology module" but "memory"; not "memory" but "semantic memory"; not "semantic memory" but the question "How do studies of semantic priming contribute to our understanding of the organisation of semantic memory?"
- Add something of interest to the item. Not just "Essays" but "How to get an A"; not just "Piaget" but "what's the one thing you need to know about Piaget" or "Why do so many researchers spend their effort trying to prove Piaget wrong?".
- Setting work to be done before coming to a session often seems to increase attendance, not avoidance (perhaps again because it looks specific, business-like, serious).
- Writing stuff on the board (or a piece of paper between you if only one client). The point is that everyone remembers stuff in random order, and you need to put it into a structure later; you need to "capture" the bits that come out or else they'll get forgotten; and conversation often puts even less structure on the bits than was actually there in the head of the speaker.
And clients like it too because they can go on thinking / reviewing the bits as others talk or pause.
- Can try to get clients to do the writing. But it's actually a good role for the facilitator because it moves them away from looking as if they should contribute content, gives them even more of an excuse for asking what a bit means, why it's right, what is missing. Perhaps ask clients to do it after several sessions of facilitator doing it.
- If you are a mind-mapping practitioner you can do this too. (Because you like it, because it's good, because it's a model for clients to see.)
- Nothing wrong with re-writing all the board notes after a bit to re-organise it.
- If different clients/ subgroups come up with different lists/maps, nothing wrong with having them side by side for comparison and perhaps debate.
- This applies to everything: items when discussing a topic, the agenda for the session, a plan for doing a major bit of coursework, ... worked solution to a problem.
- After a bit, ask them to produce explanations/ justifications by voicing dumb-sounding objections or queries to the fragments they suggest.
- [Kim's rule] Never use the word "problem"
- In advertising, this makes them come expecting answers from expert facilitators
- In the session e.g. don't start by asking if anyone has a problem: then they start expecting you to answer.
- Leave the room for a bit. This certainly reduces their attempts to get you to answer, and if they are set up with something to do, leaving is possible.
- Technical terms (vocabulary items): if a client asks, or perhaps periodically a facilitator should ask: what does a given technical term mean? It's handy if you have a Dictionary of Psychology handy, or alternatively discuss and assemble a definition. You can extend this exericse (spending a few minutes on this regularly, as terms come up, might be a good standard practice) by then recalling and/or inventing examples of the concepts (e.g. a cow is an example of a mammal) as suggested by Bournemouth.
(In fact jargon (technical vocabulary) is a serious and pervasive problem in all subjects at university see this web page.)
PAL as a kind of teaching: more ideas for activitiesOne view of PAL is that it is not teaching but peers assisting each other: the contrast between an authoritative source and mutual assistance and construction. This goes with a contrast between how in most cases a lecturer is pursuing a curriculum, and has a fixed unnegotiated agenda of topic content for a session; while in PAL the default assumption is the opposite that there is no particular topic picked for a session, and it depends on the clients.
However another view is that PAL really is teaching: it's no different than the skills a lecturer ought to have, though often doesn't. So in designing PAL we should draw on all those skills and techniques other than direct presentation that are available for lecturers; and view PAL as filling in the missing or under-provided aspects of an ideal and rounded learning and teaching process. In which case we could draw on all the techniques we have ever encountered, or even read about in books on how to teach in universities, and ask ourselves how we would apply them to our subject, our course, our PAL sessions. It's about interactive teaching: where the fundamental reason for having a campus university (rather than doing distance learning) is exploited: useful contact with other learners in ways that directly help learning. It's about contingent teaching: where what gets done next depends on the learners and their response and requests (as opposed to following a fixed agenda or procedure regardless of learner response). PAL is this in that voluntary attendance, client suggestions, and facilitator memories of the course have a big effect in deciding what is done and how long to spend on it.
To some extent we could extend this and also ask if there are missing topics or material students would like to be covered e.g. a reflective view of the contrasting methods in psychology, practical sessions on web searching, ...
And in these ways, view PAL overall as a student-driven complement to the course in both topics and learning methods, that is likely to cover any and all issues routinely missed or under-provided in the "official" part of the course:
- More opportunity for practice and feedback on exercises
- Possible content e.g. why is psychology diverse?
- Possible activities e.g. peer discussion not just tutoring
- Missing skills e.g. mind-mapping, web searching, using e-journals
Possible missing bits of course
- Reading other students' work and trying to form a rational judgement of it
- A real discussion on why psychology uses such a diverse mixture of methods and whether it really has to.
