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You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours: Peer Mentoring as an Academic Development Tool

Part of my role as an Effective Learning Adviser is to take one to one appointments with students who need academic advice outside of their subject. The issues brought up in most of these meetings are normally rather straightforward: students may have questions about figures and tables in a lab report they are writing, or want some help with deciding the best revision tactic for them. Inevitably, some meetings are more complicated; usually because the student can’t exactly pinpoint their academic problem, or because they have a range of smaller issues that can’t be addressed during the half hour appointment. Two of my students this week were in the latter category and, although the characteristics of their issues were rather disparate, I found the same solution to be fitting in both cases: go and explore peer to peer mentoring.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

In the case of the first student, Sarah, it initially seemed as though she needed advice on the most effective working pattern for her, followed by an appointment a few months down the line to address some anxiety around exam revision. As we discussed the potential solutions though, it became clear that one off advice would not be sufficient. Sarah often countered my suggestions with, 'but, how will I know if I’m doing it right?' or, 'I’m just worried I’ll lose my momentum'.

It seemed that the academic advice was helpful, but in addition, Sarah needed a safety net to give her the confidence to succeed in her studies. We decided that peer to peer mentoring in the form of either paired or group work was the best solution for her. She was enthusiastic about the idea, and felt that it would be useful to be able to compare and review her study methods as she went along, as well as benefiting from the motivating effect of working within a team.

My second student, Umar, was confident of his academic ability, but felt he was falling behind in the content of his modules due to his academic background. Umar is studying a MSc in a different subject to his undergraduate degree and it was naturally taking him longer to understand some of the complex concepts in his course. It transpired that Umar had already taken the initiative to seek out resources outside of his lectures and tutorials – even going as far as seeking help from YouTube and some credible software programs designed to hone mathematics and programming-based skills. He had also sought help from his department, and lecturers and adviser of study had worked with him to help him catch up on his subject knowledge.

Despite these efforts and the support he’d already received, he was still falling behind while attempting to fill the gaps in his subject knowledge. Peer to peer mentoring was an obvious choice for him, and I suggested he set up a study group with a Facebook page. He could tap the collective knowledge of the group to help him through his course, and drop quick questions into a Facebook chat when they were not together. In return, Umar could offer his expertise in time management and developing a good work ethic that he’d garnered during his five years in the workplace before returning to university.

For both of these students, peer to peer mentoring was a good supplement to the advice I was able to give, despite their very different academic issues. They are hopefully making good progress in setting up their study groups as we speak!

While I was reflecting on my appointments and had realised that this solution had proved to be favourable for two separate people, I began to think about previous times that I’d come across the idea of peer to peer mentoring between students.

The subject was brought up during a project for which I was the Research Assistant before taking on my ELA role. We investigated the academic experiences and challenges that PGT students in STEM subjects face as they transition into, through, and out of their course at the University of Glasgow (see Bownes et al., 2017 in JPAAP for the full study).

We spoke to a large number of students during the project via surveys, interviews and a workshop, and peer mentoring was repeatedly brought up as something that had been key in the success of many of the PGTs. One student described using group work to help him with his understanding of his subject, and the importance of offering help when you can. His advice to future PGTs was that 'group work is very key [because] you may have something that I didn’t see in my research. I would also have the same [for you]. We bring it together.'

We also spoke to a group of international students who felt that peer mentoring, this time online instead of face-to-face, would be beneficial. They thought that a discussion forum for current and pre-registration international students would enable new starters to feel prepared and less daunted by the prospect of moving to a new academic institution.

So, it’s clear that students see the benefit of peer mentoring, and that, seemingly, it can be applied in many different circumstances, but how effective is it?

And (if it is) why is it so effective? Should we, as professionals in academic development, both advise peer mentoring and seek it out for ourselves?

Research tells us that the effects of peer mentoring on students’ experience and success rate is overwhelmingly positive. When students who experience high levels of anxiety utilise peer mentoring, their grades improve to be in

line with those achieved by low anxiety students, and far above those achieved by high anxiety students who do not engage in peer mentoring (Rodger & Tremblay, 2003). There is also evidence that peer mentoring directly influences anxiety levels, and it is this aspect of the practice that is so beneficial because it leads to a less stressful and more engaging learning environment for everyone (Sprengel and Job, 2004).

Peer mentoring has shown to be beneficial in the professional workplace as well as in the classroom, with one study showing a significant improvement in the perceived skills and knowledge of mentors (Bryant, 2005). With every tool we use though, it must be wielded correctly. Peer mentoring is not a fix-all solution to every problem and it must be practiced with a clear understanding of participants’ roles (Colvin and Ashman, 2010).

It is also important that mentoring does not take the place of the valuable and informed academic advice and support provided by university staff to students. The relationship between staff and students is probably the most valuable in terms of student success (Bownes et al., 2017). Given the clear advantages, though, I will certainly be considering not only how I can encourage more peer to peer mentoring amongst my students, but how I might also take advantage of the mentor/mentee opportunities provided at the University of Glasgow and by the ScotELAs mentorship scheme for my own professional development.

References

Bownes, J., Labrosse, N., Forrest, D., MacTaggart, D., Senn, H., Fischbacher-Smith, M., Jackson, M., McEwan, M., Pringle Barnes, G., Sheridan, N. and Biletskaya, T., 2017. Supporting students in the transition to postgraduate taught study in STEM subjects. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5(2), pp.3-11. [Direct link]

Bryant, S.E., 2005. The impact of peer mentoring on organizational knowledge creation and sharing: An empirical study in a software firm. Group & Organization Management, 30(3), pp.319-338. [Direct link]

Colvin, J.W. and Ashman, M., 2010. Roles, risks, and benefits of peer mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18(2), pp.121-134. [Direct link]

Rodger, S. Tremblay, P.F., 2003. The effects of a peer mentoring program on academic success among first year university students. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 33(3), p.1. [Direct link]

Sprengel, A.D. and Job, L., 2004. Reducing student anxiety by using clinical peer mentoring with beginning nursing students. Nurse educator, 29(6), pp.246-250. [Direct link]