A Course To Prepare Peer Leaders To Implement a Student-Assisted Learning Method

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  • In the Classroom

    www.JCE.DivCHED.org Vol. 81 No. 9 September 2004 Journal of Chemical Education 1313

    What is it that good teachers know about helping stu-dents learn chemistry? How can this knowledge be taught tonovice instructors? At the University of Rochester, we havebeen preparing undergraduate students to take on a new rolein the context of a student-assisted learning environment. Themodel is appropriate for training individuals for leadershiproles in traditional and nontraditional classrooms (e.g., guidedinquiry, collaborative learning, active learning) and has im-plications for teaching assistant training and faculty devel-opment.

    Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a method of student-assisted learning in which a successful undergraduate studentguides a team of 68 students engaged in solving problemsdeveloped by the course instructor (14). This activity is re-ferred to as a PLTL Workshop (or simply Workshop) todistinguish it from a conventional recitation session. The cen-tral activity in a PLTL Workshop is discussion and debate ofthe concepts and ideas that form the basis for solving theproblems. The peer leader is a facilitator of that discussion,not a teacher in the traditional sense of lecturing or demon-strating how to solve the problem. The PLTL Workshop in-cludes the following components: (i) the Workshops areintegral to the course; (ii) the Workshop materials are chal-lenging and encourage collaborative problem solving; (iii) theWorkshop peer leaders are well trained and closely supervised,with attention to content knowledge and teaching and learn-ing techniques; and (iv) the faculty teaching the course areclosely involved with the Workshop and the Workshop lead-ers (5).

    Before and after studies in several different types ofinstitutions have demonstrated that participation in PLTLWorkshops leads to significant improvements in studentgrades, retention rates, and attitudes in undergraduate chem-istry courses (3, 6). We compared student performance intraditional recitation sections versus the Workshop over aneight-year span in the first-semester organic chemistry course.We observe statistically significant improvements in reten-tion for all students (66.1% Recitation versus 77.0% Work-shop) as well as increases for all subgroups (malefemale,majorityunderrepresented minority) (7). Comparable im-provements in retention for all students have been observedin different science courses at a broad range of institutions(8). Results from an adaptation of the Student Assessmentof Learning Gains questionnaire (9) indicate that studentsbelieve that the Workshop experience is the most importantaid to learning organic chemistry. Other studies show that

    the leaders careful cultivation of a supportive environmentinfluences students perceived competence, intrinsic motiva-tion, and course performance (10, 11).

    Based on our experiences and observations and those ofthe national PLTL project, the preparation of the peer lead-ers is key to an effective Workshop. The undergraduate peerleaders are students who have demonstrated content masteryin the course the previous year. Nevertheless, a mechanismis necessary to prepare them for the transition from the stu-dent role into a new role as peer leader of a small problem-solving team. At our institution, the peer leaders enroll in acredit-bearing course (2 credits) that builds bridges from theeducational research literature to specific classroom applica-tions. The course is co-taught by an education specialist andthe professor who teaches the chemistry course. The collabo-rative instructional model provides a mechanism for theteachers to integrate their respective expertise and publiclyendorses the value of understanding pedagogy and chemis-try (12). The course goal is to arm the peer leaders with class-room and pedagogical skills to facilitate their studentslearning in an interactive team environment. Since the peerleaders meet weekly throughout the semester in which theywork as Workshop leaders, the course has special relevance.

    The structure of the training course builds upon twofundamental principles: (i) there is a reliable, well-establishedresearch literature about students and learning; and (ii) ab-stract pedagogical ideas become robust and practical whenthey are analyzed and applied in specific problem-solving ac-tivities. The substance of the training course centers on class-room knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge.Classroom knowledge (CK) refers to specific knowledge ofthe students and the classroom environment and includesawareness of motivation and interpersonal dynamics (1315).Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) integrates pedagogi-cal ideas with the subject matter and refers to knowing thecontent and how to teach it to a diverse group of students(16, 17). As such, PCK involves being alert to ideas studentsbring into the classroom (including prior conceptions andmisconceptions), being aware of problems students encoun-ter in learning the material, and having a toolkit of effectiveteaching tactics for various situations and contexts.1 Experi-enced instructors have built their CK and PCK structuresover time and through reflection-in-action (18). Since noviceleaders do not have the luxuries of time and experience todevelop their own pedagogical framework, the training courseeducates the peer leaders regarding CK and PCK issues in

