Peer-Assisted Learning Programme: Supporting Students in High-Risk Subjects at the Mechanical Engineering Department at Walter Sisulu University
The majority of the students who enroll at the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in South Africa are not equipped with the necessary academic/learning skills to cope with the university environment, especially in Mechanical Engineering. The Department of Higher Education and Training (2013, p. 17), further states that “students’ support is crucial to ensure that students adapt to the demands of college life and that they can meet the demands of college programmes”. Particularly in South Africa, the school environment might also contribute to poor student performance as a result of insufficient student support, and a lack of facilities and resources. In order to address this gap, a Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) programme was implemented to provide support targeting high-risk subjects for at-risk students in Mechanical Engineering at WSU. The programme therefore is pro-active and student-driven in that senior students assist junior students with their academic work and learning processes. The programme is designed to encourage collaborative and cooperative learning approaches during group sessions and active student engagement to support student learning (Laal & Laal, 2012). The programme requires substantial resources and time commitments. It is important from an operational, learning, and student perspective to understand in what ways the PAL programme assists students (if at all). Eliciting the experiences of students also helps the department to design interventions from a student-centred perspective using the lens of learning theories. This qualitative case study explores the student experience of the Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) programme. Open-ended questionnaires/survey from 20 first-year students elicited their perceptions and experiences of the PAL programme. Responses were analysed thematically. Findings indicated that the students had useful insights that may contribute to revising the programme. Aspects mentioned were improved study skills, improved time management, and improved communication, problem-solving and presentation skills. The study suggests that the PAL programme also creates a safe (where students of the same age come together to discuss concepts of the subject under the guidance of the senior student as an experienced student), comfortable and conducive environment for first-year students’ learning. However, the gender dynamics within the programme point to revisions needed in the programme to address the gap on the gender balance as only six out of the twenty participants in this study were female. The study contributes to our understanding of aspects of PAL for first-year Mechanical Engineering students at WSU, as it affords students the opportunity to interpret, integrate and apply information/knowledge acquired during lectures and to interact effectively in small-group sessions.
Keywords peer-assisted learning; peer-assisted learning leaders; at-risk students; mechanical engineering; university of technology