Cyber Peer-Led Team Learning: Taking the Classroom Experience Online

Award Winner: 
2012 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Pratibha Varma-Nelson
Randy Newbrough
Julie Banks
Tom Janke
Lorie Shuck
Lin Zhu
John Sours
Joshua Smith
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Florida International University
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Purdue University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a model of teaching that preserves the lecture and replaces recitation in science courses with a weekly two-hour session. During these interactive sessions (workshops), six to eight students work as a team to solve carefully constructed problems under the guidance of a peer leader. Web conferencing software makes it possible to adapt this face to face pedagogy to a synchronous online environment. This led to the development of cyber Peer-Led Team Learning (cPLTL). Preliminary data gathered through our implementation of cPLTL at IUPUI indicates that it is possible for students to engage in productive problem solving under the guidance of a peer leader in a synchronous online environment via web conferencing software.

cPLTL methods engage students as active participants, not passive recipients, in online activities that involve complex problem solving, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and fostering self-directed learning.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Purdue University (PU) at West Lafayette in Indiana, and Florida International University (FIU) are participating as a consortium to test the transportability of Cyber Peer-Led Team Learning (cPLTL) developed at IUPUI. The model has been studied and is showing positive impact on student learning in introductory chemistry. Purdue and Florida International Universities (FIU) were selected as replication sites because they have the infrastructure and the interest necessary for introducing cPLTL into their introductory biology courses. Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), the face-to-face predecessor to cPLTL, has proven to be a high-impact pedagogy in the Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines (Gafney & Varma-Nelson, 2008; Gosser, Kampmeier & Varma-Nelson, 2010). This project has made it accessible in the online environment.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 
The PLTL method of teaching has been used at IUPUI since 1998 in first semester general chemistry. With the advancements in technology and the proliferation of online courses, experimenting with cPLTL was a natural next step. Several of IUPUI’s Chemistry faculty, Instructional Technology specialists, and peer leaders have worked collaboratively to develop cPLTL—synchronous, interactive online workshop environments where students work through problem solving while using technology as a conduit for collaboration.
The impact of the PLTL workshop on students, leaders, faculty and institutions has been assessed and evaluated in a variety of settings for more than ten years (Akinyele, 2010; Báez-Galib, Colón-Cruz, Resto, & Rubin, 2005; Hockings, DeAngelis, & Frey, 2008; Lewis & Lewis, 2005; Lyon & Lagowski, 2008; Tien Roth, & Kampmeier, 2002). The results are consistent and consequential for undergraduate education in STEM disciplines. Students and leaders participating in the PLTL workshop model are more successful than non-workshop students. In one study, eighteen early-adopters compared percent success (percentage of ABC grades) for PLTL students and non-PLTL students. On average across institutions, disciplines, courses and faculty, 4,800 PLTL students earned 14% more ABC grades (76%) than their non-PLTL counterparts (62%) (Gafney & Varma-Nelson, 2008). Beyond the immediate academic achievement benefits, students have described the workshops as socially engaging and intellectually stimulating, and reported that they helped them learn the material (Tien, et al, 2002). Gafney (2009) collected and analyzed surveys from over 1500 students and 300 peer leaders that support the positive impact of PLTL on student achievement and learning. In another study, female PLTL participants received passing grades more frequently and dropped or failed the course less frequently than non-PLTL participants; suggesting that PLTL may reduce gender-based grade bias. PLTL also appeared to help underperforming students make positive gains in critical thinking (Quitadamo, Brahler, & Crouch, 2009). Finally, students who participated in PLTL developed greater “autonomous motivation” when compared to their non-PLTL counterparts (Black & Deci, 2000).
At IUPUI, PLTL was first implemented in general chemistry in 1998. Since then more than 7,000 students have completed the course using PLTL. The PLTL program has achieved sustained success. The DFW rates for fall semesters decreased from above 45% before PLTL was implemented to below 20% in 2008. Preliminary research on cPLTL is showing similar findings. Achievement levels of students enrolled in cPLTL are commensurate with those enrolled in PLTL which was implemented with great success in a general Chemistry course (CHEM C105). In a quasi-experimental study conducted in the Fall 2010 semester, cPLTL students at IUPUI (M = 72.3) significantly outperformed control group students enrolled in PLTL (M = 66.5), and the national average (M = 61.3) on the American Chemical Society (ACS) Exam taken as a final.