    A Course To Prepare Peer Leaders To Implementa Student-Assisted Learning MethodLydia T. Tien*Department of Chemistry & Geosciences, Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY 14623; *ltien@monroecc.edu

    Vicki RothLearning Assistance Services, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627

    J. A. KampmeierDepartment of Chemistry, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627

    http://www.jce.divched.org/http://www.jce.divched.org/Journal/Issues/2004/http://www.jce.divched.org/Journal/

  • In the Classroom

    1314 Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 81 No. 9 September 2004 www.JCE.DivCHED.org

    Figure 1. Training course syllabus.

    CAS 352 Issues in Group Leadership

    Goal:This course is designed to provide training and support for Workshop leaders. Discussions will include both theoretical and practical aspects of leading an organic chemistry Workshop.

    Text: Peer-Led Team Learning: A Handbook for Team Leaders (19). Additional readings from the educational literature will be distributed in class.

    Requirements and Grading:1) Class attendance, participation, assignments (~50%)2) Electronic journal (~25%) Each week, you will forward your recap and reflections for us to get a sense of what is going on in the Workshop (e.g., what you did, how your students responded, how the problems worked, what went well, what could be improved, interactions among the students, etc.) and for you to get feedback from an experienced leader.3) Course project (~25%) The course project is designed to offer you and a partner the opportunity to explore an educational topic of special interest to you. Your exploration will culminate in a 57 page written report and a poster presentation.

    Section Topic Reading Assignment Classroom knowledge: knowingthe environment

    The Workshop Philosophy; The role of the leader

    Ch 12 Handbook; Tobias (20); The PLTL Workshop Project Newsletter (21)

    #1: Beliefs about teaching and learning

    Getting a group started Ch.3 Handbook; Towns (22)

    Classroom knowledge: knowingyour students

    Student development Ch. 6 Handbook; Perry (23)

    Diversity Ch. 7 Handbook; Gallos (24); Rosser (25)

    # 2: Observation of a workshop

    Motivation Ryan & Deci (26)

    The Bridge: classroom knowledge & pedagogical content knowledge

    Cognitive apprenticeship Collins, Brown, & Holum (27)

    Pedagogical content knowledge Reciprocal questioning King (28) # 3: Midterm feedback

    Alternative conceptions Henderleiter, et al. (29)

    Prob

    Metacognition

    lem solving Herron (30)

    Consolidation Rickey & Stacy (31) # 4: Self-assessment of teaching style

    Conceptual change Hewson (32)

    Constructivist teaching Glatthorn & Coble (33)

    the context of the specific chemistry Workshop. In this ar-ticle we describe our leader training course for introductoryorganic chemistry.2, 3 While the training course focuses onthe preparation of undergraduates for their new role in teach-ing and learning, we have used the same course to preparegraduate students and postdoctoral fellows to be peer lead-ers. Our experience has been so positive that we believe thata comparable course would be beneficial to prepare graduatestudent teaching assistants, as well as future faculty, for otherroles in teaching and learning.4

    Training Course Format

    The training course is designed to help peer leaders un-derstand and internalize abstract pedagogical ideas on a prac-tical level. Each class is preceded by assigned course readingsfrom the Handbook for Team Leaders (19) or additionalsupplementary articles. The readings are organized so thatthey address issues that the peer leaders will encounter. Theleaders may have even started to formulate some ideas of theirown as a result of interactions and experiences in the Work-shops that they participated in as students. During the weekly

    training course discussions, the peer leaders then sharpen theirunderstanding of the concepts from the readings and beginto internalize them. The leaders also figure out how to makeuse of the CK and PCK ideas in the Workshop environmentand, where appropriate, the next Workshop and upcomingset of problems. Application of the ideas begins in the whole-class discussion and continues as leaders put the ideas intopractice with their students in their individual Workshops;subsequent workshops provide new challenges and opportu-nities for the peer leaders to refine and test their developinginsights. Weekly journals enable the peer leaders to reflectupon the pedagogical ideas and their applications in theWorkshop, and provide a mechanism for experienced peerleaders to provide one-on-one support to the new peer lead-ers by responding to the issues raised. In addition, the jour-nals give the instructors a window into what is going on ineach of the Workshop sections and serve as a springboardfor discussion and feedback at the beginning of each weeklyclass.

