More than a PAL, students turn to peers for success
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and a dozen or so Sac State students hover over calculus worksheets in a Riverside Hall classroom. Most are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, studying some of the tougher subjects the campus has to offer.
But in this course, the “teacher” is a fellow student, a paid student mentor through the Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) program. The PAL courses supplement regular classroom work by offering weekly “bonus” sessions where mentors try to ensure students stay on track.
“The peer-led classes are taken concurrently with the same course taught by faculty. This model allows students to learn the material in different ways,” says Jennifer Lundmark, chair, department of biological sciences. “We know from our research that it’s the sense of community and a team effort that is just as important as the science and math they are doing. It really does create a fabric for success.”
Sophomore Crispin Lopez says the guidance he received from mentor Micaela Kapp made all the difference in his understanding of calculus.
"We know from our research that it’s the sense of community and a team effort that is just as important as the science and math they are doing. It really does create a fabric for success."
“Taking calculus along with Micaela’s PAL class is what made the concepts click for me,” says Lopez, a civil engineering student with plans to pursue a master’s degree in structural engineering. “I also made friends and formed study groups which made me feel much more a part of the campus after I moved here from Southern California.”
Hearing feedback like this makes Kapp smile. “I really like being a facilitator because I can give back to students who need to work and go to school at the same time, but who really want to try a STEM major, which isn’t always easy,” says Kapp, who has facilitated 10 peer-assisted learning courses and plans to graduate in the fall with an electrical and electronic engineering degree.
So how did Lopez do in his calculus class? “I got an A,” he says. Even better—he now acts as a PAL facilitator for pre-calculus.
As the University looks to get more students to graduate sooner, while at the same time encouraging more students to pursue degrees in the STEM disciplines, it’s looking to programs like PAL to help them succeed in the challenging curriculum.
The remarkably successful program helps address the issue with 50 one-unit classes attracting more than 1,500 students each year. And students who enroll in a peer-assisted class have a
10-30 percent higher pass rate and higher grades overall compared to students not enrolled in one, Lundmark says.
“We know that PAL works and makes a difference. Faculty have told us that when they compare students enrolled in a PAL to those not enrolled, it’s night and day, from grades to excitement to engagement,” she adds.
However, the Peer-Assisted Learning program is in its last of a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, and is currently seeking funding to continue operating and growing. Standing behind the cause is The University Foundation at Sacramento State chair Pam Stewart.
“Coaching peers requires patience and empathy which are two skills valued by employers,” Stewart says. “My husband and I have established an endowment dedicated to supporting this key program for students and we hope that others will join us in helping to develop our future leaders.”
Lundmark adds that keeping up with the demand for the popular program is challenging.
“Some of our PAL sessions are being held in the museum and we have students clamoring to do research experiments. I’m hoping the construction of the new science building will help address these needs by providing more space and resources. After all, it’s not only about retaining students, it’s about giving them a better learning environment.”
Construction begins next spring on the long-anticipated $91 million science education building. It will include new teaching labs and more space for STEM enrichment programs. Of the cost, $20 million must be raised through donor contributions.