We have created a consortium consisting of three different institution types (urban commuter, land grant, and majority Hispanic serving institution) that have secured campus commitment to the partnership and implementing cPLTL via their MOU’s respectively. FIU has a robust PLTL model that serves over 1400 students per semester and PU moved directly into cPLTL, when they developed materials in the Summer 2011, piloting three workshops in the Fall 2011 and then had full implementation in Spring 2012.
IUPUI has provided consistent technology support to FIU and PU as they adopted cPLTL in their introductory Biology courses. The consortium is committed to carefully documenting challenges associated with implementation and identifying barriers for future adopters.
Peer Leader Training: Just as in PLTL, content knowledge is essential for serving as a peer leader in cPLTL, but not sufficient. Being a successful peer leader requires more than familiarity with the course material. To serve as peer leaders, students must have recently completed the course, performed well, and demonstrated strong communication and leadership skills. Leaders must be carefully trained for their positions, as their role is to facilitate group work for a team of students. The cPLTL peer leader training program has been adapted from the PLTL training program and involves instructional technology specialists in addition to faculty members.  It includes a pre-semester orientation and a course that meets online weekly.  At IUPUI, the leader training program is administered by faculty members and student coordinators who work together as a team. This training incorporates a one credit hour weekly training course in which all peer leaders are required to enroll.


The Role of Peer Leaders
˜      Peer leaders are not “answer givers." They facilitate active learning and participation
    of all group members.
˜     They help students build trust and understanding to communicate openly with
    each other, challenge each other, and debate and discuss issues without being
˜      Since peer leaders are likely to have similar backgrounds as students, they act as
    effective intellectual and social role models (Rogers, 2003).
˜      In addition, because they are familiar with and have succeeded in the institutional
    culture, peer leaders can help new students make a smooth transition from high    school  to college or help transfer students from  community colleges adjust to the culture of  the new institution.
Pre-semester orientation:  The pre-semester orientation of cPLTL leaders takes place in-person on campus. It includes common topics for all peer leaders such as discussion of the PLTL model, learning theories, and collaborative learning techniques. In addition, cPLTL peer leaders are also trained to effectively use the technology, including troubleshooting technology and basic issues that students may encounter. Since most cPLTL leaders have also served as PLTL leaders, they discuss how to transition from leading in a face-to-face environment to leading online in a virtual classroom, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the PLTL model while utilizing the advantageous resources that the online environment offers.
Weekly training course with faculty:  The semester long weekly training course for cPLTL leaders takes place entirely online and is taught by one of the faculty members who teach the first semester general chemistry course. Several components of the traditional PLTL training are preserved in the course (Gosser et al., 2001), as these instructional strategies are crucial for all Workshop leaders, but the course delivery is implemented using Adobe Connect, a videoconferencing software package used by IU. Additional components specific to cPLTL needs are incorporated in the course. These components revolve around technology usage in cPLTL and adapting learning activities to the online environment (Waterhouse, 2005). They include online etiquette and classroom management, implementation of collaborative learning activities online, online group dynamics, and student assessment and motivation in an online environment. The ultimate focus of the training is to help the peer leaders become effective facilitators and give them tools to help students develop effective group collaboration skills within the online classroom.
Technology Training for Students Enrolled in Workshops: Training for students participating in workshops is also critical. This is done before their first cPLTL workshop. The training consists of two parts. Students first meet for orientation in-person to learn about the PLTL model, get to know each other, and get an overview of the technologies used in cPLTL. During this initial meeting, students get a feel for what it will be like to work together and to solve problems using the forms of communication available to them in the online environment—written, oral, visual, and any combination of the three. This allows students to get used to communicating in different ways and the challenges associated with each. It trains them to communicate more effectively. They then meet online prior to the first scheduled workshop—Workshop Zero—to actually learn how to use the technologies. Instructional technology specialists, course instructors, and peer leaders help students with technology set-ups and troubleshooting when necessary. This session is designed to make students more at ease with the technology so that it is not a barrier to learning the material. It frequently includes activities designed to “break-the-ice” among students and help them start the cPLTL experience smoothly. Since implementing this meeting, technology issues have dramatically decreased and the focus of the first week is on content rather than on the technology. Although the critical components for PLTL and cPLTL are the same, the following differences are noted in the two environments.
PLTL Workshops
cPLTL Workshops
Classrooms with physical settings and arrangement appropriate for group work are necessary for effective PLTL workshops.
Appropriate online platform and equipment is necessary for effective cPLTL workshops
Appropriate scheduling of the PLTL workshops in relationship to lecture schedule is essential. Physical presence is required for PLTL participation.
