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Peer support and 'buddying'

The literature suggests that peer support can either be 'explicit', that is, those frameworks and practices introduced by academic and service departments to enable students to support each other; or implicit, that is, practices that often look like, and are, normal parts of a student's course. Case examples of 'explicit' 'buddying' schemes are provided in the booklet Peer support in the first year.

Case study 1 describes the Further Education/ Higher Education (FE/HE) Transition mentoring scheme, which is the most informal of the schemes outlined in the case studies. There is no matching of mentors with individual first-year students or groups, and the mentors are less likely to be involved in providing support on in-depth personal matters resulting from homesickness, for example.

The mentors operate very much as information providers. As Frank Brown and Elizabeth Mooney put it, the mentors signpost the 'wee stuff' - the seemingly basic, often practical or technical queries and concerns that first-year students have when faced with new terminology, systems and procedures. The Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) mentors are trained to have a good awareness and understanding of the support available to GCU students, but it is their personal experience and approachability that are key to their role.

Peer Connections, case study 2, contributed by Joan Muszynski differs in that first-year students using the service are more formally matched up with Peer Connectors who meet them to discuss issues and challenges they may be facing. Peer Connectors are involved in activities such as the University of Dundee's suicide awareness campaign, and their role can come closer to a more formal mentoring; one in the sense of providing guidance and psychological support as well as information and the voice of experience.

The University of Edinburgh's M-Power scheme, case study 3, represents the most formal of the mentoring systems. Specifically targeted at non-traditional entrants and with the explicit aim of enhancing student retention, M-Power matches individual first-year students with a personal mentor who will maintain a relationship with them throughout their first year. Mentors are trained in student attrition theory and act as a point of referral and of connection to the institution. The formal mentoring relationship involves what Neil Speirs refers to as the four strands of educational mentoring: academic, social, financial and personal issues.

The Student Network's e-mentors, case study 4, provide information about the University of Glasgow to first-year students via email and respond to individual enquiries. The mentoring role is predicated on information and personal experience. The Student Network differs from the other 'mentoring' schemes in its use of virtual activities in the form of forums, blogs and photo-blogs. These involve horizontal peer interaction that, according to Scott Sherry, provides a virtual 'space' for students across the university to interact with one another.

Case study 5, contributed by Hugh Fleming of Bournemouth University, is an example of a long-running peer-assisted learning (PAL) scheme. PAL is a form of explicit peer support that operates on both the horizontal and, to a lesser extent, the vertical axis; first-year students learn with and from each other, and this learning is facilitated by a more senior undergraduate. The scheme provides first-year students with a space to meet and work together in order to integrate and engage with each other and their coursework.

Second-year students facilitate PAL sessions and so provide a flavour of mentoring, in the sense of being available to impart their experience. This is the added extra that makes PAL different from other forms of first-year teaching. PAL practitioners are keen to stress that PAL is supplemental to first-year teaching and should not be viewed as a substitute for tutorials. There is an argument that PAL could operate effectively in academic terms with staff facilitating PAL sessions rather than student facilitators. However, that would lose the access of first-year students to more experienced peers - students who have already successfully negotiated the course or programme of study as well as the first year itself.

All of the explicit forms of peer support illustrated in the case studies require more experienced students to operate, and all actively encourage those who have benefited as first-year students to become mentors or facilitators in their second year. This cyclical driver benefits both the institution and the individual student.

Implicit forms of support include many of the normal activities of a university. Students are offered a range of opportunities to engage with other students in academically and/or socially meaningful ways. A friendship group is probably the most powerful form of peer support a student is likely to encounter, so opportunities that allow students to meet with like-minded people on campus or in a virtual environment (VLE) are essential.

Student associations, societies and unions play a very important role in this regard, as do halls of residence. Similarly, students are using online networks such as institutional VLEs and, increasingly, publicly accessible resources like Facebook and MySpace to meet and keep in touch with others.

Many of our current educational practices involve opportunities for students to work alongside each other in small groups, and for many students this is where friendship groups are likely to grow. While such learning activities (for example tutorials, laboratory practicals and field trips) are not included in the curriculum with the explicit intention of allowing students to make friends with and support each other, that this occurs is a natural outcome. However, with the massification of HE, such opportunities are becoming rarer, particularly in the first year where they might have the biggest impact.  Read more about supporting the development of learning groups and learning communities.

