Peer tutors, educators report UD's innovations
Vol. 17, No. 21Feb. 26, 1998

Peer tutors, educators report UD's innovations

Serving as a peer tutor for problem-based learning courses "really took hold of my life," UD undergraduate Kurt Williamson reported Feb. 17 during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. "The experience transferred to other aspects of my life. Now, I go and look up information when I don't know something."

This ability to think critically and solve problems independently will no doubt serve Williamson and other UD peer tutors well in the future, said Jay Lesley, another undergraduate who took part in the AAAS meeting. "Five to 10 years down the line, when I'm out there working at a job, I won't be able to get answers from a morning lecture," Leslie noted. "I'll have to use resources to solve problems."

Lesley's comments were echoed by two other UD peer tutors-Jennifer Hess and Jessica Horvath-who attended the AAAS meeting in Philadelphia to discuss problem-based learning (PBL) efforts on campus. The students were accompanied by Deborah Allen, biology; Barbara Duch, Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center; and Harold White, chemistry and biochemistry, who co-organized the AAAS session, "Strategies for Enhancing 21st Century Education."

White, Duch and Allen described UD's pioneering effort to help undergraduates experience the joy of investigation through PBL. Based on medical-school techniques, PBL methods require students to solve real-world problems through meticulous research, just as a scientist would put a promising theory to the test, Allen explained.

Problem-based learning also allows UD undergraduates to practice "metacognition"that is, reflect upon the way they learn, White said. "Instead of lectures and memorization, we use hands-on activities to guide our students through the learning process," he said. "In this way, they begin to think critically, becoming independent problem solvers, capable of working in teams toward a common goal. In today's workplace, these are crucial skills."

Helping students attain these skills may be easier said than done because "the last several decades have seen monumental change in all aspects of our lives-how we communicate, how we conduct business, how we access information and how we use technology," Duch said. "One aspect of our lives that has been slow to change, however, is the way we teach and how our students learn. The working world is a very different one today, and our teaching methods must reflect that."

In Allen's classes at UD, students learn about photosynthesis by evaluating a real proposal to counteract global warming by dumping iron into the ocean waters off Antarctica. While investigating whether iron would stimulate chlorophyll, trigger photosynthesis and reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, undergraduates are introduced to key biological concepts, Allen said.

And, because they work in small groups facilitated by a peer tutor, students "begin to practice higher-order thinking skills such as evaluation and analysis," while also gaining communication and team-building skills, she said.

"The best way to learn a subject is to teach it," she added. That's why UD faculty train peer tutors to prompt classmates with questions, rather than stock answers.

In the early 1990s, seven UD faculty members were implementing problem-based learning methods, Duch said. Since 1992, 206 faculty from 42 different UD departments and 22 administrators representing 15 units have completed PBL training. Moreover, 105 faculty and administrators from other institutions throughout the United States and four other countries have attended UD's PBL workshops, Duch said.

Such a dramatic transformation required strong support from University administrators, Duch noted. "We were fortunate because UD administrators have encouraged our efforts from the onset," she said. "In fact, they recently consulted with us concerning the design of Gore Hall classrooms, which are 'group-friendly,' with tables, moveable chairs, resource cabinets and lots of chalkboards."

In February 1997, UD became one of only 10 institutions nation-wide to receive a Recognition Award for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) from the National Science Foundation. The award honors "bold leadership" in integrating research and education in classrooms.

-Ginger Pinholster
Photo: Copyright, March 2, 1998, U.S. News & World Report.