By Jeffrey White
In my role directing the Learning Commons, I have had the opportunity to connect nationally with practitioners and researchers in the field of peer-led course-based learning assistance (CLA), such as Supplemental Instruction (SI) and its variation Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL). Both SI and PAL focus on difficult courses, especially those in which the rate of students receiving Ds and Fs or withdrawing (the DFW rate) is high. The Learning Commons has been collaborating for the last several months with the School of Nursing to create a PAL program for NRS 325 and, more recently, with the School of Business and the School of Engineering to use PAL to support MTH 141 and PHY 204 students. Peer PAL facilitators provide opportunities for structured practice with course material in weekly hour-long online PAL sessions. Over the summer, I participated in an online SI supervisor training with the International Center for SI to improve my skills and knowledge in this field. Through my research on CLA and my training on supervising such programs, I have come to appreciate how much the practices of these programs can teach us as faculty.
When I train our PAL facilitators on the practices they will use with students in the targeted difficult courses, I develop their skills in developing structured PAL sessions, using tools to shape those group learning experiences, and focusing on assessing student learning. Here are some takeaways related to structure and facilitation techniques that may help us as faculty develop our own teaching and interaction skills in our online environments.
Both SI and PAL sessions are built on a three-part structure:
- The opener is a 5-7 minute warm-up with the material that also provides the facilitator with a sense of where the students are in their learning;
- The workout is an activity in which students engage in collaborative learning and practice with the material. There is usually more than one workout in a session. Workouts can allow for microlearning moments that can be chained together during the whole session;
- The closer is a short (ca. 5 minute) summative assessment activity in which students demonstrate how much they have advanced with the material.
This structure is obvious (Don’t most things have a beginning middle and end?), but we can often forget this. Following best practices in lesson and course design, we train our PAL facilitators to design their sessions backwards, starting with the closer.
Three facilitation techniques are foundational to our PAL sessions:
- Wait time
- Checking for understanding
Redirection relates to student questions. Our PAL facilitators are trained to redirect questions back to the student’s own self (memory of readings, lectures, other learning experiences, and prior knowledge), resources (notes, books, websites), and other students in the class. PAL facilitators don’t answer questions directly. They avoid explaining and opt to redirect attention toward the collective whole and collaborative learning.
Many of us already use wait time in our classes after we ask questions to students or when student ask questions. This allows time for students to process information for themselves or collaboratively. The SI training this summer also showed me the power of wait time after a student gives an answer. Again, this can allow for processing time that may lead to alternative answers or other questions.
Checking for understanding is essential for us to know if students are developing skills and knowledge related to our course material. PAL facilitators check for understanding during all three stages of a PAL session and can do so at any time they think checking for understanding will help clarify or advance students’ skills and knowledge.
Applying these elements to interaction with students
As faculty, we can structure our asynchronous and synchronous engagement with students with a simple three-part approach. Keeping the end in mind through backward design also helps prevent us from getting lost in activities that go unassessed. Allowing time for an opener helps everyone to warm up and provides us with a sense of the students’ growing skills and knowledge, and a closer highlights both the learning that occurred and learning that still needs to be done.
The facilitation strategies that are shared by SI and PAL are basic to teaching, and yet they are easy to overlook. As we review lesson plans, create asynchronous learning experiences, and teach in synchronous sessions, we can ask ourselves, “Am I redirecting questions? Am I allowing for wait time? Am I checking for understanding?” and move beyond these questions by reflecting on how deeply we are applying these facilitation techniques and assessing the results.
Considering these elements of structure and facilitation can also demystify the processes of planning, leading, and debriefing a course session by breaking down our teaching experiences into manageable parts and providing tools for analysis.
We can learn still more from peer educator communities of practice in higher education. In my next contribution to the TLC blog, I’ll share more on collaborative learning techniques and learning strategies in the virtual PAL session and its application in the virtual college classroom.
Jeffrey White directs the Learning Commons in BC 163 (and online everywhere) and is an instructor in International Languages and Cultures. Currently, Jeffrey is the past president of the Northwest College Reading and Learning Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or through the University’s MS Teams via chat or video meeting.