Teaching & Learning Portal


Introduction to peer-assisted learning

Lecturers can harness the enthusiasm and leadership skills of students to help develop more independent learning.

PAL (peer-assisted learning) is a student-to-student support network for both academic and personal development. Volunteer second-year students are trained and paid to help students on the same course in the following year. These trained student PAL leaders meet regularly with small groups of students in the year below to help them improve their understanding of the subject matter, work through common problems and further develop their learning strategies. It can also help freshers to settle into university life.

Sessions can vary from writing lab reports to discussing essay structure or tackling maths problems. PAL leaders are not teachers; their role is to encourage discussion in the group and to enhance understanding of lectures already attended, not to impart new knowledge.

Despite being student-driven, PAL works best with support from the course leaders, e.g. by enabling timetabling or running activities. PAL is a useful gateway between the student and teacher/lecturer, and lecturers and departments who engage with PAL experience a broad range of benefits. 

"Grey-haired professors may not always realise that what's obvious to them isn't necessarily obvious to every student," said Ian Howarth, professor of Astronomy. "Unfortunately, when this happens some students are liable to assume that the fault is theirs - when it's actually the prof's. This is when a less formal peer-to-peer learning environment can help advance students' understanding - and improve their course marks."

  • How academic staff benefit

- Cuts down number of minor requests from students
- Helps students to be better prepared for classes and to keep up with course material
- Trains students in basics of group work
- Helps create more independent learners
- Facilitators give regular feedback on how course content is being received by first-year students.

  • How the course benefits

- Improves student retention
- Improves student grades and performance for those who attend regularly
- PAL can be targeted at courses or units which are seen as difficult or high risk, or which have high drop-out or failure rates
- Increases student support, involvement and ownership of learning
- Provides staff with an additional channel for feedback
- Provides the course with altruistic and committed students who can help promote the course and meet with internal or external reviewers.

Dr Wendy Kirk, Curator in the Earth Sciences Department, says:

"Mutual help sessions were organised for the first-year students who were having difficulties with the maths option, given by students who were well-versed in maths and a postgraduate as and when necessary. It worked well, I think it was a great initiative."

  • How the faculty benefits

- Provides cost-effective support for expanding student numbers
- Targets support at difficult courses and/or courses with high wastage rates
- Reduces staff time spent recruiting students to fill gaps caused by high wastage
- Breaks down barriers between year groups – helps develop a more cohesive course culture
- Provides evidence of quality student support for subject review or institutional audit.


PAL is run for all first-year undergraduates through the Transition Programme. However, PAL can be run in many different ways depending on the departmental context. 

To find out more, contact a CALT schools-facing teaching fellow.

Case Studies - Peer-assisted learning

Using scenarios to get students problem solving

Professor Eva Sorensen explains how Chemical Engineering students tackle six week-long real-world problem-based scenarios during their first two years as undergraduates, through working in small teams to solve scenarios based on current chemical engineering challenges.

Published: Jul 21, 2016 2:15:50 PM

"Dude, where's our data?"

“Is there a way to expose learners to the pressures of project work in a knowledge environment, reward engagement and at the same time ensure that they develop strong technical skills and sophisticated perspectives on complex scientific problems?” Professor Geraint Thomas (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology) shared his answer at a recent UCL Arena Exchange Seminar.

Published: Oct 14, 2015 9:42:57 AM