Mini-series: An introduction to Peer Learning and Support

Photo credit: Mihela Bodlovic

In this mini-series, contributors from across Peer Learning and Support (PL&S) will dive into a range of issues relating to PL&S and explore the various benefits and challenges of such initiatives. They will be shedding light on aspects of PL&S that people may not know about, as well as offering new perspectives on more familiar discussions about teaching, learning, and the student experience. In this first post, Dr Robyn Pritzker, Peer Learning Coordinator, introduces the two PL&S schemes that run across the University  …

In early October, fresh out of my PhD here at Edinburgh University, I joined the Edinburgh University’s Students’ Association’s Peer Learning and Support team as Peer Learning Coordinator. I brought to the role several years of experience in undergraduate teaching, a long-standing commitment to collaborative, student-led pedagogy, and a near-boundless enthusiasm for educational leadership and development. But a month in, I am still learning about the extensive opportunities available to students through our initiatives. I’ve always believed that an ethos of cooperation and growth, rather than competition, is key to learning, and it’s now my job to make sure all students within the University have access to such an environment.

Our Peer-Assisted Learning Schemes (PALS) comprise study sessions run and organised by trained volunteers in second year and above, aimed at earlier-year students. These PAL sessions cover a variety of topics, including settling into University life, study skills, course content, module choices, and assessment. Peer Support Schemes have a more pastoral or community-building focus, enhancing student wellbeing and enriching the University experience. Student Leaders of Peer Support Schemes run regular social activities and well-being focused sessions to bring together all year groups.

Bringing myself up to speed with the history of Peer Learning and Support (PL&S) here at Edinburgh, and beginning to contribute to the PL&S Schemes, has been an exciting and engaging process. Speaking with Student Leaders who have been running PL&S schemes for several years reminds me how much all educators stand to learn from the wisdom and creativity of their students. Following students’ lead, and trusting them to shape their own supportive frameworks, is our department’s modus operandi. We do our best to advise, guide, and train students in running their own schemes with as much autonomy as possible. Capacity building and sustainability are always on our minds, and the rapid expansion of PL&S schemes over the past few years indicates students have responded in kind.

Peer Learning and Support in its current form has been developing at Edinburgh University since 2012, and now reaches thousands of student participants through hundreds of Student Leaders. The statistics showing the benefits of Peer Learning and Support are compelling and speak for themselves. You can read about some of them on this previous Teaching Matters post. However, on a more individual scale, PL&S can turn a week of fretful revision into a relaxed and supportive study experience, offer a safe space to discuss wellbeing, demystify the overwhelming world of academia, and turn a crowded, anonymous lecture hall into a group of friendly faces.

Leaders of PL&S Schemes gain experience guiding discussions, managing social events, and seeing first-hand the positive impact their hard work has on students. Coordinators, committee members, and School Senior Leaders also work alongside academic and professional staff within their Schools to help shape their sessions and embed their schemes within the curriculum and help them grow.

Our central team at the Students’ Association assists schemes in advocating for themselves and organises opportunities for continual training and development. The PL&S experience is mutually supportive, and has demonstrably contributed to a sense of collegiality across the University.

Over the next two months, we’ll share stories and perspectives from Peer Learning and Support Leaders, the central team, and student attendees themselves. Investigating certain barriers to accessing PL&S and how to navigate them, balancing different methods of distinguishing and organising Schemes, comparing models of learning, widening PL&S participation, and expanding upon mentorship and professional development opportunities will all be addressed within this mini-series.

As a newer member of the team, I’m still learning about all the ways my academic research and teaching skills might inform my work with student groups. Mostly, I’m concerned with the day to day tasks of meeting with or emailing Leaders to ensure that they have all the resources they need to run their sessions throughout the semester. However, PL&S are also always brainstorming ways to extend and apply our peer-driven frameworks to other aspects of the University and beyond. We hope to engage with other institutions nearby and further afield in order to foster a wider network of learning, teaching, and community. After all, we are constantly learning from our peers at every stage of our lives and careers.

Robyn Pritzker

Dr Robyn Pritzker is the Peer Learning Coordinator for the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, supporting the wider department of Student Opportunities. She holds a PhD in English Literature, also from Edinburgh University. Robyn is particularly interested in collaborative learning, open educational resources, and digital transformations, and has taught at the undergraduate, secondary, and primary level throughout her career. She has worked on several digital humanities research and training initiatives, and is keen to continue exploring the way new technologies can enhance teaching and learning in higher education. Robyn also writes about film and television, and reads ghost stories.

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