February 2013, Volume 17, Number 1


Excelling With Peer Power

In education, the old proverb “no man is an island” couldn’t be more true, as the exchange of ideas nurtures higher-order thinking. However, “it takes a village” is proving a more adept adage to describe how MDC is improving student outcomes by tapping an often-overlooked resource: peer power.

Through the creation of learning communities and peer-led team learning (PLTL) initiatives, MDC is providing support systems that empower students to play a lead role in their learning – and the results are speaking volumes.

STEM Advantage

Subjects in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – collectively known by the acronym STEM – are particularly well adapted to such initiatives. A remarkable example of this is in motion at MDC’s Wolfson Campus, where members of the department of natural sciences, health and wellness have implemented a collaboration system that has resulted in the development of a successful, high-tech learning community linking biology and chemistry courses.

“In most instances, students don’t make connections between the sciences,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, an MDC chemistry professor who has worked closely with biology Professor Juan Morata for more than a year on what has evolved into a sophisticated learning community. “Students separate one science from the other, but there is a lot of use in understanding the relationship between chemistry and biology.”

In order to make it work, Morata and Salinas had their courses – Principles of Biology I (BSC2010) and also General Chemistry and Qualitative Analysis (CHM 1046) – scheduled back to back and worked closely together to align their assignments and weigh their grading in order to optimize students’ absorption of scientific concepts.

Teaming With Technology

To take it a step further, iPads were provided to the students through MDC’s STEM First-Year Experience (STEM FYE), a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. “The grant called for the use of iPads, and this was a perfect opportunity to integrate this technology to the fullest,” said STEM FYE Director Monica Minchala.
“We came up with assignments and developed our own PLTL with the iPads,” said Morata. “We gave the students problems that linked both subjects, and they would have to work together to come up with the solutions.”

This confluence of coordinated teaching and technology translated into notable gains for students: The passage rate for BSC 2010 was 20 percentage points higher than the campuswide average – 92 versus 72 percent; CHM1046 saw a 9 percent jump, from 66 percent campuswide to 75 percent.

Other courses utilizing PLTL groups also saw compelling gains. Passing rates for General Chemistry were 80 percent versus the campus average of 66 percent; College Algebra grew from 51 to 61 percent. Introductory Chemistry made the biggest jump, from 55 to 92 percent.

Skill Building

“The iPads provided a very hands-on experience, and they hit on different learning styles. It was better than just using textbooks because they helped the students put it all in context,” Morata said.

The iPads also made it easier for the students to interact and work with one another. When not working together in the classroom, they used Skype to discuss their projects.

At the end of the term, students presented their iPad-based group projects to a larger audience of students and professors, requiring them to practice yet another skill: public speaking.

“With technology, we are helping students put skills together,” said Morata.

— MR

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