Expanding PALS in Informatics; Dr Lisa Nowak

Edinburgh University Students’ Association has been involved with PALS since 2012. PALS stands for ‘Peer Assisted Learning Scheme’: a form of Peer Learning where students in higher years facilitate study sessions on academic content for students in lower years. These sessions provide students with a space to meet new people, discuss academic content, learn cooperatively and consolidate knowledge gained in lectures and tutorials. At present, the Department of Peer Learning and Support runs 28 PAL schemes and 23 Peer Support Schemes, with around 650 volunteers[1]. Our department centrally coordinates the schemes, but they are essentially student-led, and we work with students to develop PALS across the University. In this article, I want to highlight an example of new and innovative practice in the School of Informatics, and make some recommendations about how other staff in Peer Learning could encourage innovation.

InformaticsPALS (InfPALS) has been running for four years, supported by the School of Informatics and Edinburgh University Students’ Association[2]. In previous years, InfPALS only ran in Semester one, and was pitched solely at first year students on Informatics programmes. The aim was (and is) to ease first years’ transition into Higher Education and to get them used to studying at University level. As such, in Semester one InfPALS focusses on ‘soft skills’ such as how to write reports, orientating oneself into the online and physical learning environments at Edinburgh, and how to revise for exams. It also runs more content-based sessions which closely follow the trajectory of particular modules, providing students with an opportunity to go over course content and consolidate their knowledge. This model is in line with most of the other schemes at Edinburgh, which tend to run for first years, and cover study skills and some content.

InfPALS in Semester one had been successful, with 287 instances of attendance (74 attendees) across 54 sessions in Semester one of the 2017-18 academic year. However, in November 2017 two of our Senior Student Leaders, Jano Horvath and Hanne Carlsson, took on the challenge of expanding and developing Peer Learning in the School of Informatics. Jano and Hanne were both involved with InfPALS as Leaders. This year, they became Senior Student Leaders (SSLs): paid members of student staff who are supervised by the Students’ Association and the School, and who are tasked with developing the scheme and ensuring its quality and stability.

Through reflecting on their own experiences and speaking to other students in the School, Jano and Hanne realised that there was a gap in the support available to second year students, and that this could be filled by InfPALS. Hanne explained this to me as follows:

‘Both Jano and I are now in the final year of our degrees, and looking back we agreed that the jump to honours was one we were not quite prepared for. There are a lot of skills we are expected to have mastered that are never explicitly taught, and we both felt that providing a resource to allow 2nd year students to work on those specific skills would really help ease their transition into honours next year’. Carlsson (2018, personal communication)

The ‘skills’ Hanne mentions relate to programmes. To succeed in their degrees, it is either necessary or very advantageous for Computer Science students to be able to use a variety of programmes, including Python and LaTeX. However, staff simply do not have the time or resources to provide tuition in these skills in addition to delivering course content. As such, Jano and Hanne felt that students were expected to have these skills (particularly for writing their assessments), but they did not have many opportunities to gain or build said skills. This was the ‘gap’ that they identified: students in second year did not feel confident about using different types of software, yet they did not have many spaces to practice or gain confidence with them.

Jano and Hanne thought that InfPALS would be an appropriate vehicle to deliver skills enhancement, and fill the ‘gap’ in support experienced by so many students moving from pre-honours to honours. InfPALS could provide a space for students to develop their software skills in a guided yet relaxed way, and the project could be resourced and run by Student Leaders rather than staff. After presenting this idea to the School (and getting widespread support), Jano and Hanne designed a programme of workshops for second year Informatics students, to be run in Semester two (starting in January 2018). These workshops were created and led by InfPALS Leaders, and sought to guide students through the software which Leaders and staff judged to be most essential for the degree.

Specifically, they ran the sessions like ‘scavenger hunts’, where groups of student attendees were tasked with finding out how to do something on a piece of software. They were guided by the Leaders, and asked to feed back to the wider group regularly. The Leaders also collated a large amount of resources that they found helpful when learning how to use particular software, and shared this with the attendees. As they had shared this before the session, they were also able to redirect any questions they were asked to the resources or the notes. In this way, the Leaders were still able to facilitate and encourage group discussion.

