Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Language Practice Programme

With Claire Walker

Language Resource Centre

What did you do?

Over the years the Language Resource Centre has offered a programme of student-led language learning groups during term-time. These groups provide an opportunity for informal speaking practice to all Newcastle University members who are registered with the LRC. The sessions would normally take place in the Language Resource Centre, face-to-face. However, with the March 2020 lockdown, the decision was made to continue this activity but to trial taking it online using Microsoft Teams. For the academic year of 2020-21 the programme was run entirely online and was also expanded, in terms of number of hours offered, the types of sessions and languages.

Who is involved?

Claire Walker – Language Centre Assistant

Language Resource Centre Team

Team of PAL Student leaders

How did you do it?

There was a discussion about what tool to use to take the sessions online. After some consideration, it was decided that Microsoft Teams would bring the benefit of greater security in terms of controlling access and requests to join a session, whilst also providing a dedicated online forum for the programme.

This discussion happened in parallel to an identified need for the School of Modern Languages, who at the start of the pandemic had a group of students who had returned prematurely from their year abroad in China and were looking for more support with language practice. As they were a small group it was decided to set them up as a trial on Teams with our Chinese PAL leader. This would be a perfect opportunity to see how the online sessions might work and highlight any potential issues or limitations.

We received very positive feedback from both the leader and the participants in this trial group. This success combined with the ongoing uncertainty of any return to campus and face-to-face activities left us with no hesitation in moving the entire programme online for 2020-21.

So for 2020-21 a dedicated Teams site for the PAL language practice programme was set up including a dedicated channel for each of the language sessions. The entire administration of the programme was also moved online, including the recruitment and induction of the team of student PAL leaders.

As with previous years the University LTSU ‘Workshops’ live online booking system was used and this allowed students to view live availability of places and book any sessions. LRC staff managed the bookings and gave access to the relevant Teams channels.

Student leaders and participants used their dedicated Teams channels for their online meetings, but the channels also provided a useful forum for communication and sharing of documents and links related to their learning and discussions.

Why did you do it?

Lockdown meant limited access to the physical resources in the centre and restricted social interactions so this was a perfect way of continuing to give students the opportunity to not only practise their language skills and to broaden their knowledge, but to work with fellow students and benefit from the cultural exchange that goes with it.

We also felt it important to provide those students who did not have the opportunity to go on a year abroad or the interaction in the classroom, extra opportunities for informal speaking practice and cultural exchange, providing some degree of compensation for the missed experiences caused by the pandemic.

Moving the programme online also meant that we could continue to provide student employment opportunities. This was a very important aspect for the leaders at a time when student employability options on campus were limited.

Does it work and student voice

Using Microsoft Teams provided not only a secure platform for the online meetings but was successful in bringing the whole programme together in one place online, creating a greater sense of a language learning community. From an administrative perspective, staff were able to use the channels to communicate directly with both the PAL leaders and participants and share communications and files more easily.

The online programme attracted a lot of interest, receiving 1200+ separate bookings from just over 200 individuals over the course of the year. These individuals were not just those studying languages but included students from schools across the wider University both postgraduates and undergraduates.

Throughout the year we employed a total of 16 students to lead the sessions. These included students with the relevant language skills from a range of academic disciplines and various schools across the University. In terms of employability skills, these students gained experience not just from the application and interview, but also experience in taking responsibility for planning and leading the sessions independently.

We conducted a survey of the participants in March 2021 and received really positive feedback about the programme. Email exchanges between staff and the PAL leaders also highlighted their positive experience and appreciation for the opportunity to get involved.

Student participants:

• “I gained confidence in my spoken Spanish and French, being able to hold a one on one conversation and take part in group discussions about various topics. I enjoyed learning about cultural aspects too and broadening my vocabulary by listening to other speakers.”
• “It was such an enriching experience to know and speak to other people in the language I am very much interested in.”

PAL Session leaders:

• “I loved hosting the sessions and being able to share not only my language but my culture as well”
• “I am very grateful to have such a great opportunity to facilitate other students’ language learning and increase my own teaching ability at the same time.”

Graduate Framework

    • Engaged
    • Resilient
    • Creative, innovative, and enterprising
    • Future focused
    • Confident

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