Cyber Peer-Led Team Learning (cPLTL): Development and Implementation

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Key Takeaways

  • Given the proven success of peer-led team learning, an experiment explored whether cyber PLTL could achieve similar success, especially in STEM fields.
  • Results indicated that cPLTL students achieve at the same level as PLTL students in General Chemistry courses.
  • cPLTL workshops eliminate the ongoing need for physical classroom spaces.
  • Students can be effective partners with faculty in improving educational practice.

The type and amount of student interaction with major socializing agents on campus — faculty and their peers — determine the impact of college on students.1 Much of the research on postsecondary education links the quality of peer interactions directly to student learning outcomes and satisfaction with the college experience,2 and Alexander Astin went so far as to suggest that "peers are 'the single most potent source of influence,' affecting virtually every aspect of development—cognitive, affective, psychological, and behavioral."3 This concept underlies the high-impact pedagogy of Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL).

For commuter campuses like Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), classrooms are often the only regular settings in which students interact with faculty and peers. Creating environments for increased faculty and peer interaction should be prioritized when creating academic programs.4 This is especially true in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, where pedagogical practices have been identified as primary barriers to persistence.5

PLTL preserves the lecture while replacing the teaching assistant–led recitation with a weekly two-hour session. During these workshops, six to eight students work as a team to solve carefully structured problems under the guidance of a peer leader — a student who has recently completed the course and additional training for the role.6

Educational Significance of PLTL

  • The impact of PLTL workshop participation has been assessed and evaluated in a variety of settings for more than 10 years.
  • Students who participate in PLTL workshops are more successful than students who do not.
  • PLTL has proven effective in many STEM disciplines (chemistry, biology, mathematics, computer science, physics, and psychology, among others).
  • PLTL addresses the educational needs of students regardless of their ethnic background or gender.
  • PLTL workshops can be successfully implemented in a variety of courses across the full range of institutions of higher education.7

While over 20,000 students experience the benefits of PLTL annually at more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities,8 many others do not have the opportunity to participate in peer-led workshops because of inflexible work or family schedules or because their institutions lack the physical space to provide workshops on their campus. Also, peer leaders are not always available, especially at two-year institutions.

It is increasingly clear that to provide PLTL to the broader undergraduate population in STEM fields, efforts need to focus on creating a variety of effective cyber-learning environments. The development of cyber PLTL (cPLTL) has the potential to diminish barriers to access and increase the success of students in the STEM fields. Extending PLTL to a virtual environment has the potential to provide active learning opportunities to a wider, more diverse student population while giving them more flexible scheduling and attendance options.

Components of PLTL Workshops Critical for cPLTL Workshops

  • Course professors are involved in selecting materials, training and supervising peer leaders, and reviewing the progress of workshops.
  • The workshops are integral to the course.
  • Peer leaders are selected, trained, and effectively supervised to become skilled facilitators of group work.
  • Workshop materials are challenging, relevant, directly related to lecture material, and designed for small group work.
  • The workshops are held weekly for two hours, with six to eight students per group, in a suitable space.
  • PLTL should be supported by the department and institution with funds, course status, and other support.9

cPLTL Potential to Reduce Barriers and Increase Student Success

  • There is no need to locate and reserve appropriate classrooms for PLTL groups; the cPLTL workshop is conducted online.
  • The flexibility in scheduling makes it possible for many nontraditional students to participate. These are students who work or have family responsibilities and find it difficult to schedule two additional hours during the work week to attend face-to-face workshops.
  • Students who would normally opt out of serving as peer leaders in face-to-face settings due to schedule conflicts have the option of serving as online leaders. This extends educational benefits to leaders as they increase their own knowledge and retention of the material through teaching; develop leadership skills; and gain 21st century workplace skills (such as technology and communication skills, information literacy, etc.).

