[originally posted November 2014]
Doing the Impossible is Possible – Active Learning in Large Lecture Hall Facilitated by Peer Learning Assistants
Four years ago, a small team from the Department of Chemistry and the Center for Teaching and Learning at UT Austin was challenged to participate in a University-wide effort to transform large section gateway courses (including our two-semester general chemistry sequence) from static lecture format to more engaging learning environments supported by evidence-based teaching methods that included embedded learning strategies and metacognitive skill development. The call was broad – tell us how you can increase learning outcomes, and we will give you $300,000 and three years to do it.
Increasing learning outcomes meant clearly defining the course goals and learning outcomes and redesigning the course using backward design principles; and the result should be (and indeed was) better learners with lower drop and fail rates. We decided the best choice to reach our goals would be to adopt an active, student centered method.
Web Materials and Peer Instructors
Moving from the lecture format to active methods while teaching 350 to 500 students per section seemed, to many, an impossible task. Our solution was to develop solid out-of-class learning assets including web-based text, videos, formative assessment items and skill-building worksheets; and to meter those out via online learning modules. We also hired undergraduate peer learning assistants (PLAs) to facilitate the student centered learning activities during class time, and began to develop training models for the PLAs.
The first year we piloted our transformed class with one 350-student section supported by six paid peer-learning assistants, and a post-doc who managed the assistants and the training materials.
A Training Course for Peer Assistants
By the end of the second year, we had created a full curriculum to support a class called Peer Teaching Assistants, CH372, which included professional development lessons modeled after the internationally recognized Peer Leader Academy program, daily, small group content review session plans, and an assessment plan to help the peers develop their skills by both in training class assessments and rubrics for shadowing the peers during the actual active learning class room time.
Now at full implementation, the peer leader assistant class runs each semester supporting 60 peer leaders who in turn support 6 large sections of general chemistry. Of the students taking the class for credit we pay 10 of our more experienced peers using funds from the instructional budget for the large sections (we traded in a couple of graduate TAs over all the large sections to support 10 peer leader assistants). The paid PLAs have extra responsibilities such as grading, shadowing and leading the small group content discussions in the peer leader morning training classes.
Opportunities for Peer Assistants
This new peer course is considered a service learning or experiential learning course. The students are carefully selected to join the class. Each semester we have a wait list of students who would like to take our course. After participating in the course for one semester for credit, a student may be selected to serve as paid learning assistants. Once trained by us, these students are highly sought after to work out the university-learning center or to work as PLAs in other classes such as math or physics. We regularly write letters of recommendations for the gifted leaders who join our program. Our first group has started to graduate and is moving on to great careers as graduate students, professional students and teachers.