My interest in peer learning initially developed from a personal experience. When preparing to run for my role as a Student Union Officer at the University of Portsmouth, I considered it necessary to consult with students on issues that matter to them. From this consultation, I understood that students do not feel a sense of belonging in their courses mostly because there was a lack of social connection with other students, particularly those studying the same degree as them. As this was an issue critical to the student experience and academic success, I began to research programmes and initiatives universities across the country have in place to tackle this issue - Lo and behold, I came across Peer-Assisted Learning or PAL for short.
PAL is an internationally recognised scheme that fosters cross-year support between students on the same course. But how does it work, I hear you ask? Most usually, second-year and third-year students (PAL Leaders) facilitate weekly study support sessions (PAL sessions) for groups of first years. These sessions encourage active and collaborative learning which allows students to explore issues together and build deeper understanding in a safe, non-competitive and non-judgmental environment. Other advantages include: increased motivation and confidence, improved academic performance, and a greater sense of community.
One key thing I have noticed since the start of the pilot scheme at Portsmouth University is that PAL provides comprehensive benefits for both students and staff members. It helps first-year students adjust to university life, build critical skills and development in PAL leaders, and offers staff the opportunity to receive regular feedback. With these multi-faceted benefits in mind, let’s consider three key areas where I think PAL would help optimise the student’s success.
Reducing anxiety & increasing confidence
What am I to expect in my exams? How do I secure work experience? How should I manage my workload and deadlines? These are common examples of what triggers students' anxiety. If it accumulates without resolution, it can lead to poor performances, decreased motivation and increased risk of dropout - not the happy ending universities desire for their students. However, I have understood that peer learning is an effective intervention to avoid these consequences. This is because when students seek reassurance and guidance from their peers in an environment like PAL sessions, they feel understood and grow in confidence as a result of their mutual understanding. This conversely reduces anxiety and provides them with an opportunity to develop their learning.
Improve social interaction and connection
Social interaction plays an essential role in learning. I have always enjoyed group learning because it helps in organising my thoughts, reflecting on my understanding, and finding gaps in my reasoning. This form of ‘connecting with peers’ is central to peer learning. PAL leaders, for example, are uniquely well-positioned to connect with students and foster a sense of belonging outside of the classroom. Using their post-college experience, they can help new students that are often hesitant to interact with tutors and staff. By doing this, such students will develop social capacities to interact and feel a sense of belonging to their courses. Also, they will learn to become more open which will benefit their enthusiasm towards learning and their mental health.
Development of knowledge and skills
Enhancing knowledge and skills through sharing of practical experience is core to peer learning. For example, PAL in the context of Nursing education has been widely used within the simulated clinical skills environment to support the acquisition of new clinical skills for junior students and consolidate teaching skills for senior students. In other undergraduate programs, PAL has helped enhance students’ self-confidence, communication, and critical thinking skills. Beyond practical skills, students can develop their competence in aspects of time management and prioritisation, demonstrating to potential employers that these students possess the necessary skills to excel in a competitive job market.
Overall, students succeeding in university is beyond them having good academic performance. Other factors that can come to play include the inclusive support within their course, the skills and confidence they have developed and, crucially, their mental health wellness. As a result, I believe universities should support students to feel and know that they are on the right path, that they are where they belong, and that they can reach their full potential at all times. By simply implementing and actively investing in peer-learning opportunities that are beyond the classroom space, universities can leverage the power of peer learning to support students in their academic and personal pursuits.