Before these benefits can be realized, however, research is required to determine:

  1. Whether PLTL can be successfully replicated in an online environment with appropriate technology, course materials, and educational discourse
  2. The impact of cyber workshops on student achievement and course completion

The pilot study reported in this article was conducted at IUPUI, which serves approximately 1,000 first-year general chemistry students annually. The university has a considerable nontraditional student population (60 percent). Since the study began in fall 2009, 341 first-semester general chemistry students (146 cPLTL and 195 PLTL students) have participated. The following sections explain how cPLTL has developed the necessary human and physical components, along with the costs associated with implementation and preliminary findings from the pilot study.

cPLTL Development and Implementation

The PLTL method of teaching has been used at IUPUI since 1998 in first-semester general chemistry classes. With the advances in technology and proliferation of online courses, experimenting with cPLTL was a natural next step. Chemistry faculty members Pratibha Varma-Nelson and Lin Zhu, instructional technology specialists, and peer leaders have worked collaboratively to develop cPLTL as synchronous, interactive, online workshop environments where students work through problem solving while using technology as a conduit for collaboration. Undergraduate peer leaders and student coordinators Kevin Mauser and John Sours (Figure 1) served in various roles in the PLTL program when this project began and were the driving force behind the development of cPLTL.

Varma-Nelson Figure 1
Figure 1. John Sours (left) and Kevin Mauser (right)

Technology Requirements

Because the foundations of the traditional face-to-face model of PLTL include real-time or synchronous student discussions, debate, brainstorming, the unlimited flow of ideas, analysis, problem solving in pairs, and the round-robin method of problem solving, we believed it important to preserve all possible opportunities for the same types of student interactions and collaboration in the online environment. We concluded that cPLTL should be conducted in an environment that sustains synchronous online learning experiences.

In choosing the online environment to develop cPLTL, we considered available university enterprise resources that allowed faculty and student access at no additional cost. Fortunately, IUPUI already had videoconferencing software in place (Adobe Connect), which faculty, staff, and students used for online courses and meetings between campuses. This tool offered the appropriate functionality (videoconferencing with video and audio capability, document sharing, real-time chat room, and recording capability), as well as university support for technical issues that invariably arise. Figure 2 shows the screen setup for a cPLTL workshop.

Varma-Nelson Figure 2
Figure 2. Anatomy of a cPLTL Virtual Workshop

Navigating the Technology

  • Each online meeting room for cPLTL is divided into four main windows, called "pods" in Adobe Connect.
  • The Attendee List pod displays the names of all users in the room at any time. This allows the peer leader to see who has entered the room as well as who leaves the room during the session.
  • The Audio/Video pod allows the peer leader and students to see and hear each other during the online sessions.
  • The Chat pod is used for providing links or instructions for activities. It can also be used as an alternative method of communication in the event of a technical glitch with the headsets, microphones, or web cameras.
  • The Presentation Share pod is the primary workspace for both the peer leaders and the students. This space allows each student/ peer leader to share his or her own screen while being able to see the work that every other student in the group is doing. This provides a collaborative environment in which students complete the work.
  • The ability to record provides an opportunity for students to go back and review a workshop topic/session at a later time as they review for upcoming exams.

Institutions that already have access to web conferencing software can readily adopt cPLTL. For those that do not, there are many web conferencing resources from which to choose. Institutions with funding limitations that would like to experiment with the cPLTL model can investigate free, open-source web conferencing tools (BigBlueButton, OpenMeetings, etc.).

In identifying the specific items students would need to effectively participate in cPLTL, much thought went to access, cost, and usability. While all the students in this study have had the required access, students in rural communities may not have access to high-speed Internet.10 For those students, access to a local library, coffee house, or community center that has high-speed Internet access might be an option for cPLTL participation.

Basic Requirements for cPLTL Participation

  • High-speed Internet access (wired or wireless)
  • Internet browser
  • Access to a computer with a web-based video conferencing service

We hope that access to high-speed Internet will become less of an issue because expanding access to rural communities is a primary goal of the Rural Utilities Service branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, which established the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The overall goal of this program is to provide "funding for loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations that will assist in addressing the challenge of rapidly expanding the access and quality of broadband services across rural America." As funding for rural access becomes available, those students will have increased opportunities to participate in online educational opportunities.

Using grant funding for cPLTL, we purchased microphone/headsets, webcams, and mini document cameras for students to use in cPLTL workshops. We did this primarily to ensure that students used the same equipment and to alleviate some of the technical issues that could arise with student use of multiple types of equipment. Figure 3 shows the equipment students need for the cPLTL workshops.

Varma-Nelson Figure 3
Figure 3. cPLTL Student Equipment Set

Equipment Costs

  • The webcams were purchased for $15.
  • The microphone/headsets were purchased for $11.
  • The mini document cameras were purchased for $55.

The three items together came to a total cost of $81 per student, which is cheaper than many textbooks.