The booklet Peer support in the first year offers case studies 6 to 9 as examples of small group, collaborative learning opportunities, which are meaningful for students in terms of their learning and which provide a range of benefits in terms of peer support. Read more about encouraging interaction and dialogue around learning (peer and teacher-student).

Morven Shearer in case study 6 describes the use of survey-based research projects supported by tutorials to facilitate learning in a human biology module at the University of St Andrews. The use of tutorials in science teaching is not unusual, but introducing science students to human-based research is not the norm: much first-year biology learning happens in the laboratory setting.

Here, students are expected to investigate in groups (through a piece of survey-based research) human behaviour in relation to some aspect of human biology. A tutor, whom they meet formally on only a handful of occasions, supports the students; the tutorials are designed to help students by introducing a series of structured tasks to enable them to complete their work. What is important about these projects is not simply that they facilitate learning of the subject, but also that they introduce students to a group of their peers early on in their first year.

It is clear from feedback that the students find this beneficial in a number of ways. Students have reported that since the projects required them to learn with others, this allowed friendships to form that would not have done otherwise. They have also reported that the projects allowed them to become more familiar with the practices of the department.

In case study 7, Sally Freeman and Mary Sattenstall of the University of Manchester report on a first-year pharmacy module that has been modified to include an enquiry-based learning (EBL) element. Students are supported by their year tutor to investigate a clinical condition and the drugs used in its treatment. Again, participating students have reported the benefits in terms of 'settling into university life' and making friends.

Particularly significant is that subsequent to its initial pilot year, this EBL element has become the major component of the first-year module - that is, it accounts for 80 per cent of its assessment. In this case, the opportunity to learn with peers has been embedded in the practice of the course. By making this commitment to EBL, with its often small-group focus, the department is acknowledging the importance and impact of peer support in the first year.

In case study 8,  Ole Pahl of Glasgow Caledonian University describes an unusual practice that has been in existence for approximately 16 years. Students from different year groups (one to three) work together on the Vertical Project (VP). As students progress through the years, their role in the project changes.

In the first year the student is expected to act as an 'administrative assistant' or 'apprentice' to assist the project work undertaken by the second and third-year students. By the time he or she enters the third year, they are expected to act as project manager. Again, the evidence indicates that this is effective in terms of learning the subject content and discipline-specific skills. But in addition, like the explicit forms of support described above, it gives first-year students the opportunity to meet and gain advice and support from more experienced students in more senior years.

These examples of implicit peer support bear similarities to what might be termed normal practice in first-year teaching - students meet in groups to be supported in their learning by a member of staff or postgraduate tutor. What distinguishes them is the focus on students working independently of the tutor and supporting each other's learning. The requirement of engaging in a research project or process of enquiry means that students are essentially given ownership of their learning.

Further, they are often required to work together outside the classroom, making the formation of friendship and social networks more likely. Such opportunities can and should be highly motivational, and offer students essential opportunities to get to know each other and to integrate socially and engage in academically meaningful study.

Clearly, there are many other examples of good, innovative and engaging peer-support practices within the sector. However, case studies 6 to 8 are examples of how the classic tutorial-supported or laboratory-based module might be modified in a fairly straightforward and economical manner to provide a fruitful ground to allow for student friendships, effective collaborative learning and a feeling of engagement with the department.

Case study 9, describes the Scottish Teachers for a New Era Project, which has wider implications for other work-based learning and professional learning contexts.

A slightly different kind of student to student support is provided at the University of Aberdeen where the Learning How to Learn course is undertaken by Bachelor of Education (BEd) students within the School of Education. The aims of this course are to help students to develop their understanding of theories of learning and use these to enhance their understanding of themselves as learners.

These aims are achieved through the exploration of the individual as a lifelong learner. Personally held assumptions, values and beliefs about learning are challenged as part of a process of shared enquiry. The supportive relationship that develops between staff and students forms an effective community of learners, which operates to their mutual benefit.

Learning communities and social bonding can also be developed through assessment and feedback practice. Furthermore, such processes can be used to enhance students' motivation, self-esteem and desire to be successful.