Been there, done that – let us show you how to do it well!

Kristin Picardo, Associate Professor of Biology, St. John Fisher College
Bob O’Donnell, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biology, SUNY Geneseo

We set out to utilize upperclassmen-led study groups consisting of one mentor and three students in our general biology, for-majors courses to determine if this of out-of-class study collaboration would improve student performance on class assessments, particularly the first exam. The Lawson Test of Scientific Reasoning was administered to St. John Fisher College science majors during their Great Beginnings program held in May/June for incoming students. Since Geneseo does not administer the test to all incoming students, the 18 students enrolled in a freshman experience class took the test online during the first week of classes. The scores at both institutions were used to assign the general biology students to groups led by sophomore to senior-level biology majors who served as mentors. Students who scored low, or “average”, or high on the Lawson test were grouped together. The groups met once per week and focused on strengthening collaborative study skills, not on basic tutoring. The scores were then used as data points in our action research plan in comparison to their test scores.

During the group meetings, students worked with their mentor on a variety of studying approaches, e.g. concept maps, poster making and at St. John Fisher, an online tool (Study Blue). Upon surveying the students and mentors, as well as speaking with them one-on-one, we learned that the mentees ranged from neutral to very favorable when surveyed on whether the program helped them to learn and understand the class material. Also, some survey comments showed that there was some confusion regarding the intent of the groups. Some mentees and mentors felt there should be more tutoring while others felt more mentoring should have occurred and less course content. At Fisher, a number of students were initially interested in being a part of this project. When invited to participate, only 8 students reliably met with their groups, and 5 that stayed with their group through class exam 2. Also to note, one mentor backed out and did not want to participate. At Geneseo, the 18 students actively participated in the group meetings outside of class time. We think one reason for the difference seen is that the Geneseo students were participating as part of a for-credit course, while at St. John Fisher College it was purely voluntary. It is unclear from exam data whether or not the groups had any impact on performance on exams at this time. The benefit of learning to study effectively in a collaborative fashion, if not initially beneficial to all students, may bear fruit for these students in future coursework.

Whether or not peer mentoring is a useful approach to improve student success for first-year biology majors remains to be determined. If we were to try this again, we would need to have more extrinsic motivators for both mentor and mentee participation, a better control group for comparison, more formal check-points to learn the needs of each group, and more participants. Also, a longitudinal study of these same students would be interesting in that we could determine if they continued to use collaborative study groups beyond this first experience. Feel free to visit our action research report, Collaborative Learning Outside the Classroom: Peer Led Study Groups for General Biology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *