Higher education innovation
As I complete a book on peer mentoring in undergraduate courses, this theme is quite fresh in my mind and well worth a blog post.
At the University of Calgary in 2005 I founded our Faculty of Arts Peer Mentoring program. I still coordinate it, although others now teach our peer mentors. I have just completed my 2nd year as the Director of our university’s SU-funded Curricular Peer Mentoring Network located at our Teaching and Learning Center.
What are peer mentors?
In a nutshell, undergraduate students become peer mentors who collaborate with instructors and teaching assistants to enrich peer-based learning within their courses. They may also design and lead learning activities outside of class time and online. Normally they return to a course they have already taken and work with a professor they are familiar with. They apply for this honor, and are supported and educated by taking a 4th year course in peer mentoring and collaborative learning.
Our peer mentoring system inherits some features of well-known and admired models: Supplemental Instruction, Peer Led Team Learning, Writing Fellows, and Peer-Assisted Learning are some other schemes that involve “near-peers” providing primarily academic, but also social, support within or attached to a credit course. Medical schools have long been involved in peer-assisted learning and have proven its effectiveness.
The scope & reach of our program
Since 2005, this program has educated and supervised over 70 senior undergraduate peer mentors placed with 24 host instructors and 14 teaching assistants. Peer mentors have enriched learning within 23 courses at all levels of study. Over 3,600 students have been enrolled in courses enriched by peer mentoring activities during class time and beyond.
Student peer mentors have served in courses in Communication, Business, General Studies, Development Studies, Canadian Studies, and others. They are actually eligible to serve any course in the faculty of Arts, as long as they qualify and the instructor is willing to host them. They have served in senior courses as well as first-year courses. Some serve in courses that are larger than 200 students, and some have served in courses as small as 17 students.
Our Arts program is one of 3 programs in the University of Calgary’s Curricular Peer Mentoring Network 3-year project. The other programs are in Nursing (where it is called “peer leadership”) and the Haskayne School of Business (which sends a number of their peer mentors to the Arts course for education & support).
How does it run?
Peer Mentoring theory & practicum courses GNST 507 and 509, with their instructor and program coordinator, are the foundation of this program’s success and the core of its growing community of new and returning host instructors. These are service-learning courses that run concurrently with the term in which students are peer mentoring. We take in about 15 new and returning peer mentors per term, or 30 per year. Each peer mentor impacts the learning of an average of 50 students.
Our undergraduate peer mentors are not paid a wage or honorarium. They are not volunteers, either. They are learners in a rigorous, A-F graded, 4th year course. All peer mentors must take GNST 507 during their first term of service. This course has a 1-3h/week practicum built into their learning time in the course.
GNST 509 is an optional continuation course in which advanced peer mentors assist new mentors and conduct a research project on student learning. About 1/2 of our peer mentors return to take 509 and be a peer mentor in a second term, not necessarily immediately following their first term, and not necessarily in the same course with the same professor.
What do peer mentors do?
Peer mentors’ main goal is to lead their peers to deeper understanding and application of course content through peer-led discussion and creative activities such as:
- asking questions that inspire collective inquiry
- facilitating informal small groups in class
- facilitating informal study and exam prep groups out of class
- giving short presentations
- discussing students’ research plans and their process of writing papers
- conversing with students individually about readings
- facilitating and moderating on-line discussion
- modeling respectful, active participation in class
- affirming their peers’ abilities
- giving feedback to the instructor on students’ challenges
Not tutors or teaching assistants (TAs)
Course-based peer mentors are not tutors or teachers.
Peer tutors usually serve in a tutoring center where they take appointments and serve any individual student taking one or more courses in a subject. In contrast,
- Peer mentors actively engage in mentoring and supporting peers where learning occurs, making it convenient, timely and relevant to specific details of what is being said and done in class.
- Peer mentors can interact with many students at once during class time or beyond, or by email/online.
- Peer mentors can form a close social and academic relationship with mentees prior to any voluntary extracurricular appointment or group activity
Teaching Assistants (TAs) are paid employees with instructional and/or grading authority. Unlike a Graduate Teaching Assistant (TA),
- Peer mentors do NOT grade any exams or assignments (although they may be permitted to give informal feedback),
- Peer mentors do NOT assist in planning the course (although they collaborate in their role design before the term begins), and
- Peer mentors do NOT lecture on course content (although they do give occasional presentations and announcements in class).
Instead, an alternative title that may help articulate this role is “Undergraduate Learning Assistant” (ULA). As an ULA, they focus on supporting their peers’ active, collaborative learning under the guidance of a “host instructor” in various settings where student learning occurs, within and outside of class.
