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Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) For Biology Students

Biology PLTL Course Coordinator   ||   What is PLTL?   ||   What to expect during a PLTL workshop    ||   Expected Workload   ||  How to enroll in Biology courses with PLTL   ||   Evidence that PLTL Improves Student Learning   ||  Additional Information & Resources about PLTL

Biology PLTL Course Coordinator:

Image of Dr. Erin O'Brien PLTL Course Coordinator









Dr. Erin O’Brien (obrien.501@osu.edu)

Office: Jennings 255D

Pronouns: she/her/hers


What is PLTL?

Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a mode of learning that complements the more familiar traditional biology classroom formats: lecture, lab, and recitation. We call each PLTL session a “workshop.” PLTL workshops enhance biology students’ already high-quality educational experience by providing a space in which they can spend more time actively engaging in discussion and debate, asking questions, and working together to answer open-ended problems that model real-world applications of the key biology concepts they’re learning in lecture and lab.

The Center for Life Sciences Education (CLSE) currently offers two Biology courses with PLTL, Biology 1113.02 and 1114.02. These are specific sections of Biology 1113 and 1114 that have PLTL integrated into the course design. See How to enroll in Biology courses with PLTL for more information.

Students who take Biology 1113/1114 with PLTL report many benefits including:

  • More time to ask questions and talk to peers
  • Enjoyment of authentic, real-world applications of biology concepts
  • Increased confidence in their understanding of biology concepts
  • Increased confidence in their exam-taking skills
  • Strengthened scientific and metacognitive reasoning skills
  • Development of successful learning strategies


Research conducted on PLTL programs (including our own research conducted by the CLSE) show many benefits of PLTL including:

  • Higher Biology 1113/1114 exam grades
  • Higher Biology 1113/1114 final course grades

For more information on the results of studies conducted by the CLSE, go to Evidence that PLTL Improves Student Learning

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What to expect during a PLTL workshop

The PLTL model we use integrates multiple learning styles and strategies, which help to create a more comfortable social environment to discuss biology and allow students to develop their understanding of scientific concepts in terms and language that are more accessible to them.

PLTL workshops are intended to be more casual and informal than a lecture, recitation, or laboratory setting. Each PLTL workshop group is comprised of 4-7 students. The small group size makes it possible for each student to speak up and participate, and it makes it easier for the group to get to know each other and form a supportive learning community.

During each PLTL workshop, students work together to solve biology related questions from the workshop packet. These packets have been purposefully designed to support and supplement what students are learning in the lecture and lab components of Biology 1113/1114. The problems are complex, challenging, open-ended, and allow for multiple plausible answers (hypotheses). As such, there are no answer keys!

The group’s work is facilitated by a fellow undergraduate student, called a peer leader. A peer leader is a student who previously excelled in Biology 1113 and/or 1114 and has been rigorously trained to facilitate PLTL workshops by moderating discussions and debates and asking insightful questions to guide and inspire the students. A peer leader’s role is that of a mentor: as successful students themselves, peer leaders share valuable strategies for learning biology and succeeding in the course, tips for navigating campus life and taking advantage of academic resources, and much more. Peer leaders do not provide formal instruction: they do not teach or explain biology concepts, and they do not tell the group if their proposed solutions to workshop problems are “right” or “wrong.” Instead, they help students practice the metacognitive and scientific thinking strategies necessary to self-evaluate their work and measure their learning achievements.

Four PLTL students are drawing components of a foodweb on the board while two students provide support and feedback while seated at a table.
A PLTL workshop works together to create a food web.
A group of PLTL students and a Peer Leader sit around a table discussing answers to a workshop packet.
A group of PLTL students and a Peer Leader sit around a table discussing answers to a workshop packet.


Comments from previous PLTL students:

What did I like MOST about PLTL?:

  • As a PLTL student I really enjoyed the relationships I built in my workshop group.
  • It was a fun part of my day to catch up with my fellow classmates and work on the biology workshop together.
  • I enjoyed how PLTL wasn't like a traditional learning environment with a central teacher, but it allowed me the freedom to make my own mistakes, have peers share their stances, and ultimately, help me reformulate my own opinions.
  • Trying a new way of learning. This course allows students to challenge themselves and improve their understanding of the course curricula
  • My favorite part about being a PLTL student was being respected and welcome at the same time. It's difficult to be uncertain and vocal about it, and I think PLTL did an excellent job of supporting me.


What did I like LEAST about PLTL?:

  • Some questions would be asked numerous times, and although I know it was for the sake of emphasis, it felt redundant sometimes. With the recent shortening of the packets and the removal of the weekly content connections, I think PLTL has improved a lot. 


