Peer support in higher education is carried out by someone who has had similar previous experiences, providing support, information, assistance and encouragement to an individual or a small group. It can promote a vibrant and positive learning community among the students, encouraging better dialogue between cohorts as well as integration of different levels of students.
Peer mentoring can act as pastoral support to students, typically at a time of transition in a social or academic setting. It can promote a sense of belonging, enabling students to fit into a new academic environment (Andrews and Clark 2011).
Peer mentoring can also involve Peer Assisted Learning (PAL), which often takes place within Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS). This is where a peer–assisted learning leader acts as an enabler and facilitator of learning through working with a small group (or sometimes individuals) to review an often-difficult concept from the previous week’s teaching.
Though student led, in both pastoral and academic mentoring schemes, peer mentors are supervised and supported by university staff members.
To be successful, peer mentoring needs:
- support either from a professional from the university or a member of academic staff who has experience of running these schemes.
- to be initiated by an academic department which can envisage the potential benefits for students.
- effective planning, clear objectives and adequate resources: targeted students/subject; funding; support; student consultation; matching mentor and mentees; setting up of timetables and rooms.
- buy-in from relevant staff and the wider organisation: recruiting mentors/leaders; promoting the scheme; involving academic staff; skill training for mentors and leaders.
- careful monitoring and regular support from the supervisor or scheme coordinators and departments.
Setting up a Peer Mentoring scheme:
- Mentors should be carefully chosen for their ability to support students at lower levels: this may be PGR or PGT students supporting undergraduates, or it may be third-year undergraduates supporting first- or second-year undergraduates.
- Training is given to mentors, who are in turn supported by the Peer Mentoring/PAL programme leaders throughout the term.
Setting up a PAL mentoring programme through Peer Assisted Study Sessions:
- PASS can be introduced at School/Faculty level or at module level. Modules students find difficult can be targeted specifically.
- The main focus is the subject not the student, i.e. it is modules or topics which have been identified as generally high-risk or problematic.
- The scheme should include timetabled sessions held at the same time each week, built around the student’s main timetable.
- The sessions may have a scheme of work carefully constructed week-by-week to include the concepts students generally find quite difficult on a frequent basis. For some sessions, students may bring their own issues/ideas for discussion.
- It is important to regularly evaluate the sessions to ensure they are useful for the mentors and mentees and that additional learning and support is taking place.
Benefits of a Peer Mentoring scheme:
- The benefits to the institutions and departments include a lower dropout rate, widening participation amongst the student communities and fewer demands on academics’ time.
- The benefits to the mentors include teaching skills, communication skills, reinforcement of their own learning and opportunities for voluntary work, which will count towards their university awards. It is also a valuable skill to put on their CV.
- The benefits to the mentees include the opportunity to ask questions and deal with pastoral issues that might not be addressed by academic departments. For PASS, students are able to practise skills and develop additional knowledge outside of the much larger class. Mentees are also able to explore their views of the course and set realistic expectations, thus developing both confidence within the subject area and an understanding of the topics in question.