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Research Profile: Peer Learning Initiative

Professor Michael-Brian (MB) Ogawa describes the ICS Peer Learning Initiative, which brings upperclassmen and underclassmen in computer science together to learn from one another.

Hi MB. How did the peer learning initiative get started?

Many students have difficulty in the initial computer science courses. We thought that students who recently took these courses might be great mentors because they could relate to both the students and the material. So, we created a course to teach upper division students how to be peer mentors, and provide opportunities for them to practice these skills in the introductory courses.

How do students get involved in the peer learning initiative?

That’s a good question. We want all of our majors to have the opportunity to be a mentor as well as a learner. Each semester I visit upper level ICS classes to speak about the experience of being a peer mentor and solicit involvement with the program. I meet with each respondent individually to see if they are a good fit.

I can see the benefits for the introductory students. What do the peer mentors gain?

SAM_1569First, they acquire 3 upper division credits and the ethics, oral, communication, and writing intensive credit for the course. Students acquire good public speaking skills since they teach a few lab sessions and interact with so many students. Many peer mentors have told me that this opportunity helps them to “get out of their shell” and learn how to work with a wide variety of students. They also develop strong ethical reasoning skills in the ICS 390 class. Finally, they learn a systematic approach to writing. Many peer mentors are happy to learn a process for writing research papers.

How do you evaluate the peer learning initiative?

We evaluate the peer mentoring project from two perspectives. First, we compare student achievement after the introduction of peer mentoring to prior semesters. This gives us evidence regarding its impact upon student achievement. Second, we are interested in evaluating the “student experience” in courses with peer mentoring, to see if it addresses some of the problems of large lecture courses. We are surveying and interviewing students to identify the impact of peer mentors from this perspective.

Do you have evidence that students do better with peer learning?

SAM_1526At this point, we have preliminary results that look positive. Both student achievement and student experience appear to improve. One student told me, “The peer mentor was so crucial to me passing. He made all the difference when it came time to study because he understood where I was coming from and when I didn’t ‘get’ stuff.” I plan to further evaluate the program to learn more about the benefits and best practices for implementation.

How would you like to expand the program in future?

This program is in the early stages, and in future I would like to see more students and more classes involved. We currently have peer mentors for ICS 101, 111, and 211. Expanding our offerings will give more of our majors that opportunity.

Any final thoughts about peer learning?

I think that it is a great opportunity for students, as they rarely get the chance to mentor their peers or see what the other side of the classroom is like. I think the experience helps students after graduation, as it gives them something special to show potential employers.