A Compendium of Case Studies has been produced as part of the joint Higher Education Academy / The Cathedrals Group / Leeds Trinity University project ‘Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across the Cathedrals Group’. It is intended to showcase and illuminate the rich range of practice within the group.
You can download the compendium on this page.
Each institutional participant within the project was invited to select one of the schemes / programmes in current operation that best illustrates their current practice. Although several institutions operate more than one scheme only one case study per institution was permitted. This is one such case study.
Nature and focus of scheme
The ‘Peer assisted learning and the study of Psychology’ module is a yearlong third year UG module that is optional for all students on a Psychology programme. All students are eligible for acceptance on the module but it has a maximum recruitment of 30 places on a first-come-first served basis.
Students work in partnership with the teaching teams of various first and second year modules and the students they teach. This provides peer assisters with an opportunity to understand the teaching/learning process and reflect on their own particular style of learning.
In recent years there has been a notable shift in higher education from passive didactic methods of teaching toward methods designed to encourage students to develop clearly defined competencies engage actively in their own learning and to take responsibility for it (such as problem-based learning and profiling). Peer evaluation and peer-assisted learning are part of this trend.
Race (1994) in particular argues the need for 'flexible learning’ that involves students “taking some control regarding how they learn”. In addition both psychologists and educators are recognising more and more the crucial role practical know-how (tacit skills) and personal style play in adult learning and skilled performance (e.g. 'apprenticeship' models of learning). All of these developments argue for the value of peer-assisted learning both as a means by which more experienced students can help the less experienced by passing on some of their 'know-how' and as a source of learning for the peer assister in its own right.
The ‘Peer assisted learning and the study of Psychology’ module draws on students’ knowledge of being a student and learning occurs through two teaching and learning approaches. The first approach involves students engaging in peer-assisted learning sessions in which they assist with first and second year modules then reflect on their practice. The second approach involves a syllabus of taught sessions covering the psychology of adult learning. Students reflect on their peer-assisting practice by examining relevant literature and theory in the taught sessions. The assessment consists of a reflective report which builds on an e-learning journal students use to record their peer-assisting experiences. Students achieve 20 credits towards their degree if the summative assessment receives a pass grade.
Key resource implications
This is funded as part of the Psychology programme (like every module). Staffing is based on usual academic workload assessment. There is one module convenor who also deals with organisation of peer assisting as well as much of the teaching in the taught sessions. Other lecturers also contribute to teaching of the taught sessions.
Training and development of mentors/mentees
In the first peer-assisting taught session students are briefed on what it means to be a peer assister and provided with the ‘peer assisted learning mission statement’ as well as ‘rules and policies’ which set out what is expected of them.
There is no formal training for peer assisting but students are briefed about each session prior to commencing peer assisting. Guidance is sent to peer assisters before each session which consists of the materials that first/second years will use. There is an opportunity to ask questions define their role and set ground rules and expectations.
When commencing the peer-assisting session the staff member greets peer assisters and acts as a point of contact within the class. The staff member addresses queries from peer assisters. They also monitor their engagement and provide encouragement. Peer assisters operate autonomously.
Peer assisters are not specifically followed-up after each peer-assisting session but they are asked to write 100 words in their learning journal reflecting on their experience. Peer assisters are expected to complete ten peer-assisting sessions in a range of modules across the year.
How the scheme engages and supports students
Peer assisting is expected to enhance learning and teaching of first and second year modules. Smaller groups mean more one-to-one support. It encourages promotes and fosters students’ independent learning while leading to deeper understanding of concepts and integration of ideas. As skills increase so can students’ confidence. It challenges first and second year students to take responsibility for their own learning. It provides another level of communication between teaching staff and students. It facilitates engagement with university learning and provides a perspective on the importance of learning the particular topic (e.g. research methods) in Psychology.
It also establishes a partnership between peer assisters and first and second year students. It increases third years’ knowledge and confidence through peer assisting by providing them with the opportunity for rich practical learning of various topics within Psychology and communication skills. It gives them practical knowledge of the psychology of adult learning. It teaches them how to develop reflective thinking and writing skills. The idea is that ‘teaching’ others is the best way of developing confidence in one’s own skills.
Evidence of value effectiveness and impact
Peer assisters complete reflective reports based on their interactions with first and second year students. Here are some examples of benefits highlighted by peer assisters:
Example 1: during one interaction a peer assister observed that one student clearly felt more able to share their concerns about research methods with them rather than a member of teaching staff. The peer assister empathised and offered their own feelings about the process of studying research. Despite initially seeming an unsuccessful interaction the peer assister observed the student working on the task with renewed motivation.
Example 2: while helping a student with research methods a peer assister related an experience of drawing on their prior knowledge of statistical software and statistics to directly assist a student in catching up and understanding the material. This appeared to reinforce their own confidence in their understanding as well as providing needed assistance to the student.
Example 3: while helping a student who had trouble keeping up with a step-by-step presentation due to their hearing difficulties a peer assister drew on the step-by-step written instructions (which highlights the importance of providing these materials to peer assisters during briefing). The peer assister was able to convey how helpful these materials were to them when they were in the same position.
Challenges include: role definition of the peer assister (teacher tutor peer?) identifying the appropriate level of support for the learner and communication skills of peer assisters. Peer assisters also possibly have insecurities about their own knowledge anxiety about not knowing the answer to questions and concerns about the responsibility of taking on a ‘tutoring’ role. It is hoped that detailed briefing availability to meet peer assisters with issues and expectation management deals with most of these challenges.
Logistically the high amount of organisation involved in peer assisting means the scheme can only recruit a small number of students. The small numbers also have another benefit as the students on the module can feel like a team and first and second year students can get to know them from the familiarity of seeing them regularly.
The scheme could be strengthened if the modules that included peer assisters were to form a more specific role for them. For example there could be certain activities that peer assisters could specifically engage in (separately from what teaching staff would do) to support students.
- Advice to those starting a scheme is that it is important to think about how the scheme is branded to students. Even though we only recruit small numbers of students we have very few students sign up for the module in the first place. We have not ascertained the reason for this yet but believe it could be due to anxiety about the perceived level of responsibility in the role. Additionally make sure you have a clear remit for the peer assisters – think about what support they can provide and how this would be organised logistically. It is likely you will need ‘buy-in’ from other teaching staff who may need to supervise peer assisters and brief them.