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Designing PAL sessions / activities

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


These are notes, originally meant for psychology PAL facilitators, on how to design a PAL session. They cover both low level details and high level sketches for session plans. use the Contents above to jump to what you want.


It'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

  1. 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, ...

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 [1], the planning/preparation is really about [2]. And [2] depends on [4] and [5].

Summary: selecting activities

Thus 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 deadline

They 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?

  1. Turn their blind panic into a realistic view of the task, with a plan.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

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 course

Get 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 problems

Can 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 lectures

Whenever 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 discussion

Any 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 learning

A 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.)
  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. Concept to alternative (rival) theories of this topic. What are the rival theories/models?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 topics

How to get it launched? 3 types of source for this
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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?
    2. 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? ....
    3. 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?
    4. 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?
    5. 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, ....

  3. 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.

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:

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 course

Some 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 problems

As 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:

Tactics for classic problems

Too many clients

Split 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

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 items

    We (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:

    Generic tactics

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. After a bit, ask them to produce explanations/ justifications by voicing dumb-sounding objections or queries to the fragments they suggest.

    4. [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.

    5. 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.

    6. 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 activities

    One 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:

    Possible missing bits of course

    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 examples

    Here 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 physiology

    Rationale. 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 other

    Rationale. 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 reports

    Rationale. 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."


    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.
    Some questions.

    Level 1 essay plans

    Rationale. 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:

    Materials: ??

    Level 1 essay style

    Rationale. 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 ...

    Materials: ??

    Further successful activities

    Showing a video

    If 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 materials

    Similarly, base a session on other practical materials e.g.

    Ideas for exercises from elsewhere

    Career related talks

    PAL 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.

    Exam revision activities

    Here's some recipes for PAL sessions that might help students facing revision for exams. They can be done conveniently in small groups in a PAL session, but proably they will have much bigger benefit if students, having tried them, then go away and do them by themselves.

    Producing reasons for MCQ answers

    On courses examined by MCQs (multiple choice questions), or even on others, much more learning is gained by having each student take a question, and instead of just choosing one answer, writing down against each response option, a reason why it is or is not the right answer to the question. I.e., for each question, they write 4 (say) reasons. In PAL, they can then discuss their reasons in a small group. Facilitators (and clients) can prepare for a session by getting MCQs e.g. from the textbook, or an online question bank. You'll need them printed, with at least a blank line of space under each response option (possible answer).

    Practice at recall

    This and the next activity are useful in revising for essay exams. The first step in answering any essay is to recall all the points on and around the topic that you can. This musn't take longer than a (very) few minutes. However many students only revise by looking over their notes and telling themselves they recognise all that: not testing whether they can recall it. For this exercise the facilitator springs a question on the clients from the past i.e. they are not warned in advance which question it will be. Then all scribble down a list of points that might be used for a short fixed time e.g. 3 mins. Then small groups share and discuss their lists.

    Selection for relevance

    Given a list that is a hasty brain dump from recall, the next task is selecting those points that are not just vaguely in the same area, but are fully relevant to the specific exam question. In a PAL session, facilitators hand out copies of 1) an exam question; 2) a list of bullet points (perhaps taken from the course learning objectives or lecture notes) of things from the same part of the course. The task is, without consulting one's lecture notes, to cross out the points that are not relevant to the question. Having done that solo, clients discuss their choices in small groups.

    Lecturer input on exam question attempts

    A format that has worked 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.

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