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PAL short literature review

Stephen W. Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Contents (click to jump to a section)

Literature review

This is a small and partial review of papers easily available on the web in August 2003 about PAL in the UK. It was mainly aimed at a set of practical issues that had emerged, asking what the literature said about them.

Papers available on the web offer useful perspectives on PAL. Two useful starting points are the collected pointers at [1] and [2].

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 ( 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 [3]. Similar marked effects on exam scores are reported for 1998 at the University of Queensland [4], and at Kingston [5] 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 [3], 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 [6] to have varied between 1% and 27%. Low takeup is also mentioned at Bournemouth [10] and Kingston [11] 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% [3]. At Kingston [5] 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 [6]. 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 [5] 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 [4]. UCL uses 2 facilitators and perhaps 30 but more usually 5 students per group [6]. Manchester uses 2 facilitators and 5-8 students per group [3].

Paying for facilitators: According to [9] 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:

Supplementing this with personal communications to Scott Sherry (who attended), and papers on the web we have: N.B. CONEL is an FE college. UNL and LGU are now merged as London Metropolitan University.

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 [7]. 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.

Overall is it worth it to a department or institution to use PAL?

One of the challenges any educational innovation faces is whether it will outlast the original innovator and transfer to other teachers. I haven't yet found any cases of a university introducing it then later abandoning it: people seem to think it worth keeping on long after it ceases to be novel. However I haven't positively phoned round, except to Manchester, to check that this is not a false impression: asking a) if PAL is still being practised, b) whether the departmental contact in charge has changed and still retained it. But so far it looks as if PAL passes this test.

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.

Are there recipes available sufficient to launch a PAL scheme without a local learning and redevelopment phase?

In doing this literature review I am finding many of the lessons we learned at Glasgow in 2002-3 in fact described in the literature, but it is easier to recognise them with hindsight that it was to pull them out earlier and adopt them as policy in advance. For instance UCL [6] reports having trouble getting facilitators to report attendance regularly and accurately, but the solution is to establish this as a required routine in the very first training session: we would have to have recognised this in August 2002. Most of the UK introductions have involved Jenni Wallace, who introduced PAL at Kingston, and who in turn visited PAL's ancestral home in Kansas: despite the publications, this is still in part an orally transmitted body of skill. Furthermore there are big differences in practice (and so not a simple published recipe) for aspects as basic as what are the activities or agenda used in each PAL session.

Points on how to run a PAL scheme

  1. Selecting facilitators: not all volunteers are good. [3] select for enthusiasm not academic ability.

  2. 2 parts to training: interpersonal, and dept-details. [3] need two not one training session types: one for how to be a facilitator, one about how this fits into this course and department.

  3. Training as a facilitator (can combine departments in one session). Manchester [3] uses a one day (Saturday) workshop. UCL [6] has a two day experiential training. Queensland [4] half a day. The key point is that facilitating is not teaching by telling, and this requires some practice. [4] gives some more specific content headlines, including planning the first PAL session during training.

  4. Reluctance to report attendance: at UCL [6], mentioned as incomplete at Kingston [5].

  5. Supervision sessions as well as PAL sessions weekly: According to [9] this is standard in the USA. At UCL [6], apparently not at Manchester. They often failed to attend at UCL. Required at Kingston [11], which discusses how to do these sessions in detail.

  6. Having an agenda or lesson plan for each session. At Manchester [3]: based on that week's tutorial worksheet (marked at following tutorial), plus general advice on study skills. At UMIST [3]: based on problems and learning objectives in the course handbook. [8] lists things to do in PAL sessions.

  7. Advertising. [3] says problem is (at first) the need to change the culture. [11] suggests getting the tutors (not just a lecturer) to promote and regularly recommend students to attend PAL.


[0] Tinto,V. (1975) "Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research" Review of Educational Research vol.45, pp.89-125.

[1] National PAL site, hosted at Bournemouth

[2] Papers on PAL at UCL

[3] 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 (visited 2004, Oct 10).

[4] Julia Playford , Valda Miller & Barbara Kelly (1999) Peer assessed Study Program (PASS)

[5] 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

[6] Maureen Donelan (?) Introducing Supplemental Instruction (S.I) at University College London (UCL): A Case Study

[7] University of Sussex, CASA: a conference and project management service based in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex.

[8] PAL project, Bournemouth University (?) Activities and Tools for PAL Sessions

[9] Maureen Donelan (UCL) & Peter Kay (UCLAN) (?) Supplemental Instruction: Students Helping Students' Learning at University College London (UCL) and University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)

[10] 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

[11] 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

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