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Study Points to Benefits of Peer-Led Learning in STEM Classes

Focusing the responsibility for learning on students can be more effective than traditional lectures in improving student achievement in STEM courses, especially for underrepresented minority students, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS Biology.

In the study, a team of Syracuse University researchers examined the use of peer-led team learning, or PLTL—an active-learning method that emphasizes small-group interactions between students—in the university's introductory biology course.

During the study, using the PLTL workshop model, students worked in small groups of six to eight students led by an undergraduate student "peer leader" who had passed the same course the previous year. After being trained in group-leadership methods, relevant learning theory, and the conceptual content of the course, peer leaders worked collaboratively with an education specialist and the course instructor to help students in group problem-solving and constructing their own understanding of concepts.

"The peer leader is not a teacher nor a tutor," said Jason Wiles, a co-author of the study. "Rather, they are an integral member of the student team with a responsibility for facilitating the group effort toward solving problem sets to which they have not been given the answers."

Researchers found that the students in the introductory biology course performed significantly better if they engaged in PLTL. The data showed that retention in the course was higher for students in PLTL workshops, with those who did not attend being significantly more likely to withdraw from the course. The findings also showed a significant decrease in the number of students earning Ds, Fs, or withdrawing from the course (from about 40 percent to 15 percent).

The researchers also found a dramatic reduction in failure rate for underrepresented minority students who participated in PLTLs, which further closed the achievement gap between them and non-minority students.

While the study focuses on college students, the findings may be applicable in K-12 settings.

"There are many challenges to adopting this model in large courses across disciplines, but the data clearly support efforts to overcome obstacles and make it happen here and elsewhere," Wiles said. "We have had great success with PLTL in biology at SU, and we are looking to expand that success."


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