Tiffany Blade knows she wouldn't have passed Statistics 10, a prerequisite for her major in psychology, without the assistance she received from one of her fellow students in the university's Peer Learning Program.
The professor's explanation of the course material worked well for some but not for Blade, who had just transferred to UCLA for her junior year. She met with her professor and still made no headway. But through the Peer Learning Program, Blade attended weekly small-group sessions conducted by a fellow student who had previously excelled in the same class, and was specially trained to assist Blade and other students like her in mastering the subject matter.
It made all the difference.
"He just went step-by-step explaining the concepts from a different perspective, and if I didn't understand a formula, he would patiently break it down for me," said Blade. "He told me that when midterms and finals came around, I was going to do well. He trusted me, even when I might not have trusted myself. It was such a relief to know I could do this."
Each quarter, Peer Learning, administered by the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) is available at no charge to the more than 6,000 UCLA undergraduates served by AAP—students from diverse populations that are historically underserved by higher education, including first-generation undergraduates, college students from low-income families, and those from underrepresented populations. Students commit at the beginning of each quarter to attend all sessions.
At the sessions, small groups engage in discussions designed to enhance what the students have learned in class. The groups are led by paid tutors, called Peer Learning Facilitators, most of whom are successful upper-division AAP students.
In addition to their subject-specific expertise, Peer Learning Facilitators are trained to challenge and support students academically and to serve as role models, talking with students about their academic and personal lives.
AAP's Peer Learning is most concerned not with remediation but with fostering excellence. "It's a problem-posing and question-based approach," said Donald Wasson, the AAP associate director who oversees the program. "And out of that discussion, students not only build their understanding, but also begin to make the knowledge their own and ask their own questions about the material. This leads to lively dialogues and new perspectives, and deepens their commitment to their academics."
Vanessa Rangel spent much of her first two years benefiting from the Peer Learning services. Now, in her junior year, Rangel is a facilitator herself—helping students in the same math courses she took as a freshman and sophomore—and is a supervisor for the program's math Peer Learning Facilitators.
"Study habits change so much from high school to college, and it can be quite challenging," said Rangel. "This program provides a supportive, nurturing environment that many other universities don't offer to students. The tutors are all here because they have that passion to teach students and help them succeed. We've been there, and we know what they're experiencing."
To Geraldo Vindiola, the Peer Learning program provided an opportunity for payback. A first-generation college student who spent several years working fulltime before returning to school, Vindiola started at a community college and would have gone no further if he had not received encouragement from counselors who believed in him. He transferred to UCLA to complete his undergraduate education, stayed for a master's degree in Latin American studies, and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in history.
In the process, he also became an AAP Peer Learning Facilitator—work he continued for four years. Vindiola has concluded that the students he assists aren't the only ones benefiting from the experience.
"I learn as much from them as they do from me," he said. "In social science, there isn't just one way of looking at the issues and concepts we deal with. When I hear other students' experiences and their view of the world, I am enriched."
This is a condensed version of a story by Dan Gordon that appeared in the Winter 2011 College Report. Photos by Reed Hutchinson.