Sunday, December 16, 2007

Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS)

I have decided that rather than having an exponentially long post about my doings this semester, I will break things into smaller chunks!

My reason for not mentioning PASS before hand was rather silly. I thought that from about 300 students, only 30 odd probably volunteer to be PASS leaders which somewhat narrows the range. Anyway, that is all in the past now. The advice "to hell with what everyone thinks" seems to be settling in. Let us not get distracted though!

So what is PASS? Well it is a scheme by The University of Manchester's maths department:

  • To support the first year student experience through collaborative exploratory discussion.
  • Enhance the learning experience and Personal Development of PASS leaders as well as for the first years
  • Improve academic performance and achievement and increase retention.
I will continue to "copy" the handout that was given to me (during PASS training sessions) for another two seconds:

"PASS is voluntary and intended to offer a safe, friendly place to help students to adjust to university life; improve study habits; enhance understanding of the subject matter etc."

Last year I volunteered (with the Tweenies) to become PASS mentors/leaders. Before term started we had to attend certain "training sessions" which gave us information about the scheme, and guidance on how to facilitate. It was rather interesting, for it gives you an insight on what not to do. For example, when a lecturer asks a question to the class and is met with a silence, what then should he do? He could say the answer, but rather he should remain silent for a few more seconds.

During this silence the students are first processing what has been asked; trying to formulate a response to the question; debating whether it is a ridiculous response or whether it is correct and then finally they give a reply. So they need that silence. If though after sufficient time has passed and there is still no reply, the teacher could try and rephrase the question or present a fact (etc).

As I was told this, my thoughts went back to my first year supervisions with my PT. He was rather brilliant, and I recall him doing the above. He used to ask a question and then look around the class. Most times out of ten I just looked at my paper, and "doodled" pretending to look busy! (Well I did sometimes think about the question but in the first six weeks of term my responses used to be ridiculous). Anyway, a long silence used to exist during which each of us either looked at one another and shrugged our shoulders, or glanced absently at our PT. If no one responded (i.e. Alan wasn't present!) my PT used to ask a different question and wait again. Or he would say the same thing differently, which most times resulted in someone going "Ah".

For someone like me, I felt this would be a difficult thing to do!! But when I mentioned the above to my PT he told me it comes with practise, and you shouldn't panic that no one is answering your question. Other things were mentioned in the training sessions, but lets not mention them here.

Our first meeting with our PASS group was when we took them on a tour of the campus in the first week of term. Although I haven't claimed the money yet, we were given £20 for this! (I can't find my NI number - but cash in hand would have been much blimmin' nicer and less of a hassle). This gave us a chance to informally meet each other, and for them to realise that I was slightly mad. (One person commented on how I managed to keep quiet during lectures, as we discussed talking in lectures. He was most amazed...) This group consisted of eight students and I decided to play a game to help remember names. (The key to this game was repetition and soon after I knew most of their names!)

This scheme is great in the sense it gives first years a chance to buddy up with second years. Not all first years might want this, but some really like it. The key word to PASS is that it is voluntary, and it is meant to be more of a discussion between a few friends.

Our first session was a full house, and so were the first few sessions. However, as the weeks went by the number of people attending rapidly decreased. On average 3.72 people attended! (Well it went from 8 to 7 to 6 .... and then went back up to 4 and hung about there for a while). This is slightly disappointing, but I can't complain. Our sessions were scheduled for Mondays at 10am - straight after our stats lecture, and very convenient for us. The first years started later on in the day, but on the first ever meeting we had all agreed on that time. After a number of weeks had gone by and attendance had started to decrease, it was suggested that the time be changed. Monday was the only convenient time for all of us, so we decided to move it forward by one hour. This did result in more people attending too, but I feel we could still have had it later.

I am disappointed at a few things, but overall I felt that the PASS sessions went well. They were very relaxed, and generally we ended on a positive note. Fizz, Bella and myself seemed to complement each others mathematical abilities too. Fizz and Bella are the stats and set theory gurus, so during them questions I used to join in with the questions! (Or make sure that proper sentences were written). I wasn't really a guru at anything, and probably didn't do much apart from talk! There was a quiet member of the group, and she probably understood something I had said to her. For on occasions she used to email me about stuff and so I used to help her during the sessions. The good thing was that quite a few of the times, the first years helped each other.

My policy on helping has probably been adapted from my lecturers and supervisors. I know how brilliant I found it, when DC somehow got me to answer questions in the sequence and series example class without telling me the answer. He used to either give me other similar examples or ask me about a completely unrelated thing, and then link it. I would have probably disliked it very much if he had just given me the answers; for by asking me questions, inevitably he was helping me ask myself the same questions in the future. I tried to do this during the sessions, but not as successfully as DC and my PT! I wanted the students to write, rather than me writing but sometimes that is not possible. PASS isn't about us giving the answers to the first year. We didn't even know the answers ourselves! Rather it is about us helping them to find the answers, by possibly asking them the right questions and the odd sentence.

I was very particular about this, and I don't think we ever used the solution sheets during the sessions. (Apart from the very first one when someone gave them to us!) PASS leaders are not expected to know the answers, but still I felt it unfair that we glance at the answer right under their noses. That is why maybe we used to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of our sessions, because we had all together resolved the issues at hand.

A moment of "delight" that I can recall is helping the quiet student with the Euclidean algorithm backwards (and linear congruences). I struggled quite a bit with this topic myself you see, which is probably why I still remembered it. The student couldn't follow an example in her notes and I too confessed, that I couldn't see where the example in the notes followed from (although later on the lecturer told me that he had spotted the solution). As with standard notation in algebra, you have to be sufficiently experienced to spot things. Hence why I suggested that we start from scratch and do things the "long and nicer" way. In the end we got the same answer as the lecture notes which was a relief, but more importantly the student was then able to answer other similar questions.

I asked Bella for feedback (on PASS), but she gave me a diplomatic reply. My disappointment is due to the things which we didn't do and should have. An example: when you pull a muscle, sometimes you think you will walk it off. Or if you carry on like normal it will become better. Sometimes this works and other times it is rather painful but eventually works. I sort of neglected my duty to the PASS group in the same way you neglect to take care of your muscle. I think because the others didn't see the problem, I chose to ignore it to. The problem was namely the time, and even though we knew it was not great we ignored the problem and didn't consult with the group. Ah well, hopefully next semester I will be more on top of things.

This post seems to be everything about PASS which I suppressed during the semester!

During my first year I only attended one PASS session, but my point is that some students know what works for them. I already knew a few second year students, especially one who was always positive and encouraging (and still is as a matter of fact!); so I wasn't really looking for "mentors" to help me adapt to university life. I was mostly interested in whether or not the sessions would help my work, and maybe I was rash when after my first session I concluded otherwise. (I don't think the sessions coincide with my learning style. I have previously said that in my first six weeks I was seriously considering transferring onto another course, and PASS wouldn't have helped me. My motivation returned due to a lecturer, who I am greatly indebted too.)

Just because I didn't attend PASS doesn't mean its not a good thing. I just sort of know how I learn and groups don't really fit into that. That is why I can never actually work in example classes - I have to do the questions before hand. Always - and then get help with any problems I have.

Maybe I will be a "better" PASS person next semester, because the course material for the second semester was much nicer (i.e. no stats). And hopefully I won't brush any problems under the rug. Overall I will say it was good PASS first semester. I made a few first year friends, and one of them is even reading Marcus Du Sautoy's book a the moment!

I think that is all about PASS then. It wasn't too taxing - just an hour a week. But I hope that this can ease the tension I am having, about not doing anything during the year. Actually all this is just disguising the fact that I haven't done much maths. [Maybe I could mention more but I am hungry again. :( Next semester though, I will aim to talk about PASS sessions as they happen.]

PS: Note to the person who reserved a book which I have to return tomorrow - there are plenty more Kill Bill scenes in my head!! This is most annoying but I might actually make it less annoying by meeting a good friend from school. On Tuesday, after my dentist appointment, I have to accompany someone to the hospital. I thought this was meant to be my holiday? Oh, and Beans is back in town!

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