Peer Review

Transforming Science Education Through Peer-Led Team Learning

In the fall of 2008, a remarkable transformation in undergraduate education was initiated at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas)—an emerging research university that had only been admitting freshmen since 1991, following a progression from its roots as a research institute to a graduate institution within the University of Texas System to the addition of upper-division students only. Initially crafted as a response to an accreditation requirement of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Gateways to Excellence in Math and Science initiative (GEMS) was formally launched at UT Dallas as a comprehensive quality enhancement plan (QEP) with ambitious goals for improving the quality of student learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by providing students with innovative, intensive, and active learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. At its core the project—now in its fourth year—targets success, retention, and persistence in gateway science and mathematics courses that play a critical role in influencing student decisions not only to continue their studies in related degree programs but also to continue their college careers. Originally designed for a five-year rollout, in its first three years GEMS has included a series of interventions, including curriculum alignment and realignment, course redesign, new course design, the introduction of new modes of curriculum delivery, and faculty development. Its overall objectives are to provide a foundation and center for sustainable faculty and administrative activities that increase the retention of students in STEM fields, decrease the number of D and F grades and withdrawals in STEM classes, and create supportive, engaging learning opportunities.

Peer-Led Team Teaching Program

Of all the innovations and interventions employed to date, none has created more impact and interest and laid the foundation for an academic culture shift than the Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) program, which was first offered at UT Dallas in the fall 2008 semester and limited to students taking General Chemistry I—a gateway course required for more than a dozen STEM major degrees and recognized as a potential obstacle for students. In fact, the five years prior to the initiation of PLTL, the course had an alarmingly high 37 percent average for students receiving a grade of D or F or withdrawing altogether from the course—often called the DFW rate. Because of the emphasis that UT Dallas places on STEM and the management of new technologies, introductory STEM courses like General Chemistry I take on an even greater significance and stake for the university’s student population. Success in these foundation courses strongly influences student retention within degree programs and their future career options and choices.

The roots of PLTL stretch back to at least the 1980s, and today it is most commonly offered in lower-division STEM gateway subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, and biology. Many post-secondary institutions have recognized that whether students enter as first-time college students or as transfer students with significant progress toward a degree, too many are either ill prepared for these courses, have had too much time lapse between their most recent similar course, or both. Worse yet, these are frequently the courses with the largest section sizes, sometimes numbering into hundreds of students who are often learning in a passive, large-lecture environment in which the closest students will come to a more interpersonal learning experience may be via a required or optional recitation section or exam review session. To combat this, PLTL provides an enticing opportunity for students not only to engage more actively in the learning process but also to become stakeholders in the delivery of course content.

In the UT Dallas application of the PLTL model, students enrolled in PLTL-supported courses have the option to register for a weekly zero-credit, ninety-minute small-group session of eight to ten students, which is facilitated by another student who has already successfully passed the course. These peers—called PLTL leaders—have recently achieved a course grade of B+ or better and participated in and successfully completed a rigorous interview, orientation, and training program prior to being allowed to lead up to two PLTL sections. In addition to meeting with their students, leaders are closely linked to each other and the instructors of record for the courses they support through the PLTL course liaison program. Faculty liaisons provide the critically important content bridge between the course lecture sessions and the PLTL sessions. Liaisons are charged with creating problem sets, questions for additional thought, previews of future content, and other exercises, depending on the dynamics of the course and feedback gathered from PLTL leaders. Faculty liaisons are recruited and selected as representatives of all faculty teaching a particular course so that the content created for PLTL remains consistent and not all faculty have to invest the extra time commitment to meet weekly with PLTL leaders, respond to e-mails and electronic bulletin board postings, and create twelve weeks or more of PLTL session content. Indeed, a liaison’s first year in the program can be the most challenging—everything is new and content must be built from scratch and follow PLTL protocol; they are not paid for their service. Thereafter, however, many faculty liaisons speak to how much they enjoy building their PLTL briefcase by revising prior terms’ content, creating new elements, and including their assigned PLTL leaders in the process of continual refinement and renewal.

As for the PLTL leaders’ relationship with the students in their weekly sessions, it is largely a facilitative one in which leaders frequently find themselves moving from discussion leader to mediator, depending on the situation. A significant amount of negotiation occurs during any given PLTL session; that is, leaders are often tempted to provide all the steps or options toward solving a problem when the actual answer may be less important than students individually or as a group determining which path to take or how to decode or sometimes infer an alternative approach. This process continually evolves as the PLTL leader clarifies goals of the session, ensures that students engage in the materials and with each other, and promotes interaction and even argumentation.

