Academic Peer Learning

main image CROPPeer Support started at Edinburgh as a joint venture between Edinburgh University Students Association and the University of Edinburgh in September 2012 and since June 2015 has been running as the Department of Peer Learning and Support. Peer Learning and Support in the context of the University means a student with more experience sharing their knowledge, skills, abilities and expertise with a new or less experienced student. This is a reciprocal relationship, based on mutual respect and understanding and is usually goal focused and time limited. Projects allow senior students to grow in confidence and maturity as they facilitate the learning and positive experience of junior year students. This work contributes to the forming of an intellectual community of learners where students feel they occupy a valued space.

Testimonials on participant experiences very much reflect this goal. A longitudinal study into Leader destinations post-University found that

  • 95% felt that they now possess the employability skills required of a graduate as a result of their Peer Leader experiences
  • 84% felt that they developed confidence when interacting with superiors as a result of their Peer Leader experiences.

Sessions generally have between 10-20 students, are usually run in groups and are timetabled out of class but are often attached to a course. Academic peer learning is not tutoring, nor is it teaching but facilitated learning. The Student Leaders do not bring in new content but use academic skills to deconstruct and explore what participant students have already been taught, creating a deeper understanding and long term knowledge acquisition. We’ve had some great feedback from participants around the sense of reassurance, comradery and belonging that they gain from their involvement.

“An amazing initiative, really appreciate it. Speaking to mentors was very helpful’.

“Meeting someone who has been through it and survived is a great way to feel better and confident!”

Leader testimonials revealed that for many it’s about more than just the benefits they gain but what they can contribute to their community and how they can give back. The LitPALS (Peer-Assisted Learning) Students Survey found that

  • 100% of respondents felt they had benefited from being a Leader. Reasons provided ranged from improved organisational and communication skills, to being a part of the academic community, to meeting new people.

Leaders said:

“As a result of my participation in the scheme I have become not only more creative and confident, but also more aware of the impact I have on others”. 

‘Several things motivated me to become a PALS Leader. Perhaps the most significant reason was I often utilised the PALS Scheme in my first year to help with my studies and I found it very useful. I felt I owed it to the Scheme and the younger students to give them the help I had’.

This year the Peer Learning and Support Team undertook a partnership project between the Students Association and the University Business School in piloting a credit-bearing Leadership Course for our PALS Student Leaders. The course covered facilitation, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, assertiveness, leadership style and skills, team building and much more. We are one of the few Institutions outside of the United States to run such a course, particularly with an additional taught content element.

Peer Learning and Support Statistics for semester 1 2016/17

This course was taught using a collaborative approach with contributions coming from experts in business, the education sector and peer learning. The course assessment was also bespoke as 20% of the mark is observation of applied learning in the PALS Sessions and 80% reflective journal critiquing their skills, experiences, challenges and developments as PALS Leaders and learners. The Leadership course we developed is also distinctive in its multi-disciplinary approach, bringing together students’ from disciplines across Arts, Humanities, Science and Engineering.

The feedback showed the diversity of the group to be one of the most positive aspects of the course.

We understand the importance bench-marking our practice with those leading in the field and with this in mind now hold the Co-Chair position for the International Academic Peer Learning Leadership Group, the purpose of this Group is to bring together practitioners to share their experiences, challenges, ideas and insights around academic peer learning. The Leadership Group has over 400 members globally and has been developing a number of new work stream focusing on research, impact evaluation, leader and professional development among others. We are also planning to run the inaugural PASS/PAL/SI European Forum in Lund, Sweden in June of this year. Closer to home we are also the Convenor of the Scottish Peer Support Network, bringing together 16 Universities and Colleges nationwide to collaborate on peer-led initiatives.

What Next: Postgraduate support

There has been an increasing demand over the last year for academic peer learning provision focused on postgraduate students, both taught and research. There are already a number of models developing informally from study skills workshops around dissertations to one to one academic mentoring. We are currently mapping this demand and through consultations and evaluations we will develop a strategic response, it is likely this model may be an adaption of provision at undergraduate level but will be shaped around the unique demands of the postgraduate experience.

Find out more about peer support on the University of Edinburgh Students’ Association website.

Katie Scott

Katie Scott is the Head of Peer Learning and Support working in partnership with the Students Association and the University. She is also the Co-Chair of the International Academic Peer Learning Leadership Group, which networks, supports and develops over 400 members with an interest in peer learning globally. She is the Convenor of the Scottish Peer Support Network and in her spare time runs her own consultancy and holds a Board position with the Empowerment Project. Although she also loves a lazy Sunday.

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