Peer Advisor Experience
There are many functions peer advisors perform in assisting students in problem-solving and in their conceptual development. By getting involved in a peer education system, students enhance skills and ability related to their role as guides, mentors, advisors, manager, leaders, role models (Simpson, 2014). While the relationship of the student mentor must be professional, it is important that peer advisors act as role models rather than authority figures (Ownby, 2003). The peer leaders learn to “influence without authority”. They relate to the students in the group as peers, understand how they learn, and explain material in ways that connect with them (Gosser & Roth, 1998). This implies a certain degree of empathy, affinity, sympathy between advisors and advisees, in the end maybe even friendship. This special friendship requires trust, frankness, and authenticity (Wunsch, 1994, 95). Beyond these personal qualities, mentors require human relations skills such as attentive listening, assertiveness, feedback methods, and positive reinforcement techniques (Wunsch, 1994, 30). When such a relationship is in place, the effects are positive, and lead to successful outcomes for both the peer advisors and advisees (Ownby, 2003).
This section focuses on the following aspects of the advisor experience:
- Who is a peer advisor?
- Skills and competences
- Recruiting peer advisors
- Incentives for peer advisors
- Experiences from past peer advisors, assessment, and next steps
Peer advisors are students who have been usually selected and trained by the university staff to be able to provide advising services to their peers, thereby assisting them in attaining their educational goals (Marter, 2016; Young & Keup, 2018). Peer advisors are expected to provide ongoing support to students, usually in their first year of studies, who are entering a new environment, while in need of encouragement and support for their success in the university setting. With that in mind, a peer advisor is usually a student similar in age and centers of interest as their advisees, but with more knowledge about and experience in the collegiate environment.
Peer advisors represent a beneficial resource of the faculty and the human services programs (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002). As such, the role of a peer advisor carries a certain responsibility with it. Moreover, a peer advisor must be able to maintain a healthy relationship with their advisees. That is only possible through:
Advisors must be respectful towards everyone in the peer-advising group, as well as to their colleagues.
Advisors must be active listeners, paying close attention to what their advisees are saying, not only to learn more about them, but also to make them feel comfortable to speak up.
Advisors should be open to their advisees, but also encourage the advisees to be open about their own experiences, as well as other advisees’ experiences and points of view.
The students who engage in peer advising should be equipped with an adequate set of skills. What is expected from peer advisors might differ significantly among different institutions and resources available, but there are certain things at which each institution should aim:
- Communication and counseling skills
- Self-awareness and awareness for others
- Multicultural sensitivity
- Knowledge of college/university information
- Constant reflection and improvement
What has been recognized in literature, as well as in practice, as relevant traits and skills for a peer advisor are the following:
- Strong communication skills
- Social empathy
- Ability to actively listen
- Ability to mediate discussions
- Ability of self-assessment and self-reflection
- Sensitivity (particularly regarding diversity)
- Being informed and informative
- Being approachable and welcoming
- Being inspirational and supportive
- Being comforting and warm-hearted
There are different possibilities again depending on the institutional setting and resources how peer advisors can be recruited.
- Posting flyers, social media ads, using word of mouth, whereas students are encouraged to apply on their own
- Recommending advanced, outstanding students for the position by faculty members
- Selection of advisors or not, i.e. selecting among the applied