Asking and Answering Questions: Partners, Peer Learning, and Participation

John Rivers, Aaron B. Smith, Denise Higgins, Ruth Mills, Alex Gerd Maier, Susan Margaret Howitt


Science is about asking questions but not all science courses provide students with opportunities to practice this essential skill. We give students ownership of the processes of asking and answering questions to help them take greater responsibility for their own learning and to better understand the process of science with its inherent uncertainty. Peer learning activities throughout the course embed multidirectional feedback within and between students and instructors. Students are our partners in the design and evaluation of exam questions and we learn from them as they rise to the challenge of identifying important information and applying it. The lab program is supported by peer assisted learning in which peer mentors partner with instructors to generate activities addressing the use of evidence and experimental design. While not all students engage as partners, those who do value these experiences and demonstrate they can use scientific content creatively and critically.


peer learning; feedback; asking questions; active learning; science

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John Rivers
Research School of Biology, Australian National University

John Rivers first enjoyed the molecular genetics course as an undergraduate, subsequently helping to establish and run the course’s PAL sessions. He has remained engaged with the course, helping evaluate student feedback, whilst completing his PhD in Plant Sciences at the Research School of Biology, ANU.

Aaron B. Smith
Research School of Biology, Australian National University

Aaron Smith graduated from the Australian National University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Genetics specialising in Plant Sciences and will begin a PhD in 2017. He has been a PAL mentor in first and second year biology courses since 2014.

Denise Higgins
Research School of Biology, Australian National University

Denise Higgins is an educational developer with extensive experience in course and program development, curriculum review and design and approaches to student-centred learning and research-led education. She has managed and participated in several education research projects on high order thinking skills and reflective practice in STEM undergraduate contexts.

Ruth Mills
Science Teaching and Learning Centre, Australian National University

Ruth Mills was coordinator of the ANU Science Peer Assisted Learning Program from 2011 to 2014, while also studying for a PhD in physics education research.  

Alex Gerd Maier
Research School of Biology, Australian National University

Alex Maier is a molecular parasitologist and applies functional genetics approaches to dissect the malaria parasite. His educational interests lie in conveying the excitement, challenges and benefits of the scientific method and how best to communicate the intrinsic aspects of it. He co-convenes the molecular genetics course with Susan.

Susan Margaret Howitt
Research School of Biology, Australian National University

Susan Howitt is a biochemist with an interest in educational research. She is especially interested in research-led education and how students understand research and the nature of science.  She co-convenes the molecular genetics course with Alex.