Reducing the Distance between Leader and Learner

As for the UT Dallas PLTL pilot for General Chemistry I, it is important to consider that in a typical fall semester the course is taught in three sections of up to three hundred students each, which can create the appearance of both a literal and perceptual distance between students and instructor and has the potential to make the former feel detached from the latter. However, students who opt in to the PLTL program are in a position to immediately and effectively reduce the distance between leader and learner. After all, to whom is a student more apt to ask a question: a chemistry professor who will be grading exams, or another student who has already successfully navigated the course from start to finish and has a conduit back to the professor via the liaison relationship? Understanding that the learning environment can impact the learning process, UT Dallas renovated a pair of underutilized staff training classrooms into four small, seminar-style classrooms which can support more than forty PLTL sessions each per week.

Initially, only a dozen or so leaders were required to launch the General Chemistry I pilot; for the most part, these were hand-picked by the first faculty liaison and referred to the director of learning resources based upon a record of academic excellence and good interpersonal skill sets. In the interim, the program’s growth more than doubled in chemistry and up to twelve different courses in any given fall or spring semester are now supported by PLTL. Today PLTL leaders are hired in a process that parallels a more traditional one: application submission, which includes the recommendation of at least one faculty member in the field for which the student desires to be a PLTL leader; an interview with GEMS Center staff; and—upon offer and acceptance—attendance and active participation at a mandatory orientation and training session that is supplemented throughout the semester with occasional workshops, readings, and mini-assignments (e.g. an end of term reflection paper). Students’ enrollment into PLTL and the overall experience thereof have also changed markedly from PLTL’s inception to the present format. Initially, the opportunity to participate in PLTL was presented to students in each of the three sections of General Chemistry I during the first week of class. In each case the faculty liaison, who also teaches one lecture section, introduced PLTL, provided background about why it was being piloted, the potential benefits, and the reasons why students should consider voluntary participation. In fall 2008, over 250 students filled out a form to show interest in a PLTL seat, note their preferred time slot, and provide basic contact information. After collecting forms from all course sections, the liaison then spent several hours over three days manually matching student availability to PLTL leader availability, which eventually led to about 160 students being slotted for PLTL.

Today, the process is much more streamlined. Months in advance of the next semester, the GEMS Center receives draft schedules of future chemistry, mathematics, physics and other STEM course offerings, which allows GEMS staff to create a PLTL schedule that will not conflict. The registrar provides access to the enrollment management system for GEMS staff to build what now amounts to about 125 zero-credit sections of PLTL each semester with the capacity to serve over one thousand students who are co-enrolled in the appropriate STEM course. Because participation in the program is completely voluntary and the benefits are greatest for those who attend sessions regularly, students are discouraged from enrolling to “test the waters” or if they expect to have work, activity, or social schedules that may cause them to miss more than one or two sessions at most.

Improving the DFW Rate

The integration of PLTL into the UT Dallas STEM learning framework has both fostered and required individuals and teams from across the university to work together year-round. The benefits for students have been notable—occasionally shocking—over the first three years. Consider the pilot group of students who enrolled in General Chemistry I PLTL, for whom the DFW rate was less than 19 percent—an 18 percentage point drop from the preceding five-year historical average. In year two, student enrollment in General Chemistry I PLTL increased by 41 percent to 227 students and the DFW rate for that cohort was an astonishing 9 percent, which effectively put PLTL on the radar of virtually every STEM-oriented program at UT Dallas.

While by no means perceived or declared as a panacea for improving student performance, the PLTL program’s ability to replicate gains of the first year led to a series of presentations to internal and external groups including the University of Texas System Board of Regents and several site visits by other institutions who had become familiar with the program through GEMS staff presentations at new student orientations, faculty development seminars, and professional conferences. The third year results for General Chemistry I were more representative of the first—a DFW rate of 16 percent for PLTL students. By this time a total of twelve courses were PLTL-supported including general and organic chemistry, physics (2), mathematics (4), engineering (2), and mechanics (2). Results for these programs in their first year have generally been positive—albeit not as dramatic at those noted for general chemistry—and it must be emphasized that the GEMS program has never argued a purely causal relationship between PLTL and the analysis of the data to date. Simultaneous to the PLTL program, QEP data continue to be collected, for example, on student engagement in STEM degree programs and courses that are undergoing significant redesign, content mapping, and/or curricular realignment.

As PLTL and the ongoing expansion overall of GEMS—now known as Gateways to Engagement, Mastery and Success—services have gradually become an expectation of current and prospective students (and many parents)—the new normal for academic support at UT Dallas—the greatest source of new PLTL leaders and peer tutors is the group of students who previously enrolled as a student in a PLTL-supported course. When asked what they like and benefit from most in PLTL sessions, students often say that they expected “pure tutoring” but soon realized that is not at all what PLTL is about and how valuable it was in the long run to have a leader who was a guide to understanding and self-sufficiency rather than a giver of answers.

In summary, from its inception, PLTL at UT Dallas has emphasized students’ acquisition and understanding of a variety of techniques, PLTL leaders helping their students when they are stuck or off course, and leaders providing guidance and encouragement, a structure for group learning strategies, and applied learning.

Thom D. Chesney is the president of Brookhaven College.


At the time of writing, the author was the associate provost for student success and assessment, University of Texas at Dallas.

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