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Mitsue Nakamura Champions Peer-Led Team Learning at UHD

CST Prof Invites Non-STEM Disciplines to Join Annual Conference on Campus


By Laura Wagner

“Anyone? Anyone?”

Every student in America sympathized with the classroom of slack-jawed teens in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as the Economics teacher delivered the most boring lecture imaginable.

Thankfully, teaching has come a long way since that iconic scene. One of the biggest innovations occurred in the early ’90s when faculty at the City College of New York tried a new pedagogy of peer-led team learning. Undergraduate students who had successfully completed a Chemistry course were trained to facilitate workshops with a subsequent class in small groups of six to eight.

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The new pedagogy included six components (see sidebar), but the most important, according to the pioneers of PLTL, is number one on the list: supplementing a faculty member’s lecture time with a workshop format led by trained peer-leaders, which promoted students’ autonomy as learners. In the workshops, students learned to construct their own understanding of course-related material based on discussions with peers and the trained peer-leader. 

The results? Better problem-solving skills, improved retention of material, and more confidence in their learning, based on participation in the course.  

Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) as a formal approach soon spread across STEM disciplines with extraordinary success. UHD Mathematics Lecturer Mitsue Nakamura introduced PLTL to UHD in 2001. “When I came to UHD in 1988, I was a mathematician—I didn’t know how to teach. My mission became, ‘How can I help students learn the Mathematics that I love?’” she said. “So I threw out the idea of ‘instructing’ and began thinking of student interactions as opportunities to study with the students and learn with the students.”   

That led her to PLTL. Nakamura was awarded $10,000 from the PLTL Workshop Project Consortium in 2001 to pilot PLTL in a Mathematics class, and she began implementing the approach in College Algebra classes with her colleague and then-CST faculty member, Dr. Linda Becerra. Becerra and Nakamura published the first PLTL College Algebra workshop materials at UHD. “At the time, College Algebra was a bottleneck course for UHD,” Nakamura remembered. “Many students struggled to pass, but we found with PLTL, we had much greater success.”

That success soon caught the interest of Dr. Ongard Sirisaengtaksin, a professor in UHD’s nascent Department of Computer Science and Engineering Technology (CSET), known by all as Dr. Ongard. He was struck by the weekly workshop session. “He asked a lot of questions,” Nakamura said. “And he took the information and created materials for the first Computer Science workshop using these methods. Dr. Ongard was instrumental in PLTL being used in the Computer Science department.”

Dr. Ongard and Nakamura began collaborating to connect UHD to other universities using the approach. After Dr. Ongard passed away in 2014, Dr. Dvijesh Shastri, Professor and Assistant Chair in CSET, picked up the effort, fostering a PLTL-based relationship with the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions (CAHSI) begun by Dr. Ongard. CAHSI uses PLTL as part of its efforts to increase the number of Hispanic Computer Science students.

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In 2011, as PLTL spread around the globe, a group of PLTL practitioners—including Nakamura and Dr. Ongard—met to create the Peer-Led Team Learning International Society (PLTLIS) to support practitioners and institutions in implementing PLTL. Among PLTLIS’ goals are developing opportunities “to transform formal education through collaboration, research, and dissemination.” Nakamura and Dr. Ongard were among the founding board members for the society, and Nakamura still sits on the board.

This year, she and CST colleague Dr. Mary Jo Parker, Executive Director of UHD’s Scholars Academy, who enthusiastically supports the PLTL program, along with CST Dean Akif Uzman, are leading the charge for the 11th Annual PLTLIS Conference, which is returning to UHD after a decade. The conference will take place on campus May 31 through June 3 and will include presentations and workshops on the theme, “Strengthening Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Through a Sustainable Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) Program.” Nakamura was insistent that inclusion be part of the theme.

“It’s a small conference, student-oriented, pedagogy-oriented, to get students and faculty involved to do more collaboration,” explained Nakamura. “My hope is that faculty and students from other UHD colleges will come to the conference so that PLTL can spread beyond STEM. It’s an instruction method that works across disciplines.”

She noted that while small, PLTLIS is a global effort that includes partnerships in England, Canada, South America, the Philippines, and some South Asian countries. “We offer some hybrid options for the conference so our global partners can participate,” she said.

PLTL 2This year’s panels include “Securing Administrators’ Support to Sustain Your PLTL Program,” “Finding the Next Generation of Champions to Sustain Your PLTL Program,” and “Building Leadership Skills for Career Success: PLTL Alumni in Action.” The full conference agenda is available online, and typically includes a panelist of peer-leader alumni who talk about their history with PLTL. “I want the students to be front and center at the conference,” Nakamura said. “That’s what PLTL is all about.”

As to what motivates her to continue promoting PLTL after 20-plus years, Nakamura’s response is simple and sincere: “I love to watch students succeed. PLTL is wonderful because students are not just participating as learners, they’re participating as leaders.” She notes that the hardest part of training the peer-leaders is teaching them to let students uncover the answers versus providing the answers themselves. “It takes real growth for them. You can watch students becoming leaders as they learn this technique, and you know they will continue to be leaders in the future because of what they learn in PLTL.”

Questions about PLTL or the conference? Contact Mitsue Nakamura, Lecturer, Department of Mathematics & Statistics, at nakamuram@uhd.edu. Professor Nakamura is the Faculty Advisor and Coordinator for the PLTL Project & Collaborative Learning Community Center and the Mentoring Coordinator for the Scholars Academy.  

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.