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Cathedrals Mission Group - Peer Learning Project 2017: Peer-assisted study sessions (PASS) University of Cumbria

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

PASS is a national scheme that provides a facilitated group learning opportunity that uses the experience of higher year students to support the learning of lower year peers. Based on the ‘supplemental instruction’ approach developed at the University of Missouri Kansas City PASS has been adopted by a number of UK universities.

PASS complements existing course activities (e.g. lectures and seminars) enabling active learning in an informal and friendly environment. PASS sessions focus on the development of academic and learning strategies in new first year students while second and third year student leaders benefit from the development of their employability skills.

PASS fosters cross-year support between students on the same course and encourages participants to support each other and to learn collaboratively under the leadership of trained students from high years.

Each scheme is located within an undergraduate programme and is subject specific.

Scheme overview

Peer-assisted study sessions (PASS) is an established part of widening participation and retention activities at the University of Cumbria. The scheme was set up in 2008 initially piloted in the Education department and has since grown in 2016-17 to 17 schemes across 13 different programme areas and across four campuses. In 2015-16 the PASS team trained 120 higher-year students as PASS leaders.
The scheme is co-ordinated by the Learning Enhancement and Retention Adviser and is delivered in liaison with trained supervisors from the team of Library and Academic Advisers located in Library and Student Services (LiSS). Academic Coordinators (course-based tutors) are also identified to ensure the scheme is embedded into course practice (see table below for PASS roles overview). 
PASS supports incoming students through their first semester in university (although some schemes do continue into semester two); helping them make sense of academic practice at HE level and develop effective study approaches and coping strategies with the help of higher year students who have experienced the same first year of the programme. PASS Leaders deliver weekly discussion group sessions with small groups of first year students who agree the topic for discussion. Topics vary but will tend to cover issues such as managing a first assignment academic writing and referencing assignment planning time management understanding tutor feedback and course-specific topics such as preparing for work placement writing a lab report or reflective journals.

The PASS scheme is based on a number of key principles including voluntary participation collaboration and active participation open to all abilities and importantly it provides a confidential and safe environment where no question is a silly question. Although PASS is a valued addition to the current academic provision as yet there is no link to additional academic credit.



PASS Scheme Coordinator (LiSS)

Co-ordination training monitoring and evaluation

PASS Supervisor (LiSS)

Liaison with linked programme training of PASS Leaders

PASS Academic Coordinator (Academic programme)

Embedding with course practice supports timetabling of sessions recruitment and monitoring of leaders

PASS Leader

2nd 3rd or 4th year student volunteer – deliver weekly discussion groups

PASS attendee

New 1st year undergraduate students


Key resource implications 

Originally delivered within the core staff provision within the Academic Services and Retention Team (part of LiSS) the expansion of the scheme has led to a business case being built a few years ago to secure additional staff capacity from the OFFA fund that aims to support the access success and employability of widening participation students of which the University of Cumbria recruits a significant number. The post of WP Learning Enhancement and Retention Adviser (grade 6) was introduced in May 2014 and approximately 0.6FTE of this post is dedicated to the co-ordination of the PASS scheme. PASS targets are built into the University’s annual Access Agreement.

The LiSS PASS co-ordinators carry out their responsibilities within their current job description (LiSS funded) where support for retention is identified. Overall that work equates to another 0.5FTE at grade six to support all our existing schemes. There is no pay allocation for Academic Coordinators who carry out their PASS role within their normal academic staff role.

PASS leaders are not paid in line with many other higher education institutions (HEIs) that offer PASS and volunteer their time to attend the training and to run weekly one-hour sessions.

In addition there is a small annual non-pay budget allocation that covers items such as travel print and catering for staff meetings and leader training scheme promotion and attendance at meetings and conferences across the peer learning community. Money is also allocated each year to support the attendance of two PASS Leaders to the annual PASS Leader conference.

Over the years funding has also been allocated through the University’s staff development budget and through OFFA to allow for one member of staff each year to attend PASS Supervisor training at a cost of approximately £800 per person.

Training and development of mentors/mentees

Students who come forward to become PASS Leaders must undertake the equivalent of two days training before they can be attached to one of our PASS schemes. The training is delivered across our campuses by the PASS Supervisors (LiSS). Leaders are trained through a combination of scheduled online and face-to-face activities.

The training framework and materials are based on those provided by the former PASS National Centre at the University of Manchester and have been adapted to the requirements of the institution.

  • all interested PASS Leaders are signed up to the PASS Hub – a specifically designed site on Blackboard the University’s virtual learning environment (VLE). This site contains information on managing PASS sessions useful resources register information and importantly the first stage of the formal training programme. This part of the training introduces the scheme its purpose and principles on which it is based. A number of quizzes test students’ understanding at each key point;
  • the second phase of the training is a day of face-to-face training an opportunity for leaders to display what they had learnt online and put into practice some key facilitation techniques. In the latter part of the training day the focus is on running mock sessions and session planning allowing the leaders to prepare for their first session.

