Peer Assisted Study Sessions

What is PAL?

PAL is a tried and tested peer learning approach in which higher-year students (PAL leaders) run sessions for lower-year students (participants – usually first year and foundation students) in order to help them consolidate their learning. PAL leaders do not teach. The sessions are friendly and informal, voluntary, and based around specific subject areas or modules.

The value of peer learning programmes in higher education has been well established. They are correlated with increased student retention and attainment, and they can build student confidence, ease transition into higher education, develop employability skills, and generally enhance the student experience. Peer learning schemes work particularly well around ‘challenging’ compulsory modules. Almost every University in the UK now has some form of peer learning scheme in place.

What happens in a PAL session?

The sessions run on a weekly basis for up to one hour and are led by two or more student leaders. They are advertised on the relevant module page by the lecturer and the leaders also go into the seminar to introduce themselves and encourage students to come along.

Sessions may take place in a lecture room, a campus library or a quiet corner in one of the campus cafés and may take the form of small study groups or one to one drop-in sessions. Leaders find out from students how things are going and what aspects of the course material they would like to discuss. Examples of common activities include:

  • Review of lecture content
  • Exam revision using a quiz
  • Going over assignment briefs
  • Subject-specific study skills
  • Developing a glossary of specialist terminology
  • Problem solving together
  • Practising presentation delivery
  • Using open questions to encourage deep thinking about a topic
  • Getting an insider perspective on module options for the second and third year

How are leaders selected, trained and supported?

Students can self-nominate to become a leader or academic staff may nominate them. The nominees are asked to complete an application form and invited to a meeting to find out more about the role. Qualities that are important to the role include:

  • solid academic success
  • good communication skills
  • reliability
  • capacity to work independently and as part of a team
  • empathy with the first-year experience
  • a non-judgemental, approachable manner
  • organisational skills
  • experience as a participant in PASS sessions is also desirable.

Once a student is accepted onto the scheme, they are invited to attend the intensive experiential training delivered by the accredited PAL supervisors with input from the academic leads. After successful completion of the training, the trainees are allocated to work around specific modules or subject areas in groups of 2-6 leaders.

Over the course of their time in the role, the leaders receive regular mentoring and guidance from a lecturer who is an expert in the relevant subject area and from one of the PAL supervisors who supports the leaders in their role. There are ongoing opportunities for leaders to attend development sessions such as careers and skills for employment, learning how to set up and edit a PAL Moodle page, and library and research skills, with CPD certificates awarded for all such activities. In addition, leaders may take part in Open Days, Student Experience Weekends, and attend peer learning networking events. However, leaders are only ever asked to commit two hours per week on average to PAL activity.

Approximately twice a year, campus-wide meetings of all those involved with PAL are held to celebrate achievements and present rewards to the leaders such as book vouchers. This culminates in the end of year ceremony at which leaders receive their training certificates.

Benefits of PAL to attending students

  • A friendly and informal forum for discussing ideas and encouraging independent study.
  • Cross-year learning environment in which students can widen their friendship circle.
  • Mentoring by students who have successfully completed the module or programme year.
  • Safe environment for making mistakes, building confidence and asking the sorts of questions students may feel uncomfortable asking lecturers.
  • Potential to increase grades.   

Benefits of PAL to student leaders

  • Attainment of highly sought employability skills including leadership, teamwork, planning, communication, facilitation and enhanced confidence.
  • Strengthening of the leaders’ own knowledge of the discipline.
  • High quality leader training programme with ongoing supervision and close liaison with academic staff.
  • Non-monetary rewards: book vouchers, hoodies, free lunch and refreshments during training, and recognition of their contribution at a certification ceremony.

Benefits of PAL for academic staff and the wider University

  • Greater participation and independent learning of all students involved.
  • Positive impacts on student retention and attainment.
  • Meetings with leaders provide additional source of student feedback to academic staff.
  • Potential for fewer enquiries from students.
  • Leaders are trained to signpost participants to other university services and can help them make sense of the university environment, thus providing a further level of support for students transitioning into higher education.

The Key Principles of PAL

  • PAL is small group learning
  • It is a methodology for learner support
  • PAL is facilitated by other students acting as leaders
  • PAL is confidential, voluntary, non-remedial and participative
  • It encourages collaborative rather than competitive learning
  • It is content based and process oriented
  • PAL integrates effective learning strategies within the course content
  • It works in the language of the discipline
  • PAL does not create dependency
  • It is pro-active, not reactive, and encourages learner autonomy
  • PAL helps decrease drop-out rates and aids retention
  • It provides opportunity to increase academic performance
  • It challenges the barriers between year groups
  • PASS benefits all students regardless of current academic competency
  • It gives privacy to practice the subject, make mistakes, and build up confidence
  • PAL targets challenging modules
  • PAL helps students gain a clear view of course expectations

How to find out more:

Whether you are a member of academic staff interested in setting up PAL activity around your own subject area, or a student who would like to attend PAL or is interested in becoming a leader, please contact a PAL supervisor for your campus:

Christopher Fleming

Kate Butler

Jo Kelleher