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Research by Business Law Professor, Melanie Williams, Shows that Peer-Assisted Learning Techniques Improve Student Learning

August 12, 2019

CSUN Learning Resource Center’s Peer Assistance Improves Student Learning by Cy Shafii, CSUN Today

When exam time arrives, it’s not uncommon to see students gather in groups in the hallways of CSUN campus buildings or at the Delmar T. Oviatt Library for last-minute cram sessions. Throughout the semester, students may have questions about a quiz or may not understand the homework. Thankfully, peer tutors are there to help.

CSUN’s Learning Resource Center provides peer tutors who can help fellow students master material. This can include tutoring, supplemental instruction classes, labs and workshops.

According to research by Melanie Williams, professor and chair of the Department of Business Law, and recent graduate Peter Havens ’18 (Religious Studies), peer-assisted learning techniques improve students’ academic achievement and increase their motivation, as explained in their article “University Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies in the Humanities.” Williams and Havens conducted their research in fall 2017 and published the article in the Journal of College Reading and Learning in July 2019.

The study advocated for increasing the use of these methods in many academic areas. Despite their success and relative low cost, Williams said that peer-assisted learning techniques have been underused by a majority of student populations.

“Peer-teaching strategies have also traditionally been focused on topics where many students struggle — for example, in math and the natural sciences,” Williams said.

As part of their study, Havens taught a one-unit supplemental instruction class to the students in religious studies professor Rick Talbott’s class, to see how well they did compared to students who did not use the additional peer tutoring. Havens was trained and mentored by staff and peer mentors at the Learning Resource Center.

In topics where students tend to struggle less, such as the humanities, the researchers found significantly fewer students taking advantage of peer-assisted learning strategies — even those who needed that support. Williams noted that a University of Missouri study found that only 7 percent of peer-assisted learning-supported classes were in the humanities.

Havens recalled how difficult he found RS 100, an introduction-level religious studies course — and wished he’d had peer tutoring — when he was a student in the class.

Havens and Williams found that peer-aided teaching not only helped the students in their academic performance, but also forged a meaningful connection between the students, tutors and university.

“Students feel less intimidated asking questions from a peer than asking a professor,” Williams said. “Such self-disclosure can lead to more opportunities for teachers to provide meaningful help.”

Peer tutors in a variety of subjects are available at the CSUN Learning Resource Center.