Students checked out the microphone/headsets, webcams, and mini document cameras at the beginning of the semester and returned them to the department at the end of the semester. With the IPEVO USB mini document camera, students can use and write in their own workbooks and share their work with other students online. It provides a comfortable learning experience for students.

Technology Recommendations

Our experience with cPLTL technology might also provide insight on avoiding technological challenges. The following recommendations stem from those experiences.

  • Optimize bandwidth settings for meeting rooms by choosing the lowest acceptable bandwidth level.
  • Make sure the peer leaders know the video conferencing system well.
  • Provide troubleshooting tips for peer leaders and students.
  • Allow ample time for peer leaders and students to gain experience within the virtual environment.
  • Provide a feedback mechanism for cPLTL participants to help with troubleshooting.
  • Turn off/disable/close all other software that uses web cameras before joining the workshop.
  • Assign one share pod per student and keep the pod small — participants can select a full-screen view.

The following video shows a discussion between two students in a cPLTL workshop (1:58 minutes):

Integrating PLTL Pedagogy with Online Technology

Integrate the pedagogy underlying PLTL into the online environment to create a successful cPLTL experience requires:

  • Training peer leaders
  • Training participating students

Training for Peer Leaders

Just as in PLTL, content knowledge is essential for serving as a peer leader in cPLTL — but not sufficient. Being a successful peer leader requires more than familiarity with the course material. To serve as peer leaders, students must have recently completed the course, performed well, and demonstrated strong communication and leadership skills. Leaders must be carefully trained for their positions, as their role is to facilitate group work for a team of students.

The cPLTL peer leader training program was adapted from the PLTL training program and involves instructional technology specialists in addition to faculty members. It includes a pre-semester orientation and a required one-credit-hour training course for peer leaders that meets online weekly. At IUPUI, the leader training program is administered by faculty members and student coordinators who work as a team.

The Role of Peer Leaders

  • Peer leaders are not "answer givers." They facilitate active learning and participation of all group members.
  • Peer leaders help students build trust and understanding to communicate openly with each other, challenge each other, and debate and discuss issues without being intimidated.
  • Because peer leaders are likely to have backgrounds similar to the cPLTL workshop students, they act as effective intellectual and social role models.11
  • In addition, because peer leaders are familiar with and have succeeded in the institutional culture, they can help new students make a smooth transition from high school to college or help transfer students from community colleges adjust to the culture of the new institution.

Pre-semester Orientation. The pre-semester orientation of cPLTL leaders takes place in-person on campus. It includes common topics for all peer leaders, such as discussion of the PLTL model, learning theories, and collaborative learning techniques. In addition, cPLTL peer leaders are trained to use the technology effectively, including troubleshooting the technology and basic issues that students may encounter. Since most cPLTL leaders in the pilot study also served as PLTL leaders, they discuss how to transition from leading in a face-to-face environment to leading online in a virtual classroom. The orientation emphasizes the importance of maintaining the PLTL model while using the advantageous resources that the online environment offers.

Weekly Training Course with Faculty. The semester-long weekly training course for cPLTL leaders takes place entirely online and is taught by one of the faculty members who teach the first-semester general chemistry course. Several components of the traditional PLTL training are preserved in the course12 — these instructional strategies are crucial for all workshop leaders — but the course delivery is implemented using Adobe Connect.

The course also incorporates additional components specific to cPLTL needs. These components revolve around technology use in cPLTL and adapting learning activities to the online environment.13 They include online etiquette and classroom management, implementation of collaborative learning activities online, online group dynamics, and student assessment and motivation in an online environment. The ultimate focus of the training is to help the peer leaders become effective facilitators and give them tools to help students develop effective group collaboration skills within the online classroom.

Technology Training for Workshop Students

Training for students participating in workshops is also critical, before their first cPLTL workshop. The training consists of two parts: Students first meet in-person to learn about the PLTL model, get to know each other, and get an overview of the technologies used in cPLTL. During this initial meeting, students get a feel for what it will be like to work together and solve problems using the forms of communication available to them in the online environment — written, oral, visual, and any combination of the three. This allows students to get used to communicating in different ways and the challenges associated with each and to communicate more effectively.

Students then meet online prior to the first scheduled workshop — Workshop Zero — to learn how to actually use the technologies. Instructional technology specialists, course instructors, and peer leaders help students with technology set-ups and troubleshooting when necessary. This session is designed to make students more at ease with the technology so that it is not a barrier to learning the material. It frequently includes activities designed to "break the ice" among students and help them start the cPLTL experience smoothly.

