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Cathedrals Mission Group - Peer Learning Project 2017: Smart buddies (academic skills mentors) University Of Winchester

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 Smart Buddy scheme is available to first and second year home and EU undergraduate students and PGCE students. As the scheme is funded through the University’s Office For Fair Access (OFFA) agreement priority is given to mentee applications from under-represented students.

Smart Buddies are second year third year or Masters students who have been specially selected and trained. The scheme promotes the development of generic academic skills and is situated centrally rather than discipline-owned which means that Buddies and mentees can come from any programme of study. 

Scheme overview

Smart Buddies are academic skills student mentors. They are recruited early in semester two through a formal application and interview process and trained to begin working with mentees at the start of the new academic year. Buddies are allocated up to four students at any one time whom they meet one-to-one for approximately 30 minutes each week. Students can apply for a Buddy at any point in the academic year and can stay on the scheme for as long as they need to. Smart Buddy sessions aim to help mentees to:

  • gain confidence and engage in their studies;
  • boost their academic skills;
  • manage the challenges of higher education;
  • gain a greater sense of belonging at the University;
  • get the most out of their private study time.

The scheme began in the 2012-13 academic year and the number of mentees joining the scheme has increased year on year.

In addition to receiving an hourly rate for their Buddy work Smart Buddies can apply to have the scheme added to their HEAR dependent on successful completion of defined criteria for example mentoring a specific number of students attending training and supervision attending academic skills workshops.

Key resource implications 

The Smart Buddy scheme is funded through the University’s OFFA agreement.

Smart Buddies are currently paid an hourly rate for time spent completing mentoring activities which includes time spent with mentees promotional work and training.

The co-ordination of the scheme has now been incorporated into an Academic Skills Adviser post. Prior to this the co-ordinator role was part of a 0.4FTE 28 weeks a year post. As the scheme ‘re-launches’ in September to new first years it is important that staff are available at some point outside of teaching weeks to reflect on and evaluate the previous year and to plan for the next. As the number of Buddies has grown it has been important to review the staff time available and to ensure that more than one member of staff has understanding of the scheme to enable sharing of supervision training and administration for example mentee allocation.

The scheme benefits from some admin support but this is not dedicated.

Training is now delivered in-house so the other primary outgoings relate to refreshments for training and supervision sessions attending conferences and networking events mentor packs (e.g. confidentiality agreements mentee leaflets training booklets folders and schedulers) promotional materials (e.g. fliers posters pens t-shirts) and books.

Training and development of mentors/mentees

Smart Buddy training is developed and led by members of the Academic Skills Team. Buddies attend a two-hour induction session in March/April where they are provided with an overview of the scheme its aims the commitment expected and some activities to prompt their thinking about the first year experience and how they might help support their mentees in relation to this. This training also includes an opportunity to meet current Buddies so that questions can be asked in an informal way and the new team can meet any Buddies continuing on the scheme for a second year.

Buddies then attend two full days of compulsory training before the semester begins in September. These two days comprise of one day of student mentor training and one day of academic skills training. Both days are interactive and make use of role plays and activities combining theory and the application of this to the student mentoring role.

Ongoing training is provided during the year through group supervision sessions (five times a year) and paired supervision (two or three times a year). Group supervision sessions are 1.5 hours in duration and include time for joint problem solving as well as further training in academic skills or mentoring. Sessions are planned in response to any challenges Buddies have identified and reflect the skills needed at each stage of the academic/mentoring calendar. For example the first supervision session in October includes input from Student Services staff on supporting students in mental distress and disability awareness; a later session after the Christmas break usually focuses on exam revision and techniques. Paired supervision allows the opportunity for more detailed problem-solving and sharing of good practice as well enabling ongoing monitoring of the scheme. These sessions were previously individual supervision meetings but this was changed as the scheme grew and to allow for more collaboration between Buddies. 

How the scheme engages and supports students 

Feedback is gathered from both Smart Buddies and mentees. Buddies are required to submit an evaluation form and attend an evaluation meeting and mentees are encouraged to respond to an evaluation survey and are invited to attend an evaluation meeting. Main themes from feedback are as follows:

Smart Buddies:

In 2015-16 the following were identified by mentors as the main positive effects of the role:

  • increased confidence;
  • enhanced academic skill development and engagement with studies;
  • increased organisational skills.

Informal discussion with Buddies also highlights how the scheme has impacted on employability with many using the scheme in their applications for jobs or further study.


In the past two years 46 out of 47 mentees who responded to the survey rated their Buddy’s support and guidance as either excellent or good. In 2015-16 the majority of the 30 mentees who responded either strongly agreed or agreed with the following statements highlighting some key areas of value:

  • the scheme helped my transition to university study;
  • the scheme helped me to understand how to succeed academically;
  • the scheme encouraged me to take responsibility for my own learning;
  • the scheme helped me to develop key skills required for academic study;
  • the scheme increased my confidence;
  • the scheme helped me improve my grades.

In 2016-17 nine students who were Buddy mentees became either Buddies Companions (Academic Skills Mentors for International Students) or PAL leaders suggesting an increase in confidence in their academic studies and capabilities.

Evidence of value effectiveness and impact

At present no formal data are collected to measure the impact on transition retention or academic grades. We are keen to learn from other institutions that have such procedures in place.

See above for evaluation feedback.

Critical reflections 

The Smart Buddy scheme is now in its fifth year at the University of Winchester. During this time many changes have been made in response to challenges that have arisen and to enable the continual improvement of the scheme for both Buddies and mentees.

The first of these changes relates to the timescale of Buddy recruitment and training. In the scheme’s first year Buddies were not appointed until the beginning of the new academic year with training following in November. As a result a key transition point for new students was missed and this was reflected in lower mentee numbers.

The following year the calendar was amended so that Buddies were recruited in semester two and trained prior to the start of semester one enabling them to begin working with mentees as soon as new students arrived at university. The number of mentees who joined the scheme rose by 240%.

A key area of difficulty reported by Buddies is mentees not engaging when they have been allocated or cancelling sessions at the last minute. To help alleviate this an additional stage was added to the application process. Rather than students being allocated once they had signed up at Freshers’ Fayre or an induction activity students were contacted with a request for further details. Only those who responded were then allocated. This functioned to check commitment and also gave opportunity for students to be sent a leaflet outlining the scheme and its expectations.

Low response rates to mentee surveys is an ongoing issue and appears to be reflective of general student survey ‘fatigue’. Evaluations have already been moved to an online form to assist with this and steps will be put in place to capture more feedback as students leave the scheme rather than disseminating evaluations at the end of the year. This will be regularly reflected on to improve the evaluation process further.

Additional comment

Although schemes such as the Smart Buddy scheme are often established with the aim of supporting mentees the mentor role has significant benefits for Buddies too. At Winchester we continue to look for opportunities to increase Buddies’ academic and employability skills through for example sitting on the interview panel and leading parts of supervision sessions. We are currently exploring ways to formalise this in a ‘Senior Smart Buddy’ role for mentors who are continuing on the scheme for a second year. As the benefits for mentors are consistently being highlighted in peer-led learning literature this represents a key area for consideration.

Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across The Cathedrals Group - Compendium of Case Studies_5.pdf
Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across The Cathedrals Group - Compendium of Case Studies_5.pdf View Document

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