More flexible scheduling of cPLTL workshop is possible, which allows more students to participate. cPLTL has the potential for students to participate from anywhere and anytime as long as the group agrees.
Students need brief orientation in what their role is in a workshop, which requires them to come prepared to solve problems.
In addition to training in what their role is in a workshop, students are trained in technology use, and appropriate behaviors in the online learning environment.
Peer leaders are trained in facilitation skills and content.
Peer leaders are trained in facilitation skills, content, and technology.
Up to ten students may be led by a peer leader in solving challenging problems based on the material covered in lecture.
With the current technology, the number of students in a cPLTL workshop cannot exceed eight.
Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 
The primary goal of the project was to establish whether or not the benefits of PLTL could be reproduced in an online environment. Such benefits include increased opportunities for students to practice, “think through, articulate, and elaborate on their own arguments, hear and respond to ideas that challenge their own” (Micari & Drane, 2011; p.185); explore concepts, participate in collaborative problem solving; and experience increased engagement in academic work (Drane, Smith, Light, Pinto, & Swarat, 2005; Micari & Drane, 2011). To help answer this question, we examined the quality of discussion in the cPLTL workshop to determine if it was comparable to the discourse in PLTL workshops.
The evaluation began with discourse and document analysis and specifically focused on (1) the functional aspects of the workshop dialogue (e.g., how it modeled, facilitated or solicited elaborative discourse that generated connections among and between ideas) and (2) whether it prompted critical reflection, analysis, information synthesis, or theory application. For students participating in cPLTL, the dialogue consisted mainly of:
  • questioning their peers as they worked through problem sets,
  • elaborating or providing support and reasoning for their own deliberative processes, and
  • evaluating and providing supportive feedback to peers on their solutions and thinking processes.
The preliminary data further showed evidence of:
·          critical reflection – when students recalled and consciously deliberated on information, concepts and theories from previous workshop sessions, class notes, texts, manual, or lecture slides
·          application of theories – when students used or employed theories and concepts in problem solving
·          critical thinking and analysis – when students examined and reflected on the relevance and soundness of information to support their reasoning and claims.
Students routinely questioned their peers to improve their own understanding of the material and to challenge peers about the correctness of their reasoning, even when they reached similar outcomes. These exchanges forced students to elaborate more, further analyze their thinking process, and better support their reasoning or reconsider their position. These kinds of exchanges allowed students to:
  • Become familiar with the subject matter
  • Learn the language of the discipline
  • Practice core communication skills
  • Develop teamwork and collaboration skills, and
  • Apply knowledge and theory in problem solving
For these reasons, the discourse in cPLTL is deemed comparable to that demonstrated in PLTL workshops. Beyond the quality of dialogue, the discourse analysis highlighted additional benefits of the cyber workshop environment. Not only were cPLTL students actively engaged in collaborative problem-solving throughout the workshops with limited off-task discussion, students regularly reflected and drew on multiple information sources to better understand the course information, and to better explain or support their claims.
The immediate access to electronic tools and resources may be, in part, responsible for more productive use of academic resources, and reflection and deliberation on concepts and theories.  Specifically, they often:
·         referred to and shared information introduced in lectures, electronic course notes, electronic manuals and texts posted in the course management system, Oncourse
·         used the internet to quickly access resources to define, support, or refute conclusions
·         took screen shots of work completed in the workshop to reference later
·         easily shared their work and resources with the entire group, and
·         used other interactive tools (Skype) when technology issues occurred
And finally, to determine the impact of the online workshop on student outcomes, we compared achievement and course completion rates of PLTL and cPLTL students on final exam scores, course grades, and D/F/W (grade of D or F, or course withdrawal) rates. The analysis of ACS exam scores and course grades shows students in cPLTL workshops performing at the same level as students in face-to-face workshops. 
Comparisons over 5 semesters


cPLTL (n = 111)
Face-to-Face (n =121)
ACS Exam
Final Grade in CHM105
DWF Rate

An analysis of student performance across 5 semesters showed no statistically significant differences in students’ academic performance on the ACS exam, mean grade earned, or end-of-course grades (A, B, C, versus D, F, W grades). While there were slight differences on each measure, none were statistically significant, indicating that cyber students are performing as well as students in the face-to-face workshop.
How does this practice relate to pillars?: 
There is a strong interrelationship among the pillars of learning effectiveness (above), access, scale, and student satisfaction.
