Ellen Pope, Nicola Allett, Victoria Carroll
3rd June, 2020
At Aston University, our experience of leading mentoring programmes (www.aston.ac.uk/ldc) has shown us that connecting students with their peers helps improve retention and continuation, while offering reassurance and instilling confidence in students when they experience moments of doubt during their studies – something that has been recognised in the literature for many years (Thomas, 2012).
The Learning Development Centre (LDC) at Aston helps students from diverse backgrounds navigate the unfamiliar environment of HE, being on hand to explain academic expectations and support students’ transition and preparedness for University (Pope et.al, 2017). The centre leads academic and pastoral peer mentoring programmes (including centralised maths, writing and transition mentoring), and collaborates with students to develop their transferable skills while providing opportunities for them to expand their networks and share experiences with others.
A learning development approach to student transition to HE focuses on empowering students by placing them at the centre of their learning (www.aldinhe.ac.uk), working with students to help them make sense of – and get the most from – their academic experience. Given our expertise in the LDC of implementing peer mentoring programmes and teaching maths and academic literacy, we wanted to work with students and academic colleagues to explore how peer assisted learning (PAL) approaches might help student transition and learning within their disciplinary context. Implementing PAL would also help leverage the diversity of our staff and student body while providing opportunities for educational and professional development to all those participating and supporting the programmes (Aston Strategy 2018-2023).
Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) focuses on engaging experienced students to support the transition and learning of new/less experienced students to University and their subject discipline. Derived from the “Supplemental Instruction” (SI) model developed in the 1970s at the University of Missouri and developed within the UK at the University of Manchester (Hilsdon, 2014), peer assisted learning is used across disciplines to help students meet the challenges of their taught programmes and build confidence in their discipline in a safe and non-judgemental environment (Malm, et al, 2016).
At Aston, we hoped that introducing PAL would provide an opportunity for the LDC team to work collaboratively with students and academic colleagues; both to enhance student transition to University and help participants improve their academic skills. We also hoped that PAL would help both PAL Leaders and session participants’ develop transferable skills (including communication and collaborative working) that are essential for professional life.
For the academic year 2019-2020, pilots of PAL were introduced to two programmes: the Foundation Programme in Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Pharmacy MPharm in the School of Life and Health Sciences. PAL has proven successful in STEM subjects (science, mathematics and engineering) elsewhere in the sector, helping improve student learning, achievement and retention (Malm et.al, 2016). At Aston, the PAL pilots in both programmes were developed along the principles of a supplemental instruction model, where a group of senior students (PAL Leaders) from the same degree course lead study sessions for new students, and enhanced through a student-centred learning development approach (Hilsdon, 2014).
PAL Leaders were recruited on the basis of their interpersonal and communication skills, and their interest in developing others. Successful applicants were given ongoing training to support them with relationship building, and to develop group facilitation and learning techniques.
Collaborative practice was an essential component of PAL at Aston, as such activity between professional and academic staff within the academic sphere has proven significant for enhancing the student experience in higher education (Parkes et al., 2014). The LDC team brought an understanding of PAL delivery and training to the approach that was aligned with the discipline specific learning needs identified by the programme team. Working together we identified how a PAL approach might meet the specific needs of each programme, adopting PAL for the Foundation programme in Engineering and Applied Science to support historically difficult modules (maths and physics), and devising PAL for the MPharm programme to support revision for challenging exam topics. From the start our collaborative approach to PAL relied on open and honest communication between the teams about student attendance, feedback, and strategies to support the PAL leaders and engage the targeted cohort.
Partnership with the student PAL Leaders was also essential to the successful implementation of a PAL approach, originating from a shared belief that it was important for all stakeholders to actively invest in the partnership for us to gain the most from working and learning together (Healey, Flint and Harrington, 2012). PAL Leaders have been active in sharing their experience of the pilot and recommending changes to improve student engagement. PAL also provided an opportunity for the student leaders (as peer teachers and change-agents) to shape new ways of learning within their discipline. They created study materials and activities independent from the lecturer, drawing on their insider experience and relationship with other students to effect engagement and change.
Our PAL pilots have suffered disruption due to COVID-19, but our experience to date has led to the decision to extend PAL into 2020-21. Our experience has highlighted real benefits to academic practice and to our students’ experience of transition and learning in their disciplines. Students attending PAL sessions placed great value on connecting with more experienced students in their discipline.
“It was so nice to meet students that can relate to our experience as they gave us advice on how to cope generally with the course.” Foundation Year Engineering Student
“I was able to connect with students from other years and they helped me gain more from my lectures and grasp areas of learning I did not understand.” Foundation Year Engineering Student
As hoped, PAL sessions provided students with opportunities to ask questions, learn new methods, and develop their own skills and confidence.
PAL Leaders reported that their experience helped them develop transferable and professional skills, particularly communication, leadership, organisation and time management skills. They also benefited from consolidating their own understanding of their subject through revisiting topics.
“This was a fun experience and helped develop my planning, leadership and organisational skills.” Foundation Year PAL Leader
“There are many positive aspects being involved in PAL, such as being able to refresh first year knowledge, creating friendships, improving communication and working as a team.” MPharm PAL Leader
For some PAL Leaders their experience was transformational, and helped them to think about their own aspirations for the future;
“I have learnt a lot about myself and how I should be more confident in what I do…it has sparked an interest in me wanting to pursue a career in teaching/team work environment.” MPharm PAL Leader
Academic staff believe that PAL has encouraged students to become self-sufficient and develop as independent learners. Though not without its challenges (particularly relating to timetabling) PAL provided a valuable source of feedback for the programme team, as participants and PAL Leaders could report on any quality or academic issues as they emerged. This can prove particularly beneficial in subject areas that have lower student engagement in formal student representation mechanisms.
PAL has provided a collaborative approach to student transition to University – enabling us to create a supportive yet innovative space for students to develop a sense of belonging to Aston and their discipline through connecting with their peers.
Ellen Pope, Nicola Allett and Victoria Carroll
Ellen Pope, Head of the Learning Development Centre, Nicola Allett, Teaching Fellow (Learning Development) and Victoria Carroll, Peer Mentoring Officer at Aston University contribute expertise to the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.
This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project.
Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/engagement-through partnership-students-partners-learning-and-teaching-higher-education
Hilsdon, J. (2014) Peer learning for change in higher education, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 51:3, 244-254, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2013.796709
Malm, J., Bryngfors, L., and Morner, L (2016) The potential of supplemental instruction in engineering education: creating additional peer-guided learning opportunities in difficult compulsory courses for first-year students, European Journal of Engineering Education, 41:5, 548-561, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2015.1107872
Parkes, S., Blackwell Young, J. Cleaver, E., and Archibald, K. (2014) Academic and professional services in partnership literature review and overview of results. Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/academic-and-professional-services-partnership-literature-review-and-overview-results
Pope, E., Ladwa N. and Hayes, S. (2017) Improving Retention. in “Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers.” Oxford: Oxuniprint (HEPI Report 98). Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/FINAL-WEB_HEPI-Widening-Participation-Report-98.pdf
Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student retention & success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation/HEFCE