- A place to think for yourself
- Explicit chunk on ethics training like what the medics get: i.e. content on principles and cases [L4?]
- Explicit chunk on ethics training: introduce consent forms, basic principles, most common cases for psychology projects. [L3]
- Practice using journals in levels 1 and 2 for further reading for essays.
- Linking real life examples to concepts.
- Use photos of (everyday?) scenes, and discuss what connection they could have with a given psychological topic e.g. children and development, ...
- Warn them to get started on the professional skills portfolio: it takes a lot of hours, and keeping up with it during the course is much better than leaving it all till the end. Solution may be to show an example physically that a facilitator did last year (the bulky and often fancy folios handed in). [L3]
- Revision and practice for the honours exams exam. What is required now? [L3]
- Revision and practice for the practical exam [L4]
- Designing and then answering each others' MCQs on recent lectures.
- Talk over what is expected next of you on the course, rather than having to work it out only from the handbooks without being able to check one's grasp of this with other people.
- Video sessions: where there are excellent videos.
- Simiarly, sessions with 3D (plastic) models of the human brain.
- Group mindmap for selected past exam questions [L1, ....]
- [L3] Get them ready in advance for the physiological lectures, which assume competence at some of the material and come as a shock to students not ready for this.
- Reviewing papers (like in history seminars), and looking at the important parts and its drawbacks etc., then comparing this with what others thought. It would need some preparation by the students, though people already seem willing to do this (shown by the level 4 practical exam PAL sessions), and it might also help encourage debate in the groups.
- Practical training on experimental design -- maybe getting a study brief and looking at possible designs, the relevant stats and problems. I think this would help a lot, as it wasn't covered well in the course and we don't get any design practice when we do the mini project.
- Claire Munro's teaching and testing of mind-mapping as a note taking technique. I.e. one or two training sessions; plus testing which consists of getting participants directly after one of their lectures; letting them do some minutes revision from the notes they took or rewrite; then take a pre-prepared MCQ test. This requires some real work by facs/presenters, but may still be valuable. [L3 especially; any level]
- [L3] Show past exam answers and marks: for the level 3 class exam, facilitators can bring these in. Best are where detailed feedback comments were given; but examples of poor answers are actually very useful, along with the mark, and the facilitators' comments about what is actually required more than these answers show.
Other ideas can be found here.
Other ideas for tactics
Have 90 minute sessions? 120 minute ones? Vary CR exercise above by Abercrombie's: take a published expt. paper; ask what the author's claim is; do you (each student) believe it?; discuss (and so expose what other factors in fact are going into your personal judgement about it.) Record a PAL session; then play it back to same or different group. Abercrombie recommends this -- at least where participants are really working through an issue they struggle with. It demonstrates how you often don't hear something the first few times it is actually said. Cameo appearances by staff. E.g. group gets finally stuck working on a statistics example, and pop downstairs to persuade the lecturer to come and explain it for 10 minutes. While this is against some of the original idea for PAL sessions (no staff), it can when it works contribute to inceasing students' feeling of being integrated with the staff, able to speak to them, etc. (i.e. to integration).
More complete examplesHere are some examples of designed PAL session activities, written out in fuller detail (as opposed to just having the idea in the facilitators' minds). A complete example should be designed to appeal to a particular class, and include a rationale (why it is a good idea), how it would be pre-advertised, what the activity in the session itself would consist of, what preparations and material are needed.
Pre-requisites for level 3 physiologyRationale. Designed to address a need for the level 3 course element on physiological psychology: basically a case of "pre-lect" needed, because the lectures assume as a pre-requisite some basic knowledge by students, that in fact they don't have, or at least don't have at their fingertips.
Advertised agenda: "Get up to speed with physiology! -Believe us you will need this! We were taken aback by what we were expected to remember from past years' work."
Activity. 1) A "deep learning" topic supplied by the lecturer, discussed in small subgroups. 2) Drew a diagram of a cell, got clients in groups to name the parts.
Materials: Getting the deep learning topic from the lecturer.
Comment: This was a successful session. It combined: an identified need on this course, a mention in the ad by the facilitators from their experience, a group format that didn't require advance work by clients but did draw on their partial memories.
Designing MCQs for each otherRationale. Designed to address a fear that the level 1 course is slipping by and they can't tell if they are learning the material OK.