Access: In choosing the online environment to develop cPLTL it was important to consider what university enterprise resources were available that allowed faculty and student access at no additional cost. Fortunately, IUPUI already had videoconferencing software in place (Adobe Connect) which faculty, staff, and students used for online courses and meetings between campuses. This tool offered the appropriate functionality (i.e., video-conferencing—with video and audio capability, document sharing, real-time chat room, and recording capability), as well as university support for technical issues that invariably arise. Institutions that already have access to web conferencing software can readily adopt cPLTL. For those that do not, there are many web conferencing resources from which to choose. For institutions with funding limitations that would like to experiment with the cPLTL model, there are free, open-source web conferencing tools (BigBlueButton, Adobe ConnectNow, OpenMeetings, etc.), available.
In identifying the specific items students would need to effectively participate in cPLTL, much thought was given to access, cost, and usability. While all of the students who have participated in this study have had  the required access, students in rural communities may not have access to high-speed internet. For those students, access to a local library, coffee house, or community center that has high-speed internet access could be an option for cPLTL participation. Hopefully, access to high speed internet will be less of an issue as expanding access to rural communities is a primary goal of the Rural Utilities Service branch of the United States Department of Agriculture which has established the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The overall goal of this program is to provide “funding for loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations that will assist in addressing the challenge of rapidly expanding the access and quality of broadband services across rural America” ( As funding for rural access becomes available, those students will have increased opportunities to participate in these online educational opportunities.
With grant funding for cPLTL, microphone/ headsets, webcams, and mini document cameras were purchased for students to use in cPLTL workshops. This was done primarily to ensure students used the same equipment and to alleviate some of the technical issues that could arise with student use of multiple types of equipment. Students checked out the microphone/headsets, webcams, and mini document cameras at the beginning of the semester and returned them to the department at the end of the semester.  With the use of the IPEVO USB mini document camera, students are able to use and write in their own workbook and share their work with other students online. It allows for a comfortable learning experience for the students.
Scale: Having a national expert on PLTL as the PI combined with the outcomes and products of this project places IUPUI in a natural position as a leader in scaling up the model across the country. In addition to the traditional dissemination outlets such as national conferences and peer-reviewed journals, IUPUI has developed the Annual National cPLTL Adoption Workshop and will host intuitions that express an interest in adopting cPLTL in STEM courses. This workshop will have its initial launch in that last week of June 2012. Seven institutions from around the country have signed up to come learn about adopting cPLTL. The team invited from each institution will consist of one faculty member and one instructional technologist.  Each institution that joins the cPLTL network will eventually become a new leader in propagating the model through publications and dissemination of their own work feeding into an autocatalytic model of dissemination used so successfully by the original PLTL project. The agenda for the National cPLTL Adoption Workshop is below.
National Cyber Peer-Led Team Learning (cPLTL) Adoption Workshop at IUPUI

Day 1 – June, 2012
9 AM – Noon
Introductions, PLTL/cPLTL Theory, Pedagogy, & Divergences
Using cPLTL Technology
1:30 – 4 PM
Technology Requirements & Training
How Peer Leaders Have Adapted to cPLTL
Best Practices in Selecting & Training Peer Leaders
Day 2 – June, 2012
9 AM – Noon
Developing Course Materials
Merits & Challenges of Using PLTL Materials w/cPLTL 
1:30 – 4 PM
Developing an Evaluation Plan
Findings on cPLTL’s Effectiveness
Engaging Institutional Research 
Day 3 – June, 2012
9 AM – Noon
What to Expect with Implementation
Developing an Action Plan
Next Steps & Wrap-up
Student Satisfaction: At the end of each semester, from Fall 2010 to Spring 2012, students enrolled in cPLTL and PLTL workshops completed a 10 item, five point Likert scale exit survey measuring their perceptions of workshops. Students were asked to rate their level of agreement (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3=Neutral, 4=Agree, 5 = Strongly Agree). Student responded to items such as, “My interactions with my peer leader were helpful in increasing my understanding of the material taught in this course” and “ My interactions with my fellow students were helpful in increasing my understanding of the material taught in the course.”
