Synthesizing Reactions: Peer-Led Team Learning Comes to Chemistry Department
Thanks to funding from a grant from the Lumina Foundation, the Department of Chemistry is encouraging Fords to take a more holistic approach to a STEM education through peer-led team learning.
Collaboration and learning from peers are essential elements of a Haverford education, and the chemistry department is leading the pack when it comes to increasing peer mentorship and team building through a new system of discussion-based problem solving.
Spearheaded by Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Stephen Podowitz-Thomas, the department has introduced a new educational resource to its students in the form of peer-led team learning groups that encourage learners to come together and work through problems among themselves in order to grow their confidence and dexterity with the material.
“This is not a discussion section, it’s not a recitation, it’s not ‘I’m having trouble with this kind of problem, help me get through this problem or show me how to answer this problem,’” said Podowitz-Thomas of these peer-led team learning workshops. “The idea is that the students teach each other and get each other through the problems.”
Peer-led team learning (PLTL) is not Podowitz-Thomas’s invention, and has been recognized as a valuable tool for students in STEM since the1990s. The pedagogy was introduced to Haverford by Podowitz-Thomas last year on a smaller scale, in his second semester general chemistry course with support from the Office of Academic Resources. With funding from a recent grant to the College from the Lumina Foundation, Podowitz-Thomas, Professor Rob Scarrow, and Assistant Professor Lou Charkoudian have been able to expand the program exponentially for the fall 2018 semester. PLTL is now a resource available as an opt-in program to more than 200 chemistry students across four intro-level and second-year courses, including organic chemistry.
Students who opt into the program are divided into small groups of about six students. Each group is paired with an upperclass peer leader who has already taken and excelled in the class. These leaders are screened for tutoring or teaching experience and are paid for their time preparing and running workshops.
“We really want to focus on how comfortable the students feel facilitating groups like this, how they interact with students, what their tutoring experience has been to make sure that they are in a good place to be interacting with students in the most productive way, and most supportive way,” said Podowitz-Thomas.
The roughly 100 students currently participating in PLTL met seven or eight times over the course of the semester for hour-and-a-half-long workshops to work through assigned problems outside of their class’ syllabus. Though peer leaders are there to facilitate the group dynamic, they aren’t there to tutor. The group learns together as a team and each member has a chance to teach.
“It’s about team learning more than anything,” says Podowitz-Thomas.
Such a model has already made an impact on students’ learning in the chemistry department.
Ashley Sisto ’20, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration, is currently a peer leader for the introductory chemistry course and has found the experience to be a unique learning resource unlike traditional peer tutoring or teaching assistant roles she has held in the past.
“I think that team learning is one of the best ways to learn and to grow, especially when working with new material,” she said. “It can be very overwhelming to look at a problem and have no idea how to start it by yourself. It can also be a little intimidating when working one-on-one with a tutor or professor who might know how to get to the answer, but maybe not in the same way that makes sense to you. You can really see in a workshop when students are struggling to start a problem how bouncing ideas off of one another can begin a bigger, greater discussion about how to approach the problem at hand.”
Student appreciation for the program extends beyond the peer leaders to students who may be newer to chemistry and use PLTL as a resource to strengthen their grasp of course concepts and important material.
“Coming into college I wasn’t very comfortable with chemistry, since sophomore year of high school was the last time I took a chemistry class,” said Zakiyyah Winston ’22, who plans to pursue a biology major and a pre-health track. “I felt like PLTL would force me to hold myself accountable and immerse myself in chemistry so that I could learn the material properly. I wanted to be a part of the program because I knew I would need to know the principles of chemistry for the rest of my Haverford academic career.”
Shreya Kishore ’21, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration, enrolled in PLTL last year and enjoyed it so much that she wanted to replicate the experience for her peers. This year she is not only in a PLTL group for her organic chemistry class, but is also leading a group for the general chemistry course. She says that the peer leaders are learning alongside the groups they are helping to facilitate.
“I revisited the material from the class again and have learned the material better,” she said of the introductory material. “Everyone has a different way of thinking, understanding, and learning, and I learn from my students when they explain too! Explaining concepts is one of the best ways to learn. This is another reason team learning works because it benefits students at all levels.”
Next semester, Podowitz-Thomas plans to have PLTL workshops for his second-semester general chemistry class, and he can already see the effects of the past year’s efforts.
“I do think a lot of the students that have gone through the program seem to get progressively more confident in what they’re doing,” he said. “I think it does build a sense of confidence because they're getting to explain things to other students and they are getting a lot of feedback from the peer leaders about what they're doing. And I think that feedback is really important.”