Advertised agenda: "How much have you actually learned from the lectures so far? this session will have you writing cunning MCQs (multiple choice questions) to test your class mates with, and see if you can answer their questions. This is like both a pub quiz and the MCQ part of the level 1 exams. Bring your text book so you can prove your answers are right."
Activity. Decide the rules e.g. a) 10 mins to design a qu. of your own on any topic so far lectured on i.e. qu. plus 4 answer options; b) The designer MUST find the page of Gleitman that proves which option is right; c) then all must shut the textbooks and you all (including facs?) do each others' questions in turn, writing down the answer (i.e. A or B or ...) physically to stop cheating changing of minds. After each question, designer gives the answer, and may discuss it. d) go back to (a) and do another round of design and test.
Bear in mind that 1) it may be OK not to force people to reveal their answers: but if they write them down, they'll know themselves whether they got it right. 2) Even if the discussion proves there is a fault in the question, really the value is still there of getting them to think and discuss the issue.
A comment you might make or have in mind after the first round: students are usually much more tough on each other than staff would be. And the best questions can be a simple question but with difficultly tempting alternatives.
Activity 2/ variant/ or instead of (d) above. What kind of question or issue (in the course) seems important, but cannot be well fitted into an MCQ? Design an essay question or short answer exam question on this. Write out the marking scheme that should be used with it; i.e. the criteria for giving a grade to an answer to your question.
Activity 3/ variant/ or instead of (d) above. Facilitator gives them the question: they design the response options.
Materials: bring the text (Gleitman?) or arrange to borrow a copy from the lab; bring/have access to an example or two of MCQs from the test bank (on the web??); have clear (look in the handbook) what topics they have already covered; possibly have a (simple? jokey?) example of your own to demo.
Level 1 Lab reportsRationale. Better teaching for lab reports: they get pratice at writing them: how about using them in various ways.
Advertised agenda: "You have to learn to write lab reports: this will give you an opportunity to see their use in other ways."
- Given a bank of reports (e.g. from previous year), and given a set of questions (pre-prepared by facilitators), pull out the information from the reports (i.e. practise using the structure of the reports). E.g. how many subjects, what was the conclusion, if I was going to replicate it what apparatus would I need to get hold of? If some of the reports had bits missing (were not first class work) then some of these questions couldn't be answered: bringing home the point of including all that stuff.
- Given a published paper or two, run the same questions.
- Given bits of information (e.g. data; conclusions; lit.refs) which section would you put it in?
Materials: A few reports to duplicate and pass round (maybe from last year, of from another level, ...). Photocopy plenty of copies: one per client.
A published paper or two.
Level 1 essay plansRationale. Practice at churning out essay plans (as opposed to getting the material, or writing actual paragraphs). The plan is probably the place to turn a D into an A; and getting slick at generating plans will do more to reduce anxiety than practice at the other parts.
Advertised agenda: "You know you will be judged and assessed by essay writing throughout your degree. And you probably aren't clear about the standards that will be used, what is meant by an essay, or how to go about writing a good one. So come and get some practice of a different kind."
Activity. The theme is: generating essay plans off the cuff, on the spot. a) Get a level 3 to show off at this (or invite a guest virtuoso e.g. a postgrad): given a topic, spout out a plan. b) Clients try it:
Level 1 essay styleRationale. There's a real problem in grasping what is wanted in a psychology essay for students who are used to writing in another style, and still more for those required to write in another style in a simultaneous other level 1 course.
Advertised agenda: "Having trouble getting on top, not of the main work of an essay, but the style and structure required? Worried that what counts as good writing in one place is seen is bad writing in psychology? Here's some activities around this."
Activity. Point is to address the tone, nature, purpose, and style of psych. essays. a) Given a paragraph in the wrong style, translate it into the right style. b) Give examples of material that does and doesn't fit in. E.g. personal opinion. c) What is the point ...
Further successful activities
Showing a videoIf you have a video on a subject that will interest the clients, then a session based on showing it can be good. It's best if the video is no more than 30 minutes so there can be discussion, or if it is shown in two halves over two PAL sessions. The department may have some relevant videos, or you may have one yourself.
Other materialsSimilarly, base a session on other practical materials e.g.
- doing a Kelly grid exercise.
- The plastic model of the brain, for practice at anatomical naming
- Photos: what connections with psychological theories could they be linked to?