Students reported being generally satisfied with the support they received from peer facilitators. For example, just over 80% of the participants in both workshops reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that interactions with the peer leader helped to increase their understanding of the material. When asked if they were comfortable offering assistance to their classmates, 83.3% of cPLTL participants and 81.5% of PLTL participants agreed or strongly agreed. Two items showed a statistically significant difference between mean scores. Among cPLTL participants 65.7% (M = 3.77)agreed or strongly agreed that their knowledge and understanding of the material taught in the course was a result of the cPLTL workshops, while 83.2% of PLTL students (M = 4.19) agreed or strongly agreed with the same statement (p < .05). The other statistically significant item asked if students enjoyed their participation in cPLTL/PLTL workshops. In this case 63.9% of the cPLTL participants (M=3.72) and 76.3% of the PLTL (M= 4.00) agreed or strongly agreed (p < .00).
Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 


Basic Requirements for cPLTL Participation
˜   High-speed internet access (wired or wireless)
˜   Internet browser
˜   Access to a web-based video conferencing
   service computer
* The need for the high-speed internet access was a reasonable one based on recent data from an EDUCAUSE report that stated 98.1% of undergraduate students report that their primary means of accessing the internet is through high-speed connections (EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research [ECAR], 2008)


Technology Recommendations
Our experience with cPLTL technology may also provide insight on technological challenges that may be avoided. The following recommendations stem from those experiences.
 ˜  Optimize bandwidth settings for meeting rooms by choosing the lowest acceptable bandwidth level
˜   Have peer leaders know video conferencing system well
˜   Provide troubleshooting tips for Peer Leaders and students
˜   Allow ample time for peer leaders and  students to gain experience within the environment
˜   Provide feedback mechanism for cPLTL participants for troubleshooting
˜   Turn off/disable/close all other software that uses web cameras
˜   Assign one share pod per student and keep pod small as participants can select full screen
Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 
Webcams - $15
Microphone/Headset - $11
Mini Document Camera - $55
Total cost if student purchased all three pieces - $81
IUPUI used grant money to purchase all of the needed items for students to use and then checked them out each semester to the students who needed them. The items were then returned at the end of the semester so that the equipment could be checked out to students for the next semester. All of the students needed to check out the mini document camera. Many of the students however, did not need the webcams or headset/microphones because of the types of laptop computers they had which already had webcams, microphones, and speakers installed.
References, supporting documents: 
Akinyele, A. (2010). Peer-led team learning and improved performance in an allied health
chemistry course. The Chemical Educator, 15, 353-360.
Báez-Galib, R., Colón-Cruz, H., Resto, W., & Rubin, M. R. (2005). Chem-2-Chem: A one-to-one supportive learning environment for chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 82, 1859-1863.
Black, A. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’
autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education, 84, 740–756.
Drane D., Smith, H. D., Light, G., Pinto, L., & Swarat,  S. (2005). The Gateway Science Workshop program: Enhancing student performance and retention in the sciences through peer-facilitated discussion. Journal of Science Education and Technology 14(3), 337–52.
EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. (2008). The ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2008 (Research Study, Vol. 8). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retreived from:
Hockings, S. C., DeAngelis, K. J., & Frey, R. F. (2008). Peer-led team learning in general
chemistry: Implementation and evaluation. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(7), 990-996.
Gafney, L. (2009). Comparing the performance of groups of students with and without PLTL
Gafney, L., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2008). Peer-led team learning: Evaluation, dissemination and institutionalization of a college level initiative. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Gosser, D. K., Cracolice, M. S., Kampmeier, J. A., Roth, V., Strozak, V. S., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2001). Peer-led team learning: A guidebook. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gosser, D., Kampmeier, J. A., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2010). "Peer-Led Team Learning: 2008 James Flack Norris Award Address." Journal of Chemical Education, 87(4), 374-380.
Lewis, S. E., & Lewis, J. E. (2005). Departing from lectures: An evaluation of a peer-led guided inquiry alternative. Journal of Chemical Education, 82, 135.
Lyon, D. C., & Lagowski, J. J. (2008). A study of the effectiveness of small learning groups in
large lecture classes. Journal of Chemical Education 85(11), 1571-1576.
Micari, M., & Drane, D. (2011). Intimidation in small learning groups: The roles of social comparison concern, comfort, and individual characteristics in student academic outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(3), 175-187.
Quitadamo, I. J., Brahler, C. J., & Crouch, G. J. (2009). Peer-Led Team Learning: A prospective
method for increasing critical thinking in undergraduate science courses. Science Educator 18(1), 29-39.
Tien, L., Roth, V., & Kampmeier, J. (2002). Implementation of a peer-led team learning instructional approach in an undergraduate organic chemistry course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(7), 606-632.
Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
James Newbrough
Email this contact: