The Use of Peer-Assisted Learning to Enhance Foundation Biology Students’ Understanding of Evolution

Gerry Rayner, Theo Papakonstantinou

Abstract


Peer-assisted learning (PAL) promotes improved skills across a variety of disciplines, and may enhance students’ understanding of conceptually difficult ideas. The effect of group size in promoting learning of such concepts, either in quantitative or qualitative terms, is also an area of interest. This study aimed to investigate the comparative value that foundation biology students placed on paired versus quad PAL activities, and both their perceived and actual understanding of plant and animal evolution, following such activities. The activities were structured and scaffolded over a four week period, with paired groups (dyads) merging into quads, and with students being surveyed over that period. Students reported that discussions with their lab partners helped improve their understanding of plant and animal evolution, and the majority valued quad over dyad PAL. Additionally, the PAL intervention had a positive impact on students’ examination results, compared to the previous year’s baseline cohort. Our findings indicate that in the design of group learning activities, particularly those related to threshold concepts, educators should give due consideration to several factors. These are group size, activity scaffolding and sequencing, and the structure and types of post-activity questions that seek to catalyse reflection, discussion and the development of deep knowledge.

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