The Semester two sessions were well-received, with one student reporting the following in the end of year survey (Edinburgh University Students’ Association 2018):

‘The best thing about InfPALS in Semester two is that we are learning skills that are not taught in any courses, but are useful for them. It adds to your skill set, rather than just being more help for lecture material. The atmosphere is relaxed and the amazing tutors and PALS are always there to help’. PALS attendee

Of those surveyed in Semester two, 100% stated that they would recommend InfPALS to a friend. Attendance data was also promising, with 94 instances of attendance (50 attendees) across 25 sessions in Semester two of the 2017-18 academic year. This seemed positive, given that this was the first time that InfPALS had run in Semester two, and with a completely different audience, content and methodology. When asked about the benefits of this scheme, Hanne said that it:

‘Allows students to explore the new tools and skills they need to master in a safe setting (before it matters how much they know about them). The InfPALS leaders facilitate good discussions and provide useful resources for the students, so that the workshop becomes not only an introduction to the given skill, but also a roadmap of what else there is to learn about it and how to go about doing so’.  Carlsson (2018, personal communication)

The expansion of InfPALS means that students in second year now have the opportunity to learn skills that will be vital to their transition to honours, and which are not already covered in any of their courses (as staff simply do not have the time). This means that staff can concentrate on their teaching, whilst InfPALS are able to compliment traditional teaching by dedicating their own time and resources to helping students develop other vital skills. By expanding into Semester two, InfPALS dramatically increased the number of students who had access to Peer-Assisted Learning in the School of Informatics. In total, in the academic year 20127-18 InfPALS had 381 instances of attendance (124 attendees) and ran 79 hours of PALS sessions.

The whole project has been hugely successful, and InfPALS will run for both first and second year students next academic year. In Semester one, the aim of InfPALS is to orientate first year students into University life and study. In Semester two, the aim is to help to prepare second year students for the transition to honours-level study, and provide them with a space in which they can develop skills that will be essential for their degrees. This is relatively unique amongst the schemes at Edinburgh, as few PAL groups run for second years, or focus upon the transition to honours level. The scheme also runs in a different way: namely, it uses a variety of two hour skills-based workshops rather than the more usual PALS structure.

From our perspective in the Students’ Association, we believe that InfPALS has been incredibly innovative in ascertaining that a gap in support exists, and meeting students’ needs in a creative way. We have always felt that Student Leaders are best-placed to establish what students in their programme or discipline need support on, and this example seems to demonstrate this well. Granting Student Leaders the autonomy to create their own vision for their schemes and to think creatively about solutions has led to the expansion of Peer Learning in the School of Informatics, and the introduction of a new way of thinking about PALS, and what it can be like.

As such, I would recommend that colleagues working in Peer Learning are sure to involve students as much as possible when designing a scheme, and to grant them ownership over it as much as they are able (with the role of the University or Students’ Association being to assist in training, quality assurance and centrally coordinating the schemes). Further, I believe that having experienced Student Leaders in paid Coordinator roles make innovation far more possible, and likely. At Edinburgh, the majority of our Leaders are volunteers. However, we find that because SSLs are paid, they are able to devote more time to the management, development and growth of a scheme. They also have the opportunity to take on leadership roles, and to make a real impact upon their schemes. These two factors (having ample time to dedicate to a scheme, and feeling that you can make a difference) tend to produce hugely innovative ideas and lead to good practice such as that outlined above.


Edinburgh University Students’ Association. (2018). PALS Attendee Survey. Disseminated in May 2018.

[1] For details, please see our website at https://www.eusa.ed.ac.uk/support_and_advice/peer_learning_and_support/

[2] For details, see http://web.inf.ed.ac.uk/infweb/student-services/ito/students/year1/student-support/infpals

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