An Introduction to Peer Assisted Learning

Arun Wilson

16 April 2018

If you work in education, you may have come across the phrase “Peer-Assisted Learning” (PAL). Often referred to as Peer Assisted Study Support, Supplemental Instruction, or rather intriguingly, Shadow Modules, PAL is a scheme in which students support each other in their learning.

With schemes running in the majority of UK and US universities and accordingly widely researched, PAL is no doubt a valuable tool that can be used to benefit students, lecturers and universities alike. However, the research shows it requires careful consideration and implementation to be effective. We’ll look at some of the benefits and challenges in this article, including the impact of technology and provide some links to interesting further reading.

“Peer-assisted learning allows more advanced students to give less advanced peers extra help in adjusting to university life and developing study skills based on an existing course” (1)

Hugh Fleming, former Peer Assisted Learning Manager, Bournemouth University

As an academic support model, “Supplemental Instruction” was developed by Dr. Deanna Martin at the University of Missouri–Kansas City in 1973. It was initially designed to improve student retention and success in historically difficult courses through peer-assisted study sessions. Since then, it’s gained a large following around the world with several variants being adopted formally and informally by 1000s of courses.

Here in the UK, we call it Peer Assisted Learning and it’s been operational since the early 1990’s. Schemes are typically made up of 2nd or 3rd year students leading one-to-one or small group collaborative learning sessions with 1st years. From a student perspective, the general aims are to consolidate understanding of course material, develop confidence and interpersonal skills and ultimately achieve better results. It works because the sessions create a less formal, “safe” learning environment. Students feel more comfortable to discuss things and ask questions with their peers, without worrying about their lecturers’ perceptions (2).

Many studies have demonstrated the variety of benefits for student outcomes. However, the benefits of PAL aren’t just limited to students participating in the study sessions. They extend to the session leaders, course lecturers, departments and universities as a whole. The list below identifies some of these by beneficiary (this will be expanded on in a later post).

Benefits of Peer Assisted Learning

While the positives are numerous, there are also things that can go wrong if not implemented carefully. For example, students may see the sessions as unnecessary or ineffective if they repeat understood topics. Session leaders may become disheartened due to a lack of engagement and it could become a burden on lecturers in terms of time and feedback if the sessions are ineffective.

These issues will probably arise if PAL schemes don’t start with a coherent plan with defined objectives, training for the PAL group leaders and a scheme review process. To help you think about the challenges ahead, we’ve developed a resource on “Questions to Ask Before Starting a Peer Assisted Learning Scheme” (3). Investing in the early stages of the process will save you headaches down the line.

“…the benefits of PAL are multitudinous and wide-ranging, and that where PAL is carefully set up its benefits will far outweigh its negatives” (4)

Dr. Stuart Capstick, former Peer Assisted Learning Project Researcher, Bournemouth University

Although PAL comes under a number of different guises and has varying methods of implementation, the core principles and practices have remained fairly consistent since its introduction into UK higher education. Having said that, educational practices, models and universities themselves are now evolving in line with student expectations and the ever growing pervasiveness of mobile and web technologies.

In 2008, Xiao and Hayes conducted a study using Wikis as alternate PAL learning communities, explaining that they were beneficial for exam preparation, but limited other aspects of what PAL could offer. Yet they conclude by stating the importance of adapting PAL to new methods of learning such as distance learning (5).

It’s worth noting here the fundamental influence technology is having on education and the huge advantages it can have for PAL. Take that into account, along with a little planning and the unique characteristics of your particular course, and you’ve got yourself a sure way of driving benefits for everyone involved!

To sum up, Peer Assisted Learning is a powerful method for student support and learning. The benefits are wide-ranging, from skills development and better understanding of course material to increased student engagement and greater student satisfaction. As anything with great potential, PAL has plenty of challenges and setting up a scheme requires careful consideration. To help anyone out there interested in PAL, in future articles, we’ll look at examples where PAL has been particularly effective and map out implementation strategies.


  1. Swain, H. (2008). Peer-assisted learning (PAL). Times Higher Education.
  2. Stone, M. E., & Jacobs, G. (Eds.). (2008). Supplemental instruction: Improving first-year student success in high-risk courses (Monograph No. 7, 3rd ed.). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
  3. Learnium (2018), Questions to Ask Before Starting a Peer Assisted Learning Scheme
  4. Capstick, S. (2004). Benefits and Shortcomings of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) in Higher Education: an appraisal by students. Paper produced for the Peer Assisted Learning Conference
  5. Green, P. (2011). A Literature Review of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL). National HE STEM Programme Project – Peer Assisted Learning: In and beyond the classroom.

Main image credit: Greg Anderson Photography

We hope you enjoyed the article. If you’re looking for something more practical, we recommend downloading our FREE guide on Questions to Ask Before Starting a Peer Assisted Learning Scheme.

One more thing before you go – the Learnium platform supports collaborative and peer assisted learning. If you’d like to find out more, please contact us.

Happy Learning & Teaching!

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