In my previous blog I highlighted the importance of building collaborative group-based assessment into your courses and modules since these are one of the most effective ways of ensuring that students develop the kind of skills, attributes and experiences that will prepare them for work in professional settings and roles of various kinds. In this blog, I’d like to articulate the case for integrating peer-mentoring opportunities.
For me, student-centred teaching is defined primarily by being focused on the needs of the student – i.e. on what they need to learn, and on the skills they need to develop, rather than what I want to teach. It is important, therefore, for academics to deliberately create (or at least help to establish) the conditions in which students can develop the kinds of skillsets that will serve them well in challenging professional roles.
Regardless of the settings where graduates will end up working, it is likely that they will – at some stage – be exposed to the role of ‘mentor’, either as a mentee (e.g. receiving support from a more experienced colleague) or as a mentor themselves, passing on their experience and learning to less experienced professional colleagues. Gaining experience of being a mentor whilst at University is therefore hugely valuable for students as part of their ongoing personal and professional development.
It is probably fair to say that the vast majority of peer mentoring schemes in the HE sector today are implemented at Departmental, Faculty or University Level. At Anglia Ruskin University, for example, the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (ALSS) has for several years employed a Student Buddies scheme in which more experienced undergraduates work with and support the effective integration of the first years for a limited period of 4 weeks at the start of the new academic year. The author is currently coordinating the roll-out of a University-wide buddy scheme focused on providing enhanced peer mentoring support for 1st year students undertaking reassessment. At UEA, meanwhile, a centrally-coordinated Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme was established in 2012 to ensure the effective ‘trickle-down’ of experience from the 2nd and 3rd years to the new intake of 1st year students across a range of Faculties. Many similar schemes, with similar objectives, exist in higher education settings both in the UK and beyond. In some the student mentors are volunteers, in others the students are paid. In some HEIs peer mentoring schemes were also subject to generous funding from external bodies. The PAL scheme at Bournemouth University is one of the longest-running schemes of its type in the country. It was funded by a £150,000 grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) between 2001-2004 under Phase 3 of the Fund for Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL3).
There is now a substantial body of evidence which suggests that peer mentoring schemes and student buddy schemes have a significant impact on effective integration, retention, academic performance of those supported as mentees, and also the personal and professional development of the mentors, who gain valuable experience of supporting others that equips them for the transition into employment in graduate roles. In a major study (Keenan, 2014), for example, peer-learning schemes were found to promote and empower autonomous learning, enhance engagement and improve grades. Students participating in peer-led sessions experience an easier transition into HE settings with an enhanced sense of belonging and higher levels of participation. Their academic confidence increased and retention levels improved. It was also found that peer mentoring schemes helped to manage student expectations and helped to build community cohesion and cross-cultural integration.
But the schemes referred to above are often implemented at a Departmental, Faculty or University level. So how can individual academics address this aspect of student-centred teaching within their own modules or courses? Firstly, if schemes of this kind are absent from the environments where you work, you can lobby in favour of their creation within your own department or help to convince senior managers that this is something worth investing in. There are also, however, opportunities to address peer mentoring within the context of the ‘course’ without the need for dedicated ‘funding’ or generous grants. One could create, for example, course level ‘reading groups’ where students from different year groups can come together to explore key publications (e.g. magazine articles, journal articles, etc), with the more experienced students acting as coordinators and facilitators. As an alternative, one might establish student-led ‘drop-in’ sessions or surgeries, where 2nd/3rd years provide advice and guidance to 1st years. Or, following the setting of an assignment, one could get the more experienced students to provide an ‘assessment briefing’ in which they help the 1st years to understand what is required of them, how to interpret the assessment criteria, and to understand what they will get out of the assessment in terms of enhanced learning and new skills. In a similar vein, 2nd/3rd years could be allocated to 1st year project groups as ‘project mentors’ to help the 1st year project groups to gain maximum value from the group-working process, and to share their own experiences of producing a strong project submission. Alternatively, one could liaise with course directors/leaders on post-graduate courses to build opportunities for the PGT Masters students to act as mentors for students undertaking final year undergraduate projects and dissertations. Experience shows that students do not necessarily expect to be paid for this kind of work – voluntary schemes are often highly successful and creative use of alternative incentives can add perceived value.
The central point I am making here, however, is that highly effective integration of peer mentoring opportunities is not entirely dependent on substantial ‘funding’ – some creative thought is often all that is needed to break down the ‘silos’ that we often inadvertently create in high education that get in the way of the ‘trickle-down’ of learning that I referred to above. The potential for building peer mentoring opportunities at the level of the module, and of the course, are considerable, but for this aspect of student-centred teaching to be effective, module and course leads need to embrace a mindset in which they focus a bit less on ‘what they want to teach’ and rather more on generating a wider range of learning opportunities that extend well beyond the ‘traditional curriculum’.
Sources and links:
Keenan, C., (2014) Mapping student-led peer learning in the UK, Higher Education Academy. See: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/Peer_led_learning_Keenan_Nov_14-final.pdf
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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).