Ideas for exercises from elsewherehttp://www.rider.edu/~suler/inclassex.html
Career related talksPAL has put on some very well attended career related talks. These might be where a student who is better informed than average about a career area outlines what they know and starts a discussion. Or where a member of staff or from the careers service does this, or a serving professional (e.g. a clinical psychologist) comes in from outside. It is perfectly possible to cover at least two career areas in one session if it is chaired properly.
Lecturer input on exam questionsA format that is working well at least in levels 3 and 4 gets feedback on exam questions from the lecturer. The session is announced as about a course. At the session, the facilitators pick a past exam question, unprepared by the clients. The clients split into groups of 3 or 4 and sketch out answers, and the course lecturer comes in (after about 20 mins or so) and circulates, commenting on the sketched answers.
Last changed 9 Nov 2003 ............... Length about 900 words (6,000 bytes).
(This document started on 19 Sep 2003.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/resources/palagenda.html. You may copy it. How to refer to it.
Agenda for PAL sessionsWe plan to offer each week to our facilitators a recommended agenda to use in the sessions, while making it clear they can do a quite different one themselves. Whatever they use, how it went should be discussed in the weekly mutual feedback sessions.
Each week's should have some different specific items on; in particular the deep learning questions and hot topics emerging from the clients will change. But here is a possible outline: specific items could be slotted into this framework. Some items will perhaps be featured and used only in one or two weeks e.g. "auto-PAL" and extended discussion about study skills.
Policy statement to facilitatorsThere are about eight potential kinds of benefit to the clients from PAL groups. Covering all of them is a remote ideal. Focussing the time on whatever is of most value to the particular group on the particular day is the aim; while any session that is spent on any of them is worthwhile. It needn't be narrowly about psychology course content: wider aspects of being a student may turn out to be what they need to discuss.
Do not feel you either must or should answer the questions yourself: if the group can't find the answer among them, at most you should give pointers to where they can look for the answers afterwards (we'll supply you a reference sheet for this).
- [integration]: nameplates and re-introductions
- [Agenda] Agreeing the rest of the agenda with the group. ("Has anyone brought any issues or items they particularly want the group to help with this time?") In particular, adding items, re-ordering them. Agreeing whether (a) to cover all items or (b) just to see how far the group gets down the list. Having the agenda on a flipchart where all can see it throughout the meeting can be handy.
- ["Contract"] It may sometimes be helpful to explicitly discuss and agree a "contract": what the rules are for this group. E.g. no calling me stupid, do/don't stick to academic topics, not talking about individuals outside the group, ...
- [PAL] Any course admin. items anyone wants to ask the group (e.g. times, dates, ....)
- [PAL] Any basic course content items. Possible prompt (if you want to spend time on this, but the clients don't volunteer any): "Summarise in a sentence the most important overall point of the last lecture".
- [deep learning] Introduce one of the current week's "deep learning" questions. Or improvise: "What is, what defines, psychology?" "Is it worth studying, and if so why?" "How is it different from what you expected? from what you wish you were learning about?" "What is the most interesting issue touched on in the last week? (and why do you think it is interesting)"
- [mentoring] Anything about being a student on this course you want to ask me about? What is your experience of it like so far? Unsolicited advice from the facilitator e.g. don't leave the essay until the last week ...
Also: issues about being a student in general, ....
- [reflection, study skills] How well do you understand the material so far? How do you know this? What did you do to check you understood it? Set a quiz item for the rest of the group...
- [Auto-PAL] Do you discuss course issues with other students apart from in this group? Do you think organising a private study group would be useful? ...
- [feedback] At the end, if you can bear to, spend 2 minutes asking for feedback on the session.
- How useful: E.g. "On a scale from zero (no use at all) to 10 (couldn't have been better), how useful do you feel this session was for you?" and go round each person quickly. Then "Any suggestions about what to do differently next session?"
(This only gives you a rough idea, but it does help especially when you notice differences from session to session. It also encourages clients to make suggestions about what they would like to cover, and lets them know you are listening to them.)
- Or ask each person to say what they each got out of the session i.e. instead of a value number, to reflect and discuss briefly what it was. The point of this (besides feedback to the facilitators) is to encourage them to recognise consciously what the session does for them, which may encourage them to return.
- Ask for feedback not on the value of the session for them, but on how good/bad your chairing was. Good for improving the skill of chairing itself. (Especially good if you rotate the chair to share the practising with the clients.)