This post has been written by two Ted Rogers School of Management students Eric Rajaratnam (Economics and Finance) and Aleenah Hassan ( Accounting and Finance).
The Academic Success Center (ASC) is a learning hub on campus for students at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Many popular support services offered by the ASC are delivered by student staff members, namely Academic Peer Helpers and Peer Coaches. The Peer Assisted Learning program (PAL for short) is a new program that was added to the ASC’s offerings in the Fall 2021 semester. Being the first PAL Leaders at the ASC meant there were a lot of things we had to figure out as the semester progressed and we would constantly arrive at a new challenge.
What is PAL?
The PAL is a supplemental instruction program that targets traditionally difficult academic courses and provides regularly scheduled, out-of-class, peer-facilitated sessions. PAL sessions are open to all students in the course section and are attended on a voluntary basis. PAL sessions are attended by students who are not separated based on their academic ability. Research shows that on average participants of supplemental instruction programs such as PAL earn higher course grades and withdraw less often than non-participants (Blanc et al, 1983). PAL sessions are led and facilitated by a PAL leader. PAL leaders are upper-year students who have been previously successful in the course.
The goal of PAL sessions is to combine how to learn activities with the what to learn focus through peer-to-peer interaction. Most of the time, we will be using a variety of different learning techniques to solve difficult problems in small groups. This is how PAL sessions differ from tutoring. While tutoring is focused on helping students to understand course material, PAL focuses on content, study strategies, and internalization of course content to help other students achieve their academic goals. Tutoring tends to promote independent learning, whereas PAL facilitates student interaction and mutual learning.
PAL leaders prepare structured lesson plans for each session based on the content being taught that week in the course lecture. Academic Peer Helpers lead unstructured sessions where students ask their own specific questions instead of following a lesson plan.
Facilitating vs. Instructing
As former Academic Peer Helpers, something that we both struggled with was facilitating a discussion. We were so used to doing most of the talking ourselves through instructing that we had to actively remind ourselves of our roles as facilitators. As an Academic Peer Helper, students tend to look to you for instruction or a push in the right direction. As PAL Leaders, we would encourage them to use their peers as resources by brainstorming together and exchanging ideas. This helps promote independent learning and being resourceful while studying alone.
Working in Larger Groups
One of the biggest differences between being an APH and a PAL is the group size. As an APH, we would facilitate sessions with up to 7 students, however, as a PAL, we can expect almost 15-20 students per session. Initially, it seemed daunting and was something we were both quite anxious about. We worked as a team to create facilitation techniques that would suit a large group of students. Not only have these techniques been helpful during sessions, but they have also helped boost our confidence and public speaking skills.
Challenges of Online Collaboration
PAL sessions focus on collaborative learning where the students work together to solve problems, learning and growing from the different perspectives of their peers. We believe this creates a sense of community amongst the students. However, promoting online collaboration comes with many challenges.
During PAL sessions we use Google Jamboard, which is an online collaboration platform where students work together and solve problems. As PAL leaders we try our best to promote independent learning through collaborative learning techniques such as providing students with the first step of the question and allowing them to work out subsequent steps by using their peers and class notes as resources to arrive at a solution. Initially, it was difficult to encourage students to work together in breakout rooms but as the semester progressed folks became more and more familiar with each other and appreciated the opportunity to interact with their peers.
Kickstarting a new program at the ASC has been an eye-opening experience for the both of us. We got a chance to work together to create something from scratch and adjust it to what fits our sessions best. The opportunity to work alongside such an amazing team and create a meaningful bond with professors teaching these courses has been the true highlight of this experience. Everyday is an adventure where we explore new techniques and strategies to better ourselves and our sessions.
Blanc, R. A., DeBuhr, L. E., & Martin, D. C. (1983). Breaking the Attrition Cycle: The Effects of Supplemental Instruction on Undergraduate Performance and Attrition. The Journal of Higher Education, 54(1), 80–90. https://doi.org/10.2307/1981646