Peer-assisted strategies foster learning in science courses. This article outlines a cross-year, peer-assisted learning program in a Human Anatomy and Physiology 1 course. The aim of this 2-year study was to implement the program and evaluate it on the basis of student performance and feedback. Former students were hired each year to lead optional discussion sessions. Student attendance was positively correlated with higher course averages and overall grade-point averages yet limited improvement in posttest scores. Students favorably evaluated the program and suggested improvements. Biology educators would benefit from a central interactive database devoted to peer-assisted learning in our discipline.
Key Words: Peer-assisted learning; peer leaders; supplemental instruction; student assessment.
College-level biology courses at the 1000 and 2000 levels are notorious for large enrollments coupled with a wide range in student performance. Filled sections leave many students unable to register for required or recommended courses. Students repeating a biology course deepen this problem, as evidenced by Human Anatomy and Physiology 1 at Columbus State University (CSU). During the spring semesters of 2007 and 2008, repeat students accounted for 41% of students who did not earn a C or better; only 52% of the class passed the course with a C or better. Furthermore, 12% of the students did not complete the course. The percentages mimic national student attrition rates in introductory science courses (Tenney & Houck, 2003).
One step in understanding student attrition and failure is to analyze formative course evaluations. Prior to the final exam in Human Anatomy and Physiology 1, the students earn class-exercise points for submitting supplemental evaluations (created by the author). In order to maintain the anonymity of the evaluations, the students' names are checked off during submission. Evaluations are analyzed after final grades have been submitted. The full-length evaluation is available at http://wcgstem.ning.com/group/peerinstruction (under Comment Wall). Question 6 asks What is your current letter grade in the course? Is this grade lower than your goal? Question 7 follows this up with (If answer to last question is yes) Why do you think your current grade is lower than your goal? Responses by students who self-reported grades of D or F in the spring 2008 course included the following:
* I was overwhelmed with all the information that has to be retained for this course.
* I started off with bad study habits.
* I did not study as much as I needed to.
* I have too much going on and because I've not passed this course in the past, I have set myself up to fail at it.
* In the beginning I did not fully understand how to process the information and how to use all the tools to help my understanding.
Collectively, the comments cite problems with study habits, time management, and inability to organize and process the information. The traditional course schedule left little time to address these concerns during class or one-on-one during office hours. Although student support centers offer services related to these issues, the students would likely benefit from structured advice and learning tools tailored to the course. Encouraging students to approach the educator with questions yielded only limited contact either in person or via e-mail. Because traditional means of encouraging contact were not successful, peer-leader strategies were explored.
Laboratory science courses are a natural setting for student-centered learning approaches. Collaborative learning opportunities routinely arise in these courses in the form of hypothesis-driven projects and group laboratory reports (Bruffee 1998). The scope of implementation can range from one or two lessons to a course based on student-centered learning facilitated by educators. …