A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness
Spring 1996

From the Peer Tutors' Point of View:

-- The Student and Tutor Perspective of the PBL Experience

-- PBL: Experiencing Both Roles

-- Students as Peer Tutors: What a Bright Idea

The Student and Tutor Perspective of the PBL Experience

During the fall semester of our senior year, we were presented with the opportunity to tutor a PBL introductory biology class. We were already enrolled in another PBL class as students in a graduate level physiology class. Realizing that tutoring a PBL class could be an excellent experience, we decided to take the position. Several factors influenced our decision to tutor the class. The opportunity to help other students learn new material while refreshing our personal knowledge was the most outstanding factor. In addition, the chance to work with other undergraduate students in a relaxed yet academic setting also interested us. Of course, the choice of a small payment or two credits was also an attractive incentive.

After completing the semester, we can now reflect on our experiences as both tutors and students in PBL classrooms. As tutors, we developed our ability to guide students in the right direction without giving away answers. It was also very rewarding to watch students work together in solving problems. Weekly tutor meetings provided the opportunity to evaluate ourselves and our groupÕs performance. As students in the PBL physiology class our communication and group work skills improved dramatically. In addition, our ability to thoroughly and efficiently research learning issues also greatly improved. Evaluation of individual performance and group dynamics was also emphasized.

Many aspects of our experiences as tutors proved beneficial to us as students.

Communication skills developed while tutoring helped us when explaining learning issues to other group members. Our improved leadership skills also helped group dynamics although at times created a tendency to dominate discussions. In addition, our role as students affected us as tutors. Being students in a PBL class allowed us to be both aware of potential problems as well as sympathetic to the students needs. We were also able to recommend excellent resources to our students based on our own research of learning issues for physiology. On several occasions, knowledge gained from one of the classes proved helpful in the other.

After evaluating our experiences as both tutors and students in PBL classes, we are very glad that we decided to tutor the introductory biology class. We both feel fortunate to have had this experience and would highly recommend it to anyone given the opportunity.

-- Amy Robinson (ASSR) and Todd Rudo (ASSR)

PBL: Experiencing Both Roles

By my junior year in college, I was beginning to feel pretty confident as a student at the University of Delaware. I had learned a lot about what professors expected of their students, what I was able to do, and even how best to study for seemingly impossible exams. In spite of all these encouraging signs, I couldn't help but be somewhat nervous as I entered the physics classroom. I hadn't had any physics since high school and I was not looking forward to long hours alone with my physics textbook trying to memorize enough formulae to coach myself through the next exam.

I was surprised when our instructor introduced us to the format and content of the course. We would tackle the material in groups, using class time to brainstorm, reason, and exchange ideas with each other. We had new motives for learning the concepts, too. Not only were we gearing up for the exams, but we were essential to our group's success, helping each other learn and finding solutions to real-world problems on a daily basis.

As the semester progressed, I also gained confidence in approaching problems and topics I hadn't seen before. Each new problem was handed out in class with only a short introduction by the instructor, designed to familiarize us with new terminology and to give some direction to our questions and thoughts. While I was taking physics, a friend of mine was taking the same course on another campus. A few times she asked for my help on chapters we had not yet covered or on sub-topics we had overlooked in order to allow greater depth for the "over-arching" concepts. I picked up the book, read over the sections that related to the problem at hand and did my best to translate the new concept into terms with which we both felt more comfortable. We were using all the skills I had practiced in my problem-based learning class: questioning, modeling, cross-referencing, and carefully relating the new concepts to the old.

Both semesters flew by before my doubts and misgivings about learning physics had a chance to take hold. I remember commenting then, to my instructor and my group, that this was the first learning experience I had ever had where I was given the tools to find connections between the individual concepts I was learning. I knew that I needed this and that it was essential to my understanding, but had only made novice attempts at it on my own the day or so before a major exam. In this problem-based learning class, we were being asked to pool our collective wisdom, guide each other through rough spots and make connections to related concepts and to the larger framework of physical principles and theories on a daily basis. The textbook and the instructor became ready resources. These resources became more valuable to us as we progressed, largely because we had learned what questions to ask of them to find the missing pieces of our understanding.

Now, two years later, I have the wonderful experience of being just such a resource in an introductory biology class. I am a peer tutor for a group of students not only new to problem-based learning, but also new to college life. I still find myself asking a lot of questions, but this time with the aim of helping the students identify what they still need to know to the solve the problem at hand. In this class the tutors give gentle prods to keep their groups on course, they ask questions about issues that might otherwise get overlooked and they keep a close eye on group dynamics. Even as a tutor, I still feel like an integral part of the group; my presence doesn't interrupt the flow of the group and I am not expected to hold the definitive answer to every puzzle in the living world. When I'm not confident of the "answers" myself, I can at least give the group members suggestions as to where to find them. (Four years of wandering about Morris library and running computer searches have not been in vain!) I have learned a lot of biology this year; things I studied when I was a first-year student that are easier to understand now that they've been given a more active, more realistic context. I know that the students in this class will see these concepts again in later classes and will be as glad as I am now to have this framework to build upon.

-- Jennifer Johnson (EDGR)

Students as Peer Tutors: What a Bright Idea

Case studies are used during the last quarter of the tri-listed course "Biotechnology: Science and Socioeconomic Issues." One of our challenges in implementing PBL and case studies was to find a way to facilitate each group of students with a limited number of qualified facilitators (instructors), and yet avoid unmanageably large numbers of students per group. This past year an honorÕs section was created with the objective of training students to be peer tutors for the case study groups in the regular section. Our approach for training students to be peer tutors involved; 1) the "science" behind problem-based learning (PBL) (what it is and how it works), 2) experience working through a case study (one they would later peer tutor), and 3) creating a case study. From our point of view the case studies ran very smoothly. We noticed that the small group size allowed all students to be more actively involved with the case studies. Students appeared to be more relaxed with peers as tutors compared to faculty as tutors. Trish Westenbroek, a sophomore honor's student in the course, had the following comments about her experience as a peer tutor for PBL:

Last fall, I registered for the honors section in "Biotechnology: Science and Socioeconomic Issues." I did not realize that I would soon be a "peer tutor" for the class. In the honor's section, I learned about PBL. This included reading the theory behind this form of teaching. My views were, initially, quite skeptical toward PBL, but have since changed.

The change began as I actually started to work with a group. I was nervous about being a peer tutor, since some students in my group were actually older then me. However, the groups worked hard at finding their own answers to questions. They turned to me for help when the problems really stumped them, and to check that they were on the right track. For me, it was an experience to see everyone working together, solving a case study. The different views that emerged when working on a solution were interesting, but even more fascinating was how the group brought their ideas together. I did use some of the guidelines from the PBL readings when working with my group, but many times I interacted with the group instinctively.

Based on my experience, I feel that PBL is a great new way of teaching. I do, however, feel that some traditional teaching has its benefits with some lecture or discussion focusing student learning. PBL helps students learn to solve problems in a "real world" atmosphere. The combination of the two techniques maximizes learning ability and social interaction, which is important in the world today.

-- Sherry Kitto, Plant and Soil Sciences
-- Lesa Griffiths, Animal and Food Sciences
-- Trish Westenbroek (AGSO)

Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Center for Teaching Effectiveness, Univ. of Delaware, 1996.