Service time expectations
Peer mentoring is not primarily a time commitment, but a commitment to people (mentees and host instructor) and one’s personal development. The program does not pre-schedule extracurricular group times and places since they vary depending on the course (and we serve many different courses per term) and the peer mentor’s role.
Within the frame of the GNST 507 course expectations, instructors advise peer mentors to spend an average of 1-3 hours a week in mentoring communication and service. This should include at least 1 hour in the host course’s classroom setting per week. Peer mentors are welcome to volunteer over and above this minimal expectation (and they often do), but are cautioned not to let peer mentoring overwhelm their other responsibilities such as other courses they are taking.
Collaborative and flexible role design
To foster a vibrant interdisciplinary teaching and learning community, our program serves as many enthusiastic peer mentors and faculty members as it can, within its capacity. Our community is diverse, as mentioned above.
Therefore, we do not, and actually cannot, pre-design peer mentor roles and impose them on students and instructors. Instead, we come alongside peer mentors and instructors to help them custom-design peer mentoring roles within general guidelines.
This method allows all three parties to take responsibility for their role in the partnership and balance the goals of service and learning. (This partnership in design is a pedagogical method adopted from service-learning.)
Role design occurs through a pre-term consultation between the peer mentor(s) in a course, the host instructor and any TAs, and the program coordinator or instructor. A program-wide orientation event helps instructors, TAs and peer mentors to learn from the wisdom of experienced practitioners and each other’s ideas. The peer mentor then articulates their roles in an early-term plan or proposal, and adjusts them as needed during the term based on students’ needs, interests and participation.
How effective is it?
We determine effectiveness based on its impact on students’ social and academic engagement in courses. We do not measure improvement in grades because our program is focused equally on excellent students as well as struggling students — in fact, all who enroll in a course with a peer mentor benefit from a peer mentor’s presence and activity in the classroom. Additional peer mentoring participation outside of class is voluntary, but if a peer mentor is well integrated into a course, good activity design and student participation are more likely.
Student Survey Results – Fall 2008
This snapshot of survey results is from one 3-month period, Fall 2008. The data shown focuses on only 3 survey questions about perceived benefits:
- making learning more interactive and student-friendly
- supporting their learning of course-related academic knowledge and skills, and
- the overall benefit they perceive in having a peer mentor, beyond the value provided by the instructor, course materials, etc.
The survey is anonymous and was implemented during class in the final week of term to all students present in class. The U of C’s research ethics board has approved our research methods.
* Total enrolled in mentors’ host courses in Fall 2008 = 755
* Surveys collected = 528 (70 % response rate)
Notice how small the “negative impact” ratings are. The top two “blue” segments show the degree to which students perceive some degree of benefit. For more detailed statistics on this 2008 term, see the bottom of our stats page. Our research has shown that the class size and level does not determine the degree to which students perceive them to be effective; it matters more if the peer mentor is well integrated into their learning and performs their role effectively.
In addition to the website, I’ve authored these works so far.
- Academic journal article about the Fall 2005 pilot term: T. Smith, “Integrating Undergraduate Peer Assistants into Liberal Arts Courses: A Pilot Study.” Innovative Higher Education, Volume 33, issue 1 (Fall 2008)
- Textbook available on Amazon.ca : Curricular Peer Mentoring: A Handbook for Undergraduate Peer Mentors Serving in Learning Courses: T. Smith, C. Rabbite, S. Robinson. (2009). Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing
- 1-page article in the Winter 2007 STLHE* newsletter , page 6. *Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
- Peer Mentoring Rationale: The “Ecology” of Mentorship in Higher Education by Dr. Tania Smith
The forthcoming book will be called (tentatively) Peer mentoring in undergraduate courses: An international perspective. It has 8 contributors’ chapters from Canada, the US and India. In addition, I am the main author of about 1/2 of the book’s content. The book provides information about peer mentoring roles, program types, theories, philosophies, program development and administration, and peer mentor education.
Why did I bother?
Basically I did this to build up the academic community within our faculty. It needed help to become a “community” of faculty and students interacting to serve each other across courses, hierarchies, and disciplinary boundaries. I felt I’d improve my own sense of fulfillment with academic work as well as many other teachers and students. And it successfully did so.
I’m not an administrator: I’m a regular faculty member who teaches and researches communication. I did most of my work on this innovation voluntarily on top of my regular workload, and prior to receiving tenure (I have been tenured as of July 2009). It has been a pleasure to see it flourish so far. It has intrinsic rewards, runs primarily on enthusiasm for learning and teaching, and does not require much money, so I believe it will survive.
Find out more
For more information about our program, see our Arts Peer Mentoring and SU Peer Mentoring Network websites.
See also a series of audio & power point presentations at my YouTube channel. They are based on a webcast of a collaborative presentation of 6 panelists and myself March2, 2010 at the University of Calgary.