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AkinyeleDr. Ayoni Akinyele
September 2010

When Master Instructor Ayoni Akinyele heard about Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), she believed that it would improve her students’ understanding of chemistry—and she was right.  Before she implemented PLTL, 32% of the students enrolled in her chemistry courses failed each semester.  However, in 2005, when she replaced the usual chemistry recitation class with a PLTL workshop, the failure rate plummeted to 10.8%. 


So what is PLTL?  Developed in the early 1990s at the City College of New York, PLTL is a supplement to lectures, not remediation or tutoring.  First, the professor trains undergraduates who performed well in previous classes to lead workshops for groups of 6-8 students.  With the guidance of these Peer Leaders, the groups work together to solve problems that are designed to enhance their understanding and application of the concepts presented in the lectures.  PLTL has proved effective not only in chemistry courses but other STEM1 courses such as physics, biology, math, computer science, and engineering.  Across a range of course levels, disciplines and institutions, PLTL studies show that students in PLTL courses earn higher grades than those in non-PLTL courses.  In addition, surveys of more than 1,500 students and 300 Peer Leaders reveal that 81% of the surveyed students agreed that interacting with a PLTL workshop leader improved their grasp of the subject.  At the same time, 92% of the surveyed Peer Leaders agreed that leading the workshops enhanced their understanding of the subject (see Gafney).


Dr.  Akinyele seized upon PLTL because it promotes conceptual understanding by requiring students to use their knowledge of facts to solve real-world problems. Upon arriving at Howard from Ibadan, Nigeria in 2000, Dr. Akinyele observed that the lecture-recitation method was not developing such understanding.  Most students, she found, “study chemistry by memorizing the facts and this often goes hand in hand with a lack of understanding of the material.”  For instance, in a typical recitation session, a Graduate T.A. might ask students “fact-recall questions” such as “Is saliva basic, acidic or neutral, given that it has a pH of 6.8?” or “Write a balanced equation for the dissociation of carbonic acid,” or “What is the normal pH of arterial blood?” However, in a PLTL workshop, a Peer Leader might ask,” A patient with a blood pH of 8.4 was instructed to continuously re-breathe into a paper bag.  Explain how this treatment will lower the patient’s blood pH to within the normal range.”  Says Akinyele, “This tests the students’ understanding of the concept and the mechanism by which the treatment will work as well as evaluates the students’ ability to verbally convey ideas to others….You only know a student has learned when they can apply information to solve real-life problems.”

 

AkinyeleTo implement PLTL, Akinyele applied for an NSF-DUE Workshop Project Associates (WPA) grant as well as two Howard University Fund for Academic Excellence Awards to help her provide stipends for her Peer Leaders and assess the program.  With the support of the grants, each semester from August 2005 to May 2007, she conducted a weekly two-hour workshop where she trained her Peer Leaders to refrain from dispensing answers and “to recognize the appropriate time to come to the aid of the students by asking appropriate questions that will help the students to come up with the correct answers.”  She also enlisted Education Specialists Ronald Byrd and Sharon Fletcher to introduce the Peer Leaders to strategies for accommodating different learning styles, managing time, leading groups, and resolving conflicts.

As noted above, student performance improved significantly.  Although scheduling the two-hour workshop (instead of the one-hour recitation) was a challenge, the students’ survey responses were overwhelmingly positive.  For example, students remarked, “PLTL forced us to think out the problem for ourselves,” “It really gave me time to understand before we moved on to the next concept,” “Working out the problem was a group effort,” “I would choose to participate in PLTL over recitation any time,” and “Sometimes I think I learned more from my classmates through workshop.”  However, the students were not the only beneficiaries.  On surveys, the Peer Leaders wrote comments such as “I was able to communicate more effectively and openly with the group members,” “I am more open to the ideas of others,” “…it has made me develop a greater sense of patience,” and “The experience definitely helped me better understand concepts that I knew already but probably was not totally clear about—it helped me fine-tune my understanding of Chemistry in such a way that little bits and pieces that were not totally clear became sharply understood.”   (For more research results, see http://www.cetla.howard.edu/new_showcase/sotl/docs/akinyele/PLTL_for_SOTL_files/frame.htm.) Dr. Akinyele presented these findings at the 19th Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, the 11th Annual Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Scholar Program, the 2007 Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program National Research Conference, and the 2005 Gordon Research Conference on Chemistry Education Research and Practice. 

Since her grants expired in 2007, Dr. Akinyele has been searching for more funding (internal and external) to sustain her PLTL efforts. Funding, Dr. Akinyele explains, is critical to recruit, train, and compensate a committed staff of Peer Leaders.  Above all, funding is needed to expand the program.  If PLTL were used in all science departments, Dr. Akinyele believes, students would truly understand the material.

1 “STEM” is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

 

 

 

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