Comments about being a Peer Leader for PLTL:

Why did you want to become a peer leader for PLTL?:

  • I had such a positive experience as a PLTL student in that it helped me appreciate the application of biological concepts we learned in class to real-life examples.
  • As a peer leader, I can help other students achieve a similar appreciation. Also, being a PLTL leader has helped me learn new facilitation techniques that I'm sure I'd use outside of class. For example, I've learned valuable skills like managing discussions, creating a comfortable inclusive learning environment, and promoting student-centered learning. 
A PLTL peer leader collects verbal responses and writes them on a white board. Seven students sit around a table participating in the discussion.
A PLTL peer leader collects verbal responses from PLTL students and writes them on a white board.

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Expected Workload

In addition to the weekly workshop session, students in PLTL will have two assignments: one to help them prepare for the upcoming workshop (Pre-workshop) and one to reflect on their past workshop (Post-workshop). During some weeks, students will also be asked to make connections with the course components (PLTL, lecture, lab, and recitation) and among current and past concepts. Students should expect to spend the following time on PLTL related activities each week:

  • Pre-workshop Prep Assignment (~20-30 min)
  • Workshop (110 min)
  • Post-workshop Reflection Assignment (~30-60 min)
    • Content Connections (~15-30 min)

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How to enroll in Biology courses with PLTL

Currently, we offer two biology courses with PLTL, Biology 1113.02 and Biology 1114.02. These courses are a 5-credit option of Biology 1113.01 and 1114.01 courses (both are 4 credits). The extra 1 credit hour accounts for the extra time students will spend in PLTL workshops and on the PLTL assignments each week. Attendance and participation in PLTL workshops are required and closely monitored by the peer leaders and PLTL coordinator.

Biology 1113.02 and 1114.02 have the same requirements and learning outcomes as Biology 1113.01 and 1114.01 courses, respectively. Currently, Biology 1113.02 and 1114.02 are smaller sections of Biology 1113 and 1114 with less than 100 students per section as compared to 200 – 600 students in the non-PLTL course offerings. In general, lecture instructors tend to get to know their students better in smaller sections and, as a result, students tend to feel more comfortable interacting with their instructors. If you prefer taking courses with less than 100 students, then the PLTL versions of Biology 1113 and 1114 may be a great fit for you!!

Since the PLTL sections are smaller, the courses can fill up quickly. If you wish to join the waitlist for a full section, you will need the help of your academic advisor or the Biology PLTL Course Coordinator Dr. Erin O’Brien (obrien.501@osu.edu).

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Evidence that PLTL Improves Student Learning

PLTL and its associated components have been shown to not only help students improve their performance in STEM courses, but also to build skills such as metacognition, self-regulated learning, critical thinking, and comradery. These additional skills help students to feel empowered, included, supported, and a sense of belonging, which helps them to go on the achieve academic success, such as graduating with a STEM degree (Dweck 2006 ebook; Schmidt et al. 2009; Preszler 2009; Haak et al. 2011; Kowalczyk 2011; Kapur and Bielaczyc 2012; Kudish et al. 2016; Snyder et al. 2016; Broda et al. 2018).

Other studies indicate that PLTL improves the retention of underrepresented minority (URM) students in STEM courses. Specifically, Snyder et al. (2016) reported students who did not participate in PLTL were significantly more likely to withdraw from the course (p = 0.007). Furthermore, there was a significant decrease in the number of URM students earning D, F, or withdrawing from courses with PLTL (p = 0.003; Figure 1). This study also highlighted that PLTL can reduce the achievement gap between URM and non-URM students (Figure 1, Snyder et al. 2016).


Figure 1 PLTL data

Figure 1: Achievement in introductory biology for underrepresented minority (URM) students and non-URM students with (orange bars) and without PLTL (gray bars). Study published by Snyder et al. 2016.

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If you are interested in taking one of our PLTL courses or have more questions, please contact Dr. O’Brien (obrien.501@osu.edu) and she will be happy to answer any of your questions.



Additional Information & Resources about PLTL

You can read more about PTL that was published by the PLTL International Society:


Broda, Yun, Schneider, Yeager, Walton, and Diemer. 2018. Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: a randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. J Res Educ Eff 11:317-338.

Dweck. 2006. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, and Freeman. 2011. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332: 1213-1216.

Kapur and Bielaczyc. 2012. Designing for productive failure. J Learn Sci 21:45-83.

Kowalczyk. 2011. Review of teaching methods and critical thinking skills. Radiol Technol 83: 120-132.

Kudish, Shores, McClung, Smulyan, Vallen, and Siwicki. 2016. Active learning outside the classroom: Implementation and outcomes of peer-led team-learning workshops in introductory biology. CBE Life Sciences Education 15: ar31.

Preszler. 2009. Replacing lecture with peer-led workshops improves student learning. CBE Life Sciences Education 8: 182-192

Schmidt, Van Der Molen, Te Winkel, and Wijnen. 2009. Constructivist, problem-based learning does work: A meta-analysis of curricular comparisons involving a single medical school. Educ Psychol 44: 227-249.

Snyder, Sloane, Dunk, and Wiles. 2016. Peer-led team learning helps minority students succeed. PLOS Biology 14(3): e1002398. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4784972/


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