PAL Staff Contact Ian Fairholm has supported the PAL schemes in Psychology for several years. Here he shares his experiences of PAL and the benefits to students, PAL Leaders and the University.
"The PAL leaders are great role models and seeing this can boost the self-esteem of students who
sometimes wonder if they can really do it - by seeing others who already have and who are now leading PAL sessions, they see that it is possible."
— Ian Fairholm, Teaching Fellow and PAL Staff Contact, Dept. of Psychology
Why did you and the department get involved with the PAL scheme? What did you hope it would provide for the students?
I got involved very early on with PAL. I think the psychology department dabbled with it within the first couple of years of PAL being a thing at the university, but after a year the staff member whose unit it was didn't feel it worked for them. I always felt that it had the potential to work more successfully if attached to the right units and if supported in the right way. So I got more directly involved with a couple of PAL schemes in psychology, one that was more suited to the way PAL works than the other. My hope was that students using PAL would gain more confidence, feel more inspired about their subject, and they would pick up useful skills and gain higher grades. I also felt the students acting as PAL leaders would also benefit from it with increased confidence and through refining their skill set.
How do you think PAL supports the students’ engagement with their studies and their learning?
At one level it's a great social and learning environment - students who want help are given the tools to help themselves by enthusiastic students in other years with more experience, all of which takes place in a safe environment - but it's also more than that. I think the central ideas behind PAL, such as encouraging participation, sharing ideas, collaborative learning, and tasks that create a safe space to try things out all support engagement with their studies and learning.
What are the other benefits for students attending PAL sessions?
As I said above, I think it boosts confidence, but it can also reduce anxiety, and crucially it provides an opportunity for students to interact, not only with peers in their own year, but also with students in other years. The PAL leaders are great role models and seeing this can boost the self-esteem of students who sometimes wonder if they can really do it - by seeing others who already have and who are now leading PAL sessions, they see that it is possible.
How do think the PAL leaders benefit from their role in the scheme?
I see PAL leaders benefit in huge and assorted ways. Being a PAL leader can lead to an increase in self-reflection and confidence and from there it can dramatically change them. It depends on the students, though - different students can benefit in different ways. I've seen shy PAL leaders grow in confidence, become more outspoken and capable. But I've also seen outspoken PAL leaders gain a greater sense of restraint, more self-awareness, and learn to know when they are better keeping quiet and when they should speak up. I think it also makes them better problem solvers because every PAL session brings up problems and opportunities to improve, and I've seen our PAL leaders trying new things and striving towards excellence, even during problematic times, such as low attendance at sessions, unexpectedly high attendance at sessions, and during the recent strike action, where a lot of students sought reassurance and the PAL leaders helped them to achieve that.
Being the staff contact, what have you got out of the scheme?
I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with a number of very bright, enthusiastic and keen students who are eager to make a difference in the lives of others. That's very gratifying and encouraging when sometimes it feels as though students are so mark-focused that they get wrapped up only in their own achievements. To see students collaborate and work together to improve is a large part of what university education should be about, and our PAL scheme has helped to facilitate that, not only within our first year cohort, but also between year groups.
I've also used the feedback sessions and my work with the PAL leaders to reflect on my own teaching and see how the ideas underlying PAL can be used elsewhere within the degree.
Has feedback from the sessions helped inform any aspects of decision making in the department in relation to teaching and learning?
Absolutely. The main thing from last year is that feedback from the sessions told us where students were struggling in certain units during the aforementioned strike action, so members of staff who were on strike knew where to focus their efforts and attention when they came back after the strike. This meant that the strike was not undermined (because the PAL sessions didn't replace the teaching) but it also helped students and staff during a difficult time.
Also, the first year PAL scheme was such a success that it made the second year PAL leaders recognise that something similar was needed for the second year students, leading us to create a brand new PAL scheme for those in the second year which we will be trialling next year for the first time. One very successful PAL scheme has opened the department up to consider how PAL might be used more widely within our degree programmes, hopefully further benefiting students and staff.