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Peer-led team learning (PLTL) seeks to reach students on their level -- peer-to-peer and, in the case of PHYS 218, as someone who has been in their shoes -- in order to improve learning outcomes and enhance the overall educational experience for all students.

COLLEGE STATION --

If experience truly is the best teacher, then who better to help teach one of Texas A&M University's fundamental required courses for future Aggie engineers than some of the best performers in previous offerings of the same class?

This month, those top students and faculty within the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy put the wraps on their second consecutive semester of a new instructional approach to an old Aggie standby, PHYS 218: Classical Mechanics -- peer-led team learning (PLTL).

As a proven method of teaching popularized in the 1990s and designed to enhance student learning, PLTL centers on the students -- not only those enrolled in the class but also those at the head of it. The idea is to get students actively involved in their learning by making them active participants in both sides of the process. In PHYS 218's case -- the front half of the department's traditional two-semester mechanics and electricity and magnetism sequence -- the most logical place also happened to be one of the biggest problem areas.

"Our recitations were being done by graduate student teaching assistants, and they would stand at the board to work out the problem," said Texas A&M physicist Steven B. Dierker, who serves as both director of the PLTL program and a PHYS 218 instructor. "This didn't strike any of us as the most effective way to learn the material."

The department began a PLTL pilot program last fall, replacing graduate student teaching assistants in some sections with three peer leaders, known as Undergraduate Teaching Fellows -- students who previously took the class and performed well in it. Each UTF was assigned up to eight students and a set of questions for the week's recitation, along with the task to facilitate collaborative discussion and to address problems as posed by the students themselves, based on what they didn't understand or regarding areas in which they want additional information or clarification.

"The most influential driver on student thinking and behavior is their interaction with their peers," Dierker said. "Having a peer in the room and interacting and leading the students is a very effective way of getting them to engage and respond. That really helps to make the environment more friendly and receptive, where the students are encouraged to speak up and figure out what they know and they don't know and not feel like they might be embarrassed in front of an authority figure like a professor. They're more apt to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, which is often what we learn the most from -- when we make mistakes."

Watch Texas A&M faculty and Undergraduate Teaching Fellows describe the difference peer-led team learning makes in the PHYS 218 classroom in this YouTube video:



Although PHYS 218 is a large introductory course open to all majors, the majority of the enrollment consists of first-year engineering students, along with physics and other science-related majors. The challenging subject matter spans many of the discipline's most fundamental concepts, including Newton's Laws of motion, gravity and the concepts of energy, work and momentum.

During the past decade, the course had become more uniform across the many different sections and instructors teaching it through introduction of a common textbook, syllabus, homework assignments and laboratory exercises. In the past few years, the department also has invested significant effort toward modernizing its teaching, introducing and emphasizing active engagement in the classroom through the use of iClickers for instant feedback and answers, improved testing mechanisms and laboratory experiences, and a variety of intervention techniques, including peer instruction in recitations.

The move last fall to implement large-scale PLTL represents the latest best-practice adoption as part of a continuous effort to ensure deep learning where it matters most -- in a classic introductory course that Texas A&M physicist and fellow PHYS 218 instructor Keith Ulmer describes as a critical window, not only to the soul of physics but also to a student's future, regardless of eventual career path.

"This course is the gateway to physics at the university level," said Ulmer, the 2016-17 recipient of the Montague-Center for Teaching Excellence Scholar Award for the College of Science. "As such, I view it as a very important opportunity to provide an introduction to the way a physicist approaches problem-solving. Most of these students will not become professional physicists, but I hope that all of them carry forward critical-thinking skills that will serve them well in their chosen fields of pursuit.

"The real key to engagement is to get the students themselves talking. I believe very strongly that the more active students are, the more likely they are to absorb and more deeply understand information. If we can catch them early, we have a chance to get them thinking in a sort of creative and discussion-oriented way, rather than just trying to memorize formulas."

While complete results are not yet available for the spring semester, Dierker notes that fall course grades were comparable across the peer-led and traditional graduate-student-taught recitation sections. However, the course drop rate was 39 percent lower for the peer-led sections, compared to the graduate-student-led sections. In addition, Dieker says a survey of the students showed they were significantly more likely to think that the recitation instructors were more sensitive to student difficulties with course work, that interacting with the recitation instructor increased their understanding and that, on the whole, "this is a good recitation instructor" in cases where they were in a peer-led section than when they were in a graduate-student-led section.