After the initial training has taken place a number of monitoring mechanisms are put in place including regular debriefs of the leaders at programme level involving supervisors and academic co-ordinators. These allow all parties to discuss student feedback engagement levels and any other issues that may arise. This year the offer of additional optional training for leaders is being explored to allow further development of the PASS Leaders.

All PASS Leaders are encouraged to sign up and complete the University’s Employability Award Career Ahead and their contribution to enhancing students’ learning is recognised at an annual celebration Bright Futures that recognizes the various ways student volunteers in various roles support the students’ experience.

How the scheme engages and supports students 

Primarily the PASS scheme offer first year students the opportunity to gain subject specific support from their peers and helps to foster cross-year engagement and relations. From a non-judgmental and impartial position student leaders are able to share their subject knowledge and recent on-course experiences to assist first year students in understanding their course expectations. Through facilitation the scheme enables students to develop effective learning strategies and encourages self-dependency and reflection.

Identified benefits for attendees include:

  • increased levels of confidence in undertaking academic study;
  • enhanced understanding of tutors’ expectations;
  • greater awareness and knowledge of support services available to them;
  • increased sense of belonging and desire to stay on their course through socialisation with higher year students and within their PASS group;
  • acquired quick-win strategies that help them cope with the demands of academic study.

Leaders self-identified:

  • increased confidence in their own ability;
  • a better understanding of available support services which they had not fully appreciated until they had to support others;
  • an increased belief in their own employability through the development of skills such as communication presentation leadership organization and time management.

At course level tutors report the key benefit of an additional open and immediate channel for student feedback and improved cross-year relationships in turn supporting the successful transition and retention of new first year students.

Evidence of value effectiveness and impact

The evaluation activity around the effectiveness and impact of the PASS scheme has been developed over time and has so far focused on measuring:

  • levels of engagement through the reporting of numbers of recruited PASS Leaders and numbers of first year students who regularly attend PASS sessions;
  • benefits to leaders and attendees through short Likert-scale type surveys on completion of PASS training (Leaders) and after a few months into the scheme (participants). The surveys have also provided an opportunity for qualitative statements and comments from students that have helped build rich illustrations of the way both attendees and leaders benefit from the scheme (see previous section).

More recently the whole service has agreed to take a more consistent and systematic approach to impact measurement across all support interventions delivered by LiSS. An Intervention Logic Model combined with Kirkpatrick’s model of evaluation will be used to assess the impact of PASS sessions on the adoption of effective learning strategies changed learning behavior and impact on first year grades and retention. Similarly the models will be used to measure the impact on PASS Leaders in relation to enhanced confidence employability skills development and success.

Diagram 1: Intervention Logic Model

Diagram 2: Kirkpatrick’s model of evaluation

Critical reflections 

At the start the key challenge was raising awareness of the scheme and its potential with academic colleagues to gain buy-in. We started the scheme with our ‘enthusiasts’ and this helped us build awareness and evidence of the benefits of the scheme to students and their programme. Initially there was an expectation that the scheme would be offered within the available staff capacity at the time. It took time to succeed in making the case for additional funding which eventually came through OFFA. This has been crucial for us in developing and expanding the scheme.

Also crucial is gaining buy-in from academic tutors as PASS sits within the programme and its success is very much dependent on tutors seeing it as an integral part of their course thus promoting PASS to students as an integral part of their programme. For instance the apparent trivial issue of timetabling a room once a week for PASS meetings can be a ‘make or break’ issue for the scheme.

Ideally PASS sessions need to be embedded into the course timetable. However university timetabling systems may need to be circumvented to allow for this to happen. The task of recruiting PASS Leaders is potentially staff intensive and again does rely on promotion by the course team for it to be successful.

Over the years we have ensured we promote PASS across the university through presentations at the annual Teaching and Learning Fest events where PASS Coordinators Academic Coordinators and PASS Leaders have presented jointly on their experience and benefits of PASS. The scheme co-ordinator also works closely with the National Peer Learning Community and attends relevant events and meetings to share good practice.

Lessons and advice to those starting such a scheme include:

  • start small and build the evidence base to develop a strong business case for resources;
  • the success of such a scheme is dependent on strong partnership work and buy-in by the course team;
  • the schemes that are truly embedded into the course are the most successful ones;
  • do not underestimate the skills and staff capacity needed to demonstrate impact.
Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across The Cathedrals Group - Compendium of Case Studies_8.pdf
Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across The Cathedrals Group - Compendium of Case Studies_8.pdf View Document

The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.