Lessons learned from two weeks in Australia

I am concluding a two-week adventure in Australia in a couple of days. I was given this opportunity through an invitation to speak at a conference and do some other activities at the University of Wollongong. The conference was the National PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions) and Peer Learning Conference. Wollongong is located along the coastline about two hours south of Sydney. After the conference concluded, I went at my expense for a week’s vacation in Sydney also along the coast. I come back just in time to fly down to Kansas City for a class reunion of my high school graduating class of 1974.

I anticipate that some may ask me what it was like in Australia. I am still processing this experience and have yet to come up with a simple answer other than to say it has been wonderful. I had shared with one of my new colleagues in Australia that in response to such a question that I would simply smile and strongly suggest they “visit the land down under” for at least a week and preferably longer. Australia is not just a beautiful destination, it is a way of life and a perspective on life. I realize that sounds like a bunch of hype, but the more I think about this experience, the more I think I learned much from my new friends about life and relationships. I still have not figured this all out. Understanding another culture is not a simple thing to learn in a few weeks. But, I do know that this has been both a relaxing and a learning experience. I encourage you to come down, take some time, get to know a few of the local citizens, mix in some meaningful conversations along with time at the beaches, and just listen. I think they have some things to teach us. I am thankful for the experience. And hope to visit again. Thanks for reading.

Walker, L. (Ed.). (2010). Two (or more) heads are better than one: Adventures in leading group learning, a facilitator storybook. University of Minnesota, https://z.umn.edu/PALadventures


The Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Program at the University of Minnesota has compiled a storybook to capture some of that wisdom so that those who follow can benefit from their predecessors' experiences - some positive, some challenging, but all "learning opportunities". Two (or More) Heads are Better than One: Adventures in leading group learning is a collection of first person narratives, told by peer facilitators and recorded and edited by one of the PAL program’s undergraduates - Lana Walker. What began as her thesis project, the collection turned into a book that has become a staple in the pre-semester training workshops and weekly team meetings. The stories are a springboard for discussions of program policies, the particulars of cooperative learning, and a clearer understanding of roles and boundaries. The format is engaging; peer leaders find some of the stories “funny” and laugh along with the narrators about their experiences. Anyone working with undergrads will see how they can benefit from these honest and thoughtful reflections, carefully grouped by topic, with stimulating, open-ended questions at the end of each chapter.

Paz, J., & Lilly, M. (Eds.). (2014). Tried and tweaked: Activities to re-energize peer learning sessions. University of Minnesota, https://z.umn.edu/PALactivities


Tried and Tweaked: Activities to re-energize peer-learning sessions” is a collection of activities designed and conducted by undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota to use in their role as facilitators leading study sessions in the University’s Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Program. The activities were developed and tested during their weekly sessions and focus on two particular guiding principles of the PAL program (there are eight): modeling productive learning behaviors, and engaging students with each other. Each activity offers suggestions for preparation, supplies needed, appropriate courses, and the type of student grouping used in the activity. The spirit in which these session activities are designed is one of creating an informal, social, and welcoming environment. This is a companion volume to the Guide for Peer Learning Facilitators, which details all eight principles.

Lilly, M., & Sands, J. (2019). Guide for Peer Learning Facilitators. University of Minnesota https://z.umn.edu/PALfacilitatorguide


The Guide for Peer Learning Facilitators is the foundation of a formal training program at the University of Minnesota, in which undergraduate students learn how to lead weekly study sessions for their peers in a classroom setting for specific courses – primarily ones with high enrollment and prone to higher than average D,F, Withdrawal rates. Training and professional development throughout the academic year have been the cornerstones to the success the facilitators have realized. The eight principles that govern the program – crafted by Dr. David Arendale in his original publication of the same name – address topics such as cooperative learning theory, multicultural competency, metacognition, study strategies, and group dynamics. The book, updated in April 2019, also provides a directory of useable forms and worksheets and a bibliography of related publications.

Benson, J., & Lilly, M. (2017). Peer-Assisted Learning Program: Guide for team leaders. University of Minnesota. https://z.umn.edu/PALleaderguide


The Guide for Team Leaders is designed to inspire personal exploration of leadership within PAL, SI, and related academic support programs. Depending on the program, there may already be an existing structure in place where an experienced facilitator/leader mentors their own team of peers functioning in a similar role. These team leaders can create opportunities for members to interact, share knowledge, and promote the professional growth of their peers.

This guide was originally designed to support the growth of such team leaders within the Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Program at the University of Minnesota. However, as this work progressed, it became clear that the ideas were applicable to a variety of team leadership roles. This hands-on guide delves into such topics as meta-cognition, team member identity and participation, meeting/discussion topics and activities, and much more. Interactive activities encourage readers to reflect on these topics, while providing ample space for them to record their insights. It complements the Guide for Peer Learning Facilitators and utilizes activities in Tried and Tweaked, both of which are works developed by the University of Minnesota’s PAL Program.

A Life Well Lived as a Teacher and the Journey is Not Over Yet

It seems like only yesterday I taught my first history class at Pratt Community College in southcentral Kansas. It has been four decades since that first class session and I still remember specific students and class activities. Three years ago, I began phased retirement from the University of Minnesota. I have been working on this reflection since then. While certainly not the best story, it is my story. I hope you enjoy it and think about your own journey. Click “Read More” for the entire reflection along with the music clips from Rush, 38 Special, and the Lego Movie, video clip from the Twilight Zone, and video clip from Forrest Gump. Don’t miss out.

The Ph.D. Movie: Part One

The Ph.D. Movie: Part One

This two-part movie is based on Piled Higher and Deeper (also known as PhD Comics), is a newspaper and webcomic strip written and drawn by Jorge Cham that follows the lives of several grad students. First published in the fall of 1997 when Cham was a grad student himself at Stanford University, the strip deals with issues of life in graduate school, including the difficulties of scientific research, the perils of procrastination, the complex student–supervisor relationship and the perpetual search for free food. Cham continued the strip as an Instructor in mechanical engineering at Caltech, and now draws and gives talks about the strip full-time. In recent years, he has presented at the University of Minnesota and some of my students had the chance to have supper with him and share stories that might appear in future Ph.D. comics.

When I heard about the comic strip, I asked my graduate research assistants about it. They were all avid readers. I asked them if it was okay for me as a professor to read the comic and laugh at the events. the story lines are that are humorous, painful, and much too real. The students told me that they wanted me and other instructors to read the comic strips to provide some real insights into their lives and maybe consider how I interact with the graduate students. Ouch. While the comic strips are no longer regularly distributed, Jorge Cham has focused his energy on the Ph.D. films and tours the world speaking at colleges to packed audiences of students. Many of the story lines in the comics come directly from experiences shared with him by the graduate students as well as his own experiences.

The actors in the films are real-life graduate students and professors and filmed on college campuses. Cecelia, one of the characters, is my favorite. The actress who portrays her in the movies is now has earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics. Look for her name in the film credits at the end of the second movie. A highlight in her life was interviewing Dr. Steven Hawking for one of the video specials in the Ph.D. series. The look of joy in her eyes during their short interaction was priceless.