"One of the things I was very pleased by was how much the peer leaders and the students in the class embraced this approach," Dierker said. "I heard so much positive feedback from the peer leaders and the students about how they felt comfortable in this environment, they felt more free to make a mistake, and that they really enjoyed and looked forward to, either as a student, coming to recitation each week or, as a peer leader, coming to meet with the students. Many of them, whether they were a student or a peer leader, said it was the highlight of their week."

Generations of students can readily identify with passive learning -- sitting in lectures, listening to the professor and taking notes to review and refer back to at a later date. In stark contrast, Ulmer says research shows that discussing and describing an idea through a two-way, give-and-take process actually helps people more deeply internalize the concept. As an added bonus, he says the peer leaders get the opportunity for hands-on experience at the helm, opening their eyes to another possible career opportunity: teaching.

"If they do their job perfectly well, the students themselves are the ones asking and answering questions," Ulmer added. "The student leader is the one to sort of steer things but not be the one that they look to for answers or explanations.

"With this sort of process, to get everyone engaged and discussing and thinking, hopefully, it's a way to make the process of learning more interesting and active for all students. In effect, this approach takes the helpdesk to the students, offering them focused, individualized attention as they navigate one of the most difficult transitions in their lives in one of the most receptive forms research can identify -- their peers. All students get the help they might need at any given point in a critical required course, along with the same fair shot at success, regardless of whether that self-determined bar is set at passing or excelling."

Once final grades are entered for all students enrolled in the course this spring, Dierker will analyze the pilot program's effectiveness -- results that will help to continually improve the program and guide its future implementation. Discussions are ongoing about the possibility for broad-scale adoption in similar large introductory courses across the college, such as first-year calculus, which also is a prerequisite for most engineering as well as mathematics, physics and even some business courses.

Regardless of the program's future, Dierker views its recent past as a dual win guaranteed to pay dividends not always evident in a college transcript.

"Being a peer leader requires these students to develop their skills at speaking in front of people and leading a team -- soft skills that are actually very important to future employers in industry," Dierker said. "There have been studies of what industry looks for in college graduates, and seven out of the top 10 attributes they look for are actually soft skills, such as those that the students who are peer leaders have to be proficient at. It's a very beneficial experience in terms of developing those team-building and team-leading skills that are in high demand once they graduate."

Given that providing Introductory instruction in the fundamental sciences makes up a large part of the teaching mission in the College of Science, Dierker says it only makes perfect sense that constant evaluation, quality control and tweaks toward improvement become par for the courses.

"I think it's important for Texas A&M to strive to continuously improve its educational offerings," Dierker said. "We all have a responsibility to the students who come here to do the very best that we can to ensure that they graduate in a timely fashion and that they leave the university with a degree that prepares them to go into the workforce. We need to continually reevaluate what we're doing, look at best practices elsewhere and decide what we can best do to accomplish those."

To learn more about academic programs in Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy and specific courses and degrees offered, visit http://physics.tamu.edu/academics/.

-aTm-

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu, Dr. Steven B. Dierker, (979) 845-7717 or dierker@tamu.edu or Dr. Keith Ulmer, (979) 458-7998 or ulmer@physics.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Texas A&M physicist and PHYS 218 instructor Keith Ulmer, prepping a new group of peer leaders prior to the start of the spring 2017 semester.

  • "The barrier between fellow students is so much lower than between undergraduate and graduate teaching assistant or undergraduate and faculty member," says Timothy P. Scott, assistant provost for undergraduate studies and longtime associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Science. "Peer-led team learning is built on proven concepts to increase learning."

  • Peer leaders also work one-on-one with students (above and below) to help them better understand course material and collaboratively work through related problems.

  • Keith Ulmer (far right) along with Texas A&M physicist, PLTL Program Director and PHYS 218 instructor Steven B. Dierker (second from left) strike a group pose with the PHYS 218 peer leaders for spring 2017.

  • Dr. Steven B. Dierker

  • Dr. Keith Ulmer

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