A Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) approach to pre-service teacher professional experiences in Australia: organisational friendships

September 2019

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47:4, 347-360
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The research question asked by the reserachers: How can the experience of international students be supported through pair/peer placements?
This investigation was underpinned by the PAL (peer assisted learning) approach, combined with a focus on the early childhood education context.
The researchers defined learning between peers as “implicit, unintended, opportunistic and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher” (Eraut, 2004, pp. 249–50).
Naturalistic, and subjective accounts of how students (also referred to as preservice teachers) experience PE with their peers adds a new dimension to the literature which often places emphasis on the formal learning that occurs during PE.

This qualitative research design adopted by the researchers was informed by a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) approach to pedagogy which heavily relies on “the social interactions between students” (Williams & Reddy, 2016, p. 24) and is used to foster collaborative, supportive learning that contributes to students’ positive adjustment to university life.
In this research PAL was conceptualised as learning between peers who are in a similar situation, learning as “horizontal” (Black & MacKenzie, 2008, p. 3) as opposed to hierarchical or top down.
The support was envisaged as social (peer as friend and support person) and in the professional teaching context the peer was thought to have the potential to be someone to discuss issues with and to extend knowledge of what it is like to work as early childhood teachers in Australia.
The socio-emotional qualities of having a peer/ friend/close colleague in the workplace during PE is of central focus here.

Context and participants - The participants of this research were recruited from a large Australian University.
Participants were recruited from a cohort of international students, mostly from the Asia-Pacific region.
Students spend a three-week block in an Early Childhood Education (ECE) setting on two occasions over the course of a year, where they are expected to contribute to the life of the centre and undertake set tasks designed to develop the skills and understanding required of teachers in the Australian context. The participants in this study were undertaking work experience in long day care with children aged three to five years.
Twenty students were placed in pairs during their PE in the first semester of 2016. Six students volunteered to take part in the study.
Individual semi-structured interviews were undertaken mid-year 2016, after PE. Each audio-recorded interview lasted 30–60 minutes.
Researchers questions centred on what participants thought about being placed with a peer at various points during their fieldwork, and how they engaged with their peer and what this meant for their learning and wellbeing experiences.

The main finding presented by the authors in this article is that a PAL approach to PE facilitated organisational friendships which acted as a support system for international students.
Findings are presented to demonstrate how friendships developed over time, and the nature of these situated friendships.
These particular strands are presented as follows: With a little help from my friends, Lean on me and, That’s what friends are for.
With a little help from my friends - All participants reported during their interviews that their peer had become their friend.
Beyond this situational friendship many participants felt that their friendships would continue.
Most participants said that they felt initial relief upon hearing they were in a pair: participants mostly saw their peer as a form of social support which decreased their anxieties surrounding PE.
Lean on me - The participants saw they had social support for the daily tasks and learning required which helped build confidence.
The students spoke fondly of their pairs and identified their strengths.
That’s what friends are for - The opportunity to gain instant feedback meant participants had their ideas and feelings recognised and supported by their peer instead of having to deal with feelings of rejection on their own.
Most participants felt validated by their peer, which provided the confidence they needed to express ideas with mentor teachers and also be more resilient.

The authors report that the participants of this study all described how friendships with their peers within the educational setting provided valuable social support during PE.
Part of the social support gleaned by participants centred on their ability to discuss challenging situations as an important aspect of peer learning.
As Edwards-Groves and Hoare (2012) point out, supportive yet critical discussions are essential to understanding practices in education.
Moments of distress, insecurity, and disillusionment were certainly evident in the interviews and the participants did appear, overall, to be vulnerable.
PAL engagement during PE potentially increased the longevity of the participants’ future teaching careers by building resilience through social support during this important phase of their real-world training.
The authors note that the equal status of the pairs enabled resilience building capacity in a way that could not be achieved in the mentor-mentee relationship. In alignment with Bloomfield’s (2010) findings, participants often felt stifled in their communication with mentors due to their fear of negative judgement.
Participants reported that conversations with their peers helped them overcome communication barriers with mentors as they could gain validation and confidence before approaching the mentor teacher.
As the research findings highlight, disagreements arose both out of communication with mentors and also with a peer.
The authors report that dealing with disagreements helped the students understand that differences manifest in the workplace through diverse expectations, varied levels of experience, hierarchies, and ideas surrounding roles. The access to diverse perspectives offered opportunities for critical reflexivity.

The authors conclude that the evidence presented here underlines the benefits of a PAL informed approach to PE as new friendships formed between students acted as beneficial socio-emotional connections in the workplace.
The participants involved in this study were able to engage in critical reflexivity within a safe peer relationship which supported their negotiation of hierarchical interactions, such as that between mentor-mentee.
The overarching benefits of organisational friendship, along a continuum of reassuring confidante to critical friend, have been highlighted by the authors.
They also note that participant fears of proximity and competition demonstrate that students can perceive peers to be potential threats under the wrong conditions, perhaps reflecting the broader cultural climate of graduate employment.

Bloomfield, D. (2010). Emotions and ‘getting by’: A pre-service teacher navigating professional experience. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 38(3), 221–234.
Edwards-Groves, C., & Hoare, R. (2012). ‘Talking to learn’: Focussing teacher education on dialogue as a core practice for teaching and learning. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(8), 82– 100
Eraut, M. (2004). Informal learning in the workplace. Studies in Continuing Education, 26(2), 247– 273
Williams, B., & Reddy, P. (2016). Does peer-assisted learning improve academic performance? A scoping review. Nurse Education Today, 42, 23–29. 

Updated: Oct. 07, 2019