If you have not heard about or even if you are familiar with the concept of peer learning – where students get together to assist each other with class content and develop study skills – you should take a look at the work that is being done at Australia’s Western Sydney University (WSU) with the Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) Program.
Recently, WSU received the ANZ Student Success Award, a Blackboard Catalyst Award for their PASSOnline program, that recognizes mentoring programs leading to higher levels of student retention and skills, among other criteria.
A Brief History of PASS
PASS is based on the global peer learning program Supplemental Instruction (SI). PASS/SI has been running for more than 40 years, with over 2,000 institutions internationally implementing peer learning programs. PASS is characterized by being peer led, with weekly sessions run in a collaborative way. Senior students are employed to facilitate sessions for their peers.
“It’s about reviewing content, but also about study skills. PASS attendees achieve higher grades, on average. And that happens because they build up skills like motivation, confidence, employability and a sense of belonging to the university,” says Renée Boucher, PASS Program Coordinator at WSU.
For the past four years, PASS has been available online for Western Sydney University’s students. Worried that the online program could become a second-rate initiative compared with the on-campus face to face experience, the program team worked creatively to retain the existing qualities of the program and deploy them over online platforms.
“We had to reimagine what PASS would look like online and not just take what works on campus and put it in a virtual environment,” says Hanan Abu-Saif, PASSOnline Project Officer at WSU.
A Way to Reinforce Learning
The original name of the PASS Program (Supplemental Instruction) implies that it’s intended to be supplemental to tutorials and lectures. So it’s another way for students to reinforce their learning.
The peer learning experience is key to engaging students in a program like PASS with students more comfortable when learning from peers. For example, “You might ask a silly question in a PASS session, something that maybe you wouldn’t have the confidence to ask in a formal learning environment,” says Renée.
6 Steps to Engage Students in Online Environments
1. Make it as inviting as possible
Sessions are promoted by both the PASS team and Academic staff. WSU uses Blackboard Learn 9.1. The PASS program has a dedicated site with information about and access to the online sessions. For example, the site contains recorded introductory videos that are used as a virtual way to replicate the experience of a facilitator promoting the sessions in person. “It’s more inviting than just clicking and joining the sessions”, says Renée.
Getting academics on board to support the sessions and actively promote in person and via the unit’s LMS site also plays a crucial role in engaging students.
2. Keep the focus on collaborative learning, but don’t forget the tech structure
Nevertheless, the best measure for an engaging session in Blackboard Collaborate is quality. That’s why Western Sydney University deploy a range of technological tools to enable interaction between the facilitator and students. Cameras, emojis, and chatbox, among others, are crucial to engage students. “Although, sometimes, it’s challenging to get them to use all of it,” Hanan says. “The chat is the most popular, possibly because they join in a kind of anonymity (since no one is watching them), so we try to get the facilitators to ask questions that engage them,” she explains.
3. Allow them to engage from anywhere
Students can also join sessions in Blackboard Collaborate from mobile devices, making it possible for them to engage wherever is most convenient.
4. Train your facilitators
The training of facilitators is essential to success in online peer learning. Training includes online modules, face-to-face workshops and ongoing support. “We have got to train and skill them before they support their peers. We developed our training program over the last year and a half to assure that facilitators are prepared for the challenge”, Renée informs.
5. Keep them confident
Students need to be confident with the technology. Students can develop these skills by exploring a virtual room before the sessions or by accessing the automated tutorials. Also, the facilitator runs “ice breaker” activities, so students can get comfortable with both the whiteboard tools and with each other before the learning begins.
6. Create a sense of community
Maintaining a sense of community is challenging, but essential to engage students. Use collaborative learning to build connections and a sense of community. A range of active learning activities, addressing students by name and encouraging participation by all increases interactions between students, which means they are able take the lead in their learning process.
Get quality tools to make your peer learning sessions more engaging than ever.
Renée Boucher, PASS program Coordinator at WSU
Hanan Abu-Saif, PASS online project Officer at WSU
AFP Wendell Teodoro