    Finally, it is essential that peer leaders know how to solvethe Workshop problems, and the final portion of each classis devoted to rehearsing the Workshop problems. In general,

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  • In the Classroom

    www.JCE.DivCHED.org Vol. 81 No. 9 September 2004 Journal of Chemical Education 1315

    our peer leaders are not chemistry majors; they need a struc-ture for recollecting the substance of the problems and build-ing confidence in their understanding. Armed with ideas fromthe CK and PCK discussions, the peer leaders work in teamsto brainstorm ways to solve the problems in the next Work-shop. The chemistry instructor may answer questions, explaina difficult idea, emphasize the logic of the problem (i.e.,model his thought process), identify common misconceptionsor errors, share the take-home points behind the problem,and point out connections to previously learned material. Theinstructor does not give his solutions to the problems. Justas we want our leaders to model their thinking and scaffoldtheir students learning, we try to do the same in our train-ing efforts. Ultimately, the leaders construct their own an-swers to the problems and design their own approaches tofacilitate the work on the problems.

    Training Course Content

    At the beginning of the semester, a one-day orientationand the training course focus primarily on CK concerns toprepare the leader to support the individual learner. As thesemester progresses, PCK issues are introduced to prepare theleader to make thinking visible. The training course syllabusis shown in Figure 1. After the one-semester training course,a subsequent leader training course accompanying the sec-ond-semester organic chemistry course focuses primarily oncontent knowledge and pedagogical chemical knowledge, asleaders are familiar and confident with running a Workshop.

    The one-day orientation introduces peer leaders to CKideas related to knowledge of the Workshop environment(e.g., organizing group work and group dynamics) and knowl-edge of the students (e.g., diversity). During the semester,the training course introduces additional CK topics such asstudent development and motivation, but also revisits ideasdiscussed previously. The CK and PCK elements of the courseare unified by a consistent presentation of the tactics of cog-nitive apprenticeship (27), an alternative instructional modelto replace traditional teacher-centered models for lecture andrecitation.

    Classroom Knowledge: Motivation

    Supporting the individual learner encompasses under-standing motivation and the factors that can promote self-motivation. The vitality and productivity of the Workshopdepends on students willingness to engage with the materialand with each other as they work on the problems. Thus,the peer leaders need to be aware of conditions that facilitateor undermine intrinsic motivation.

    Peer leaders read an overview of Deci and Ryans moti-vation theory (26) that introduces them to the concept ofself-determination. Self-determination theory focuses on thesocial and environmental conditions that affect intrinsic mo-tivation. In class, the peer leaders explore three aspects thatinfluence intrinsic motivation (competence, autonomy, andrelatedness) and brainstorm how they can promote each fac-tor. While an introductory science class is typically charac-terized by a lack of community (20), the Workshop structureis motivating because students work together in a small group.Collegiality develops as the semester progresses, and students

    in a Workshop often organize additional sessions outside ofthe class. In addition, the very nature of the Workshop ac-tivity promotes competence and autonomy as it engages stu-dents with conceptual problems and allows them to find theirown solutions. An autonomy-supportive peer leader can alsoprovide students with opportunities for choice, such as elect-ing how to proceed in solving a problem (instead of dictat-ing a method) or choosing to work as one large group or ingroups of two.

    To apply self-determination theory, one activity asks peerleaders to evaluate their reaction to various instructor re-sponses to an impasse (e.g., I see youre having trouble withConcept X. Youll have to know this for the exam.; I seewere all getting stuck on Concept X. This tends to trip stu-dents up.; I see youre having some trouble. This is usuallypretty easy for people.) The ensuing discussion compels peerleaders to consider the ramifications of their behavior as itrelates to students competence, autonomy, and relatedness.Another training activity introduces case studies of situationsin the Workshop. For instance, one peer leader observed di-minished participation in the Workshop and found that stu-den...

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