A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness
Spring 1996

Teaching With Tutors

Can Undergraduates Effectively Guide Student Problem-Based Learning Groups?

Deborah E. Allen

Several years ago I was invited to serve as a faculty tutor for one of the first problem- based learning (PBL) courses at the University of Delaware, a graduate level biology course now part of the Medical Scholars Program curriculum. Just before my stint as a tutor began, I attended a winter session workshop sponsored by the Center for Teaching Effectiveness (CTE). At the workshop, sophomore and junior student volunteers (both science and humanities majors) worked through a graduate level biology problem, with Sheella Mierson (instructor in charge of the course in which I was scheduled to tutor) and Barbara Duch (teaching consultant from CTE) modeling the tutoring process for the faculty audience.

These two initial experiences with PBL crystallized for me the source of my vague and steadily growing dissatisfaction with my lecture approach to teaching introductory biology. My lectures clearly covered the content material efficiently, but they seemed to be doing little to stretch my students beyond memorization of facts. The combination of lectures and assigned textbook readings seemed to reinforce my students' perception of science as a static collection of incontrovertible facts with little relevance to their daily lives. In direct contrast, the PBL classroom in which I served as tutor was alive with discussion, debate, and controversy. Intellectual curiosity seemed to drive student learning at least as much as concern over exam scores and grades. I wanted what had taken place in this PBL classroom to be a part of the other courses I taught from that point on.

The opportunity to teach an Honors section of introductory biology for the first time presented the ideal scenario for making the transition from teaching biology in the lecture-based format to a more student-active approach. As is the case in the medical and other professional schools in which PBL was developed, the students were likely to be bright and motivated to succeed academically. My course objectives were for students to learn how to bring together collective skills at acquiring, communicating and integrating their knowledge of biological principles and concepts. I was confident my first efforts to develop a more active learning approach would receive the Honors Program's support, since my objectives were compatible with the educational goals of the program. But, developing a successful model for adapting the professional school model of PBL to a class of (mostly) first-year science majors was in other ways a daunting prospect. How could I best help students make the predictably difficult and perhaps painful transition from having all information told to them by the teacher, to teaching each other? [1] Was this too much to expect on top of the myriad of other challenges provided by the first year of college?

The faculty tutor plays a central role in the PBL process, guiding and supporting the students as they "learn how to learn." In the traditional professional school model, each student PBL group has a dedicated tutor whose role is to stimulate discussion, hone the students' ability to analyze and critique the information they bring to group discussions, and monitor the group process. How could I guide more than one PBL group in this intensive manner as the students worked through complex, multi-stage problems? As I debated the answers to these teaching dilemmas, I stumbled upon accounts of multilayered mentoring schemes (such as the one developed by Kipp Herreid at SUNY Buffalo [2]) in which undergraduates had been coached to be effective teachers and mentors to their peers. Could this type of strategy work in a freshman biology class using PBL strategies?

The answer to the last question has been a resounding, "yes!" Undergraduate peer tutors have guided my introductory biology PBL groups (under my direct supervision) since I first offered the course in the fall of 1993, and informal and formal feedback from both students and peer tutors has been consistently and overwhelmingly positive. Comments from course evaluation forms range from the pragmatic ("Without the tutor, we would often go off in tangents, and might still be working on Crazy Cows" [the first problem]), to the more personal ("Sometimes you just feel more at ease working with a peer than with a professor").

It became clear to me from the outset that the success of the undergraduate tutors encompassed much more than their ability to guide students through their discussions about biology. They helped students bridge the gap between the learning culture and expectations of the high school versus college experience to an extent that I doubt I could have achieved on my own. With peer tutors to offer advice about what lay ahead in their academic careers, most students accepted and even welcomed the novel challenges of PBL. For the undergraduate tutors, the experience provided an opportunity to step back from the compartmentalized concepts learned in particular courses to gain an overview of biological principles and their relatedness, as well as (for most) a first step towards being viewed and treated as a colleague by a professor.

An important consideration for faculty considering use of undergraduate peer tutors in a PBL setting is the need to bolster their native tutoring skills. The introductory biology peer tutors have proven to be particularly adept at creating a positive classroom environment, understanding the difficulties (both academic and personal) their students face, and providing kind and constructive verbal and written feedback about student performance in groups. Not surprisingly, however, other tutoring skills must be gradually developed with faculty guidance over the course of the semester. Some examples are: when to intervene in group discussions, how to ask the type of question that motivates students to go beyond a superficial level of understanding, how to respond effectively to student behaviors that undermine the group process, and how and where to find information on the learning issues their students identify (so that they can pass this on as needed to their students). This type of tutor training activity places a considerable demand on faculty time.

Each semester on the course ratings forms, I ask students to comment on the value of various features of the course to their learning of biology. Without fail, working with undergraduate peer tutors and working in groups vie for top ratings. My experiences thus far have convinced me that there is an intrinsic correlation between these two highly rated course activities. My students' satisfaction with their growing ability to direct their own learning owes a lot to the guidance they receive from students who are just a few steps ahead on the same path.

1. R.M. Felder. We never said it would be easy. Chemical Engineering Education 29: 32, 1995.

2. C.F. Herreid, private communication.

If you would like more detailed information on course materials and design, please contact the author at deallen@udel.edu or (302) 831-8958.

Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Deborah Allen, Univ. of Delaware, 1996.