There is a story – probably true – that a newly inaugurated Franklin Roosevelt called upon Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to get advice upon assuming the presidency in 1933 as the economic depression was strangling the country. Justice Holmes was very clear: “My advice is to marshal your battalions and fight.” (James C. Humes, Instant Eloquence. New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 232)
At FIU, we have a very different kind of fight but one nonetheless. It is the fight to ensure that our students gain literacy in subject matters and disciplines that are in high demand and of national interest. These days, nothing has a higher priority than finding better ways to promote literacy in STEM areas – science, technology, engineering and math.
Within the set of survival skills that every university needs these days is the ability to meet learners where they are, not where the institution wants them to be. Our wholesale ethos of “build it and they will come” – our monopoly on content, evaluation and certification – is falling by the wayside in the face of new digital providers of content, a more functional competency-based learning ethic, an anachronistic “sage on stage” mentality about teaching/learning, and slow if non-existent self-evaluation about what is working and not as it relates to student/learner satisfaction and just-in-time adjustments to meet rapidly changing market demands.
We are very conscious that we must reinvent how we are conducting our business. As I have often mentioned to colleagues in and out of the Academy – I want to be our “chief disrupter.” I would rather that we disrupt ourselves before we are disrupted by others or forces way beyond our control. Many of our academic leaders and units get this. Others are slower to connect the dots. Embracing change is one thing. Having the will to actually do it yourself is another, especially if you or your colleagues have helped to shape the status quo regulatory framework that is perfectly optimized to reinforce your current behavior.
Our Biology Department has always had a progressive sense and a desire to excel. Their organizational culture has provided university leadership in many aspects of its operation. This department fully understands the capabilities engendered by institutional scale and the opportunity and imperative of “marshalling its battalions.” Let me explain.
Today, we have nearly 300 students who annually serve as peer mentors/leaders in biology classes throughout our undergraduate curriculum, impacting nearly 4,000 students annually who are taking biology courses. Known as Peer Led Team Learning, or PLTL, we are generally regarded as national leaders because of scale and impact in this arena. Started modestly in 2000 by University Instructor Thomas Pitzer with just five peer leaders and 100 students (with the help of a small grant from the National Science Foundation), the use of peer leaders is now a norm in many of our STEM and non-STEM related programs.
PLTL leaders with University Instructor Thomas Pitzer (far right).
PLTL is founded on cognitive science and consistent with social constructivism. Students are expected to construct their own understanding with the support of a more experienced peer. According to Professor Pitzer, “Instead of the instructor cooking a meal and serving it to students, the students must get in the kitchen and, not only follow the recipe, but sometimes create the recipe.”
A key element in PLTL is the role of the peer leader, normally a fellow student who has subject mastery and formal training on how best to communicate and lead group discussions, foster active learning, problem-solving and research initiative, and respond to typical questions that are posed by participating students.
One of our highly trained faculty specialists, Dr. Idaykis Rodriguez, reminds me that the PLTL approach empowers the peers to become leaders given their training and mastery of subject matter. Alexander Hanks, a junior who is a pre-med biology major, reminds us that he does not “teach” other students but merely “guides them throughout our discussions until they find the answers on their own. They are the ones doing all the work.”
Dr. Idaykis Rodriguez
Another important element: small group discussion – in a suitable room that promotes the intimacy and comfort necessary for students to gain control of their own learning. This small group discussion runs parallel to the formal professor-led class sessions.
Guess where many of our discussions take place? In the football stadium! Yes – throughout every week of every semester, students gather in the suites to have quality discussions and debates about their respective PLTL-led biology course and the best ways to master the material. Because space is at a premium at FIU, we are proud that even the suites are put to work for academic purposes when not occupied by screaming (or somber) Panther loyalists!
At this point, you should be asking if all this makes any difference. Do students do better? Do they learn more? Does our scale enable us to help qualitatively our students? Our data reveal that students who participate in PLTL uniformly have a higher passing rate than students who do not participate in PLTL classes taught on the same material. We also know that student exam averages remained consistent throughout the semester among students participating in PLTL while students not taking PLTL experienced decreasing exam averages for each subsequent exam.*
I know that many of us can remember our biology classes, especially if we were enrolled just to check off this core distribution requirement, regardless of how good or exciting or entertaining our faculty were. While I managed to get a respectable grade in biology, I never found myself saying what a recent graduate says here about her FIU biology journey that was enriched by PLTL. Listen to Nicole Vargas: “I can honestly say that this has been one of the most impactful experiences that I have had while at FIU.”
Over the next few years, as our Next Horizon strategic plan signals, we are going to need more and deeper impact to make a difference in the lives of our learners and in our community. Our willingness to disrupt ourselves coupled with our ascendant ability to marshal our resources – those and many more learners, faculty and community alike – will enable some amazing combinations of talent, will, experience and chutzpah. Hopefully, these new efforts will be as successful as PLTL, and we will all be better for them.
In the Panther spirit,
Mark B. Rosenberg
*We do understand that the data reflects some selection bias because PLTL requires a greater time commitment than some students can give due to family and work commitments.