Pedagogies of Engagement: Resource Collections > Peer-Led Team Learning

Peer-Led Team Learning

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Developed Pratibha Varma-Nelson, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

What is Peer-Led Team Learning?

The Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) Workshops generally supplement the lecture. PLTL can be used in a course with any size enrollment. Under the PLTL model, undergraduate students who have done well in the class previously are recruited and trained as workshop leaders or peer leaders who guide the efforts of a group of six to eight students. These peer-led groups meet weekly (separate from the lecture and the instructor) to work together on problems that are carefully structured to help the students build conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. There are no answer keys for either the students or the peer-leaders; the emphasis is on learning to find, evaluate, and build confidence in answers. Simultaneously, the workshops and the peer leaders provide a supportive environment that helps each student participate actively in the process of learning science. Thus, PLTL offers a mix of active-learning opportunities for students and a new role for undergraduate peer leaders that is appropriate for their stage of development; PLTL has been used successfully in courses in chemistry, biology, physics, math, computer science, and engineering. In practice, the weekly workshop replaces traditional recitation sections led by graduate teaching assistants or faculty. Although most peer leaders are undergraduates, many graduate students with appropriate training have also worked effectively and enthusiastically in that role.

Why Use Peer-Led Team Learning?

PLTL increases student engagement, motivation and performance. Studies comparing groups with and without workshops reveal that participation in workshops leads to higher percentage of students earning grades of A,B or C. Several studies have also documented a significant increase in performance on standardized tests.

Workshop leaders themselves reap significant ongoing benefits from their roles. Leading workshops reinforces the breadth and depth of their own learning, helps them develop personal qualities such as confidence and perseverance, and fosters a variety of presentation and team related skills.

Gafney, L. and Varma-Nelson, P. (2008) Peer-Led Team Learning: Evaluation, Dissemination and Institutionalization of a College level Initiative, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Springer.

Peer-Led Team Learning offers a number of educational opportunities:

  • Solving problems in workshop allows students to assess their own understanding of key course concepts
  • The supportive, small-group format encourages questions and discussions that lead to conceptual understanding
  • Students learn through explaining concepts to other students
  • Many students are more willing to discuss their questions with other students than with a professor
  • Students learn to work in teams and to communicate effectively
  • Peer leaders learn teaching and group management skills and gain self-confidence

Being a student in an introductory course, especially in a large section, can be an impersonal, intimidating, and frustrating experience. The instructor may be willing to help, but office hours are limited and struggling students may skip those opportunities for assistance due to the risk of revealing how little they understand. What struggling student wants to be on the spot and at the mercy of an impatient professor? Discussion sections may not be much better than class with a handful of students watching problems being solved by a TA, but not really understanding the solutions or even knowing which questions to ask. Peer-led team learning provides students with an efficient and supportive study group where they are coached in problem-solving by a knowledgeable student leader who is trained to facilitate learning. Working on specifically-designed assignments outside of class-time without the stress of being under the instructor's critical eye can provide an acceptable form of vulnerability that may be necessary for a student to find and address their real difficulties with the subject and even enjoy it!

(Project Kaleidoscope, 2007)

Engaging and successfully working with those students who really need some help to do well in an introductory course, but who refuse to admit it or to seek help can be a real challenge in teaching, even when classes are relatively small. Add to the problem by making introductory lecture sections large and teaching students who commute, who have families of their own, who work or who are otherwise not involved in the campus community.

Peer-led team learning can provide instructors in these situations with a means of indirectly reaching the students who need it most through creation of supportive communities of learners. And those students who need that support the least benefit as much by taking on leadership roles and learning the content more thoroughly through their efforts in facilitating the learning of others.

(Project Kaleidoscope, 2007)

How to Implement Peer-Led Team Learning in your courses?

Through many years of workshop evaluations, the developers of PLTL identified six "critical components" vital to ensuring the success of a PLTL program.
1. It is essential that the workshops are closely integrated with the course and all its elements.
2. Faculty teaching these courses must be actively involved with the workshops and with the peer leaders.
3. Peer leaders are students who have taken the course, who have good people skills, and who are well-trained and supervised in facilitating small-group collaborative-learning sessions.
4. Workshop problems must be appropriately challenging and designed for use in collaborative group learning settings.
5. Organizational arrangements must ensure adequate and appropriate rooms for conducting workshop sessions.
6. Institutional and departmental support of innovative teaching methods is essential, including logistical and financial support.

Gosser, D., Cracolice, M., Kampmeier, J., Roth, V., Strozak, V., Varma-Nelson, P. (2001). Peer-Led Team Learning: A Guidebook. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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