Following implementation of the Workshop Zero meeting, technology issues have dramatically decreased. Consequently, the first week focuses on content rather than on the technology.

Although the critical components for PLTL and cPLTL are the same, differences exist between the two environments, as noted in Table 1.

Table 1. Comparison Between PLTL and cPLTL

PLTL Workshops cPLTL Workshops
Classrooms with physical settings and arrangements appropriate for group work are necessary for effective PLTL workshops. An appropriate online platform and equipment are necessary for effective cPLTL workshops.
Appropriate scheduling of the PLTL workshops in relationship to the lecture schedule is essential. Physical presence is required for PLTL participation. More flexible scheduling of cPLTL workshops is possible, allowing more students to participate. cPLTL has the potential for students to participate from anywhere and at any time as long as the group agrees.
Students need brief orientation of their roles in a workshop, which requires them to come prepared to solve problems. In addition to training in their roles in a workshop, students are trained in technology use and appropriate behaviors in the online learning environment.
Peer leaders are trained in facilitation skills and content. Peer leaders are trained in facilitation skills, content, and technology.
Up to 10 students may be led by a peer leader in solving challenging problems based on the material covered in lecture. With the current technology, the number of students in a cPLTL workshop cannot exceed eight.

Peer Leader Observations

Peer leaders maintained journals of their workshop activities and interactions throughout the academic session, noting the benefits and challenges of conducting the online workshops.

"The model is the same, but the way it is done is different….Students are a lot more willing to write things down in face-to-face, but think more deeply about what they write in cPLTL."
"Both an advantage and disadvantage of cPLTL is students having to walk other students through their work rather than just show them."
"The same amount gets accomplished, but differently; cPLTL gets fewer problems done but more in depth."
"cPLTL is a success. This last week I had a student in Florida…attend my class without any problem. [S]uccess! I was actually pretty amazed that it went off without a hitch."

Watch the following video of peer leaders explaining the differences between leading a PLTL session versus a cPLTL workshop and the subsequent changes in their approach (1:38 minutes):

Preliminary Findings

The project's primary goal was to establish whether the benefits of PLTL could be reproduced in an online environment, including increased opportunities for students to practice, "think through, articulate, and elaborate on their own arguments, hear and respond to ideas that challenge their own"14; explore concepts; participate in collaborative problem solving; and experience increased engagement in academic work.15 To help answer this question, we examined the quality of discussion in the cPLTL workshops to determine if it was comparable to the discourse in PLTL workshops.

The evaluation began with discourse and document analysis and specifically focused on:

  1. The functional aspects of the workshop dialogue (how it modeled, facilitated, or solicited elaborative discourse that generated connections among and between ideas)
  2. Whether it prompted critical reflection, analysis, information synthesis, or theory application

For students participating in cPLTL, the dialogue consisted mainly of:

  • Questioning their peers as they worked through problem sets,
  • Elaborating or providing support and reasoning for their own deliberative processes, and
  • Evaluating and providing supportive feedback to peers on their solutions and thinking processes.

The preliminary data further showed evidence of:

  • Critical reflection: when students recalled and consciously deliberated on information, concepts, and theories from previous workshop sessions, class notes, texts, manuals, or lecture slides
  • Application of theories: when students used or employed theories and concepts in problem solving
  • Critical thinking and analysis: when students examined and reflected on the relevance and soundness of information to support their reasoning and claims

Students routinely questioned their peers to improve their own understanding of the material and to challenge peers about the correctness of their reasoning, even when they reached similar outcomes. These exchanges forced students to elaborate more, further analyze their thinking process, and better support their reasoning or reconsider their position. These kinds of exchanges allowed students to:

  • Become familiar with the subject matter
  • Learn the language of the discipline
  • Practice core communication skills
  • Develop teamwork and collaboration skills
  • Apply knowledge and theory in problem solving

For these reasons, we deemed the discourse in cPLTL comparable to that demonstrated in PLTL workshops.

Beyond the quality of dialogue, the discourse analysis highlighted additional benefits of the cyber workshop environment. Not only were cPLTL students actively engaged in collaborative problem solving throughout the workshops, with limited off-task discussion, they regularly reflected and drew on multiple information sources to better understand the course information and to better explain or support their claims.

The immediate access to electronic tools and resources may be, in part, responsible for more productive use of academic resources and for reflection and deliberation on concepts and theories. Specifically, the students often:

  • Referred to and shared information introduced in lectures, electronic course notes, electronic manuals, and texts posted in the course management system
  • Used the Internet to quickly access resources to define, support, or refute conclusions
  • Took screenshots of work completed in the workshop to reference later
  • Shared their work and resources easily with the entire group
  • Used other interactive tools (Skype) when technology issues occurred

Finally, to determine the impact of the online workshop on student outcomes, we compared achievement and course completion rates of PLTL and cPLTL students on final exam scores, course grades, and D/F/W (grade of D or F, or course withdrawal) rates. The analysis of final exam scores and course grades shows students in cPLTL workshops performing at the same level as students in face-to-face workshops (see Table 2).

Table 2. Student Performance in Introductory Chemistry for Majors

Workshop Type Mean Final Exam Scores* (Fall 2010–Spring 2011) Mean Grades** (Fall 2009–Spring 2011) D/F/W Rate (Fall 2009–Spring 2011)
cPLTL n = 41 67.86 n = 68 2.37 n = 78 28.2%
PLTL n = 45 61.93 n = 92 2.31 n = 103 28.2%

* The detailed analysis with standard deviations and significance levels will be reported in a forthcoming publication.

** Mean Grades represent the average on a scale of 4.0, where 2.3 = C+, 2.0 = C, and 1.7 = C-.

New Directions for Evaluation

The project is evaluated by an internal and an external evaluator, Professor Joshua Smith of Indiana University's School of Education and Professor Donald Wink of the University of Illinois at Chicago, respectively. Based on their feedback, we are also examining how the technology facilitates engagement and deep learning activities. More specifically, when we have PLTL and cPLTL students working on the same tasks, what are the differences in their activities based on the difference in the environments? For example:

  • What can students do in cyber PLTL that is not possible in face-to-face PLTL workshops?
  • Does the online environment (or technology) promote or facilitate student engagement/deep learning activities at a greater or lesser level?
  • Where do we find the greatest differences?

Conclusions and Future Work

Preliminary data collected at IUPUI indicate that cPLTL maintains all of the advantages of the PLTL model and further broadens access by delivering those advantages synchronously online outside of regular working hours. Thus cPLTL has the potential to increase access by providing opportunity to many nontraditional students to participate in workshops either as students or as peer leaders. It also eliminates the need for physical classrooms to conduct workshops.

Reproducibility of cPLTL needs to be demonstrated on other campuses and in disciplines other than chemistry for successful testing and wide adoption. With the support of an NGLC Wave I grant, cPLTL has been implemented in biology at two other institutions: Florida International University under the leadership of Thomas Pitzer, and Purdue University under Nancy Pelaez. The student characteristics at each of these institutions differ from those of IUPUI. Currently, 20 percent of IUPUI's student population is non-White, and 75 percent of the students qualify for financial aid. Florida International's student body is approximately 76.5 percent non-White, with a 60 percent Hispanic and 13 percent African-American population. Purdue's undergraduate population is approximately 32 percent non-White, with low-income students from both rural (12 percent) and urban (9 percent) high schools. This difference in student demographics makes it possible to study whether cPLTL retains its effectiveness with different student populations.

As we move forward with the project, we are focusing on involving community colleges because we believe they are uniquely positioned to extend access and the positive outcomes of cPLTL to a broader student population. To this end we are pursuing opportunities to engage the Ivy Tech Community College system in further testing the transportability of cPLTL by using former graduates of Ivy Tech enrolled at IUPUI to serve as peer leaders for students taking chemistry at Ivy Tech. We anticipate positive results from this effort and look forward to the proof.

Contact for More Information on cPLTL

Pratibha Varma-Nelson
Professor of Chemistry and Executive Director, Center for Teaching & Learning
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
755 West Michigan St., UL 1125
Indianapolis, IN 46202
[email protected]
(317) 274-1300


We would like to acknowledge all the peer leaders involved in the project; Chemistry Lecturer Hongqiu Zhao; the evaluation team; IUPUI's Center for Urban and Multicultural Education (CUME); IUPUI; and the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE-0941978), and EDUCAUSE (Next Generation Learning Challenges Wave I) for providing funding.

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