Teachers have a knack for coming up with creative ways to promote student-centered learning. For two biology professors, that means helping students not only understand the content but to become STEM ambassadors and educators.
The Biology Peer Instruction Program was created by Teaching Professor Elena Pravosudova and Teaching Associate Professor Pamela Sandstrom. Each has a profound passion for fostering learning and teaching skills in their students. They teach Biology 190 (currently BIOL 190A, Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology) and Biology 300 (Genetics). The peer instruction program helps students who were successful in these classes become mentors and tutors to the next class of students, becoming experts on the course content in the process.
“Since 2008, nearly 500 undergraduates have collectively held over 1,200 leadership positions and helped us build a successful Peer Instruction Program,” Pravosudova said. The program has grown in its significance on campus and in the roles students can fill since its start.
The College of Science is the largest college at the University, and Biology students comprise a huge part of the College. Those students all take Biology 190(A) and Biology 300, which means hundreds of students are taking the courses each semester. The Biology Peer Instruction Program can help the professors manage the massive classes.
“I call it a win-win-win,” said Pravosudova. “We get help teaching our students and engaging them. The students get help from peers, as it is always good for someone to explain it in a different way than the professor who might have a different learning style. And for the peer leaders, it’s the experience, it’s the connections. And just pragmatically, they’re exposed to the same content over and over again, so when they take any standardized test, they just kill it.”
"As mentors, Dr. Sandstrom and Dr. Pravosudova also indirectly contributed to my studies as they fostered a collaborative, inclusive environment that really allowed my leadership skills to flourish... I would not be the person I am today without these exceptional women."
Many of the students who work as peer mentors go on to medical school. One of those students is Brandon Conner. Conner completed the undergraduate portion of the BSMD program in 2018, then continued at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. He graduated from medical school in spring, and is now an Internal Medicine Resident in North Carolina.
“The most valuable part of being a peer mentor was realizing first-hand that the most effective way to learn something is to teach it,” Conner said. The same lessons he learned in Biology 190 as a student, then as a peer mentor, came up in his medical school classes. Even as a Resident, he recently discussed some of the same lessons with a patient. “Being able to explain the PCR test in layman’s terms to this patient in a way that they could understand came from my years of experience having to explain this information to students in discussion groups. And I think the fact that Biology 190 is still in the back of my mind speaks to how incredible being a peer instructor and mentor can be.” But the professors already knew these skills would come in handy for alumni of the program.
“Doctors are basically teachers for life, and that’s where they gain experience in how to explain science to the general public,” Sandstrom said.
The program has a very organized flipped-classroom design. There are mandatory discussion groups for Biology 190 and 300 which compose a significant portion of student grades. Thus, it’s important to pick the right students to guide their peers toward success.
“Because of that, training of peer instructors has to be very structured. They have to gain particular leadership skills, have to learn to develop their own lesson plans given a sample template, and they have to have the same way of assessing their students’ success,” said Pravosudova.
The students who succeeded in the Biology 190 and 300 courses and decide to become peer mentors have a variety of roles they can assume, and there are opportunities for leadership positions within the program. Some of the positions are paid.
“We know a lot of them have bills to pay, and we would much rather have them make money contributing to success of their peers,” Pravosudova said. The students get the added benefit of learning as they work.
The roles are outlined below:
- Discussion Leaders: These peer instructors teach mandatory discussions for students enrolled in Biology 190 or Biology 300. The discussions are 50 minutes each week and cover a specific topic aligned with the lecture. Students in discussion groups (20-24 students per section) do active learning activities like small group problem-solving, reenacting biological processes, and educational games.
- Learning Assistants (LAs): LAs are typically returning peer instructors who are paid. The LAs go to lectures and provide active learning help in lecture during instant response question sessions. Each LA is usually assigned to a specific group of students in the lecture hall.
- Peer Mentors: A select few peer instructors become Peer Mentors who are paid to perform “quality control” by assessing discussion leaders during their sections, ensuring leaders are teaching students in a consistent way.
- Course Coordinators: Coordinators are paid and frequently also work as discussion leaders or learning assistants. There is one course coordinator per section of the course.
Discussion leaders and first-time learning assistants are required to take Biology 495 (Peer Leadership in Biology). Biology 495 is a 1-credit pedagogy course that counts toward the students’ degree requirements.
Peer instructors also work shifts at the Biology Help Center. Students can drop in at any time to get tutoring for most biology courses, both lower- and upper-division. Pravosudova said many of the peer instructors can be found hanging out at the Biology Help Center outside of their scheduled shifts.
“This develops a social structure centered on learning and helping others learn,” she said.
The Biology Peer Instruction Program isn’t restricted to students who are majoring in Biology. Many are pre-professional students, including pre-meds, but there are also art, public health and even engineering students. “There are a lot of pre-meds, but some want to do research,” Pravosudova said. “The one thing they have in common is they are all definitely Type-A, high achieving science students.”
“I think we also talk a lot of peer instructors into a second major or a minor in Biology if they do have a unique major,” Sandstrom said.
And the students who benefit from their peers’ instruction isn’t limited to biology, either. Community Health Sciences students who take Biology 189A benefit from Learning Assistants in their class. Many of the CHS students are also student athletes, so they often need extra help in maintaining their course load.
Ensuring that every student can see themselves as peer leaders is important to Pravosudova and Sandstrom.
“I’m hoping to keep increasing the diversity of our actual leaders so that students see themselves in the peer instructors. It’s nice that we have the ability to try to be more inclusive,” Sandstrom said.
Sandstrom and Pravosudova post applications to the Biology Peer Instruction Program about two thirds of the way through the semester. Over the summer or winter break, interviews are held for future peer instructors, which allows them to showcase their ability to help students learn, and effectively explain biological concepts.
The application asks for students’ expected grades in their courses, their GPA and transcript, a written statement on why they want to be a peer instructor and a recommendation from their current discussion leader. Once they start, the real work begins.
“What’s amazing is how well they manage it all,” Sandstrom said. The students work hard to maintain good grades. In spring 2022, three of the Westfall Scholars, seniors who are graduated with the highest GPA in their program, were peer instructors. Peer instructors are not only balancing their own coursework but are also helping others, and often participating in volunteer or professional organizations to boost their résumé.
“That’s the key,” said Pravosudova. “I tell them the busier they are, the better off they are because they have to plan it really well.”
The professors continue to improve and expand their peer instruction program. The University is a member of the Learning Assistant Alliance (LAA) that supports educators who want to use the flipped-classroom model and peer instruction. When the professors attend the LAA conferences, meetings and workshops, everyone benefits.
“We try to teach them what we have learned over the years. I feel a lot of that has come from the College of Science allowing us to get professional development, allowing us to go to those UTeach conferences, allowing us to go to those Learning Assistant Alliance conferences, and then we share all that knowledge with our peer instructors,” Sandstrom said.
Funding for the peer instruction program is provided by the College of Science. The money goes back to the peer instructors as stipends. The program (specifically the establishment of Learning Assistants) was supported heavily by former Associate Dean Gina Tempel, who encouraged Pravosudova and Sandstrom to pursue these types of programs with opportunities to attend conferences, webinars, workshops and other forms of professional development pertaining to peer instruction.
“Fortunately, the Dean’s office has been really supportive and has been providing us with supplemental budget to sustain our program for a while now,” Pravosudova said.
The College’s support has been critical to the program. Educational grants are short-term and course structure depends on the long-term support of the College and the University.
A legacy of learning
The program has been around for over a decade and a half, and its impact has been far-reaching.
“It’s a community of learners,” Sandstrom said. “It’s not just biology majors, not just College of Science majors, but it’s bigger than us here, and it’s bigger than this University, because these students are going out and many of them are going to professional school and still write us constantly that this made a difference to them.”
One former student and peer instruction program alumnus who invited Sandstrom to her dissertation defense wrote, “Thank you so much for believing in me and all your initial support, this would not be possible without you. … I cannot thank you enough for your inspiration and being a role model for women in STEM.”
At their spring graduation, four students from the Peer Instructor program got together for a photo. They told Sandstrom that they likely never would have known and become friends with each other if not for the program. Two of those students will be attending UNLV for medical school and dental school.
“They make community,” Sandstrom said.
The professors have had siblings of former peer instructors come through the program, following in their older siblings’ footsteps.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the program to an extent, but the motivated peer instructors powered through the chaos and confusion and provided new resources to their peers. Additional resources proved critical for a lot of students whose academic careers were suddenly upended.
“Programs like ours, I feel like that’s what keeps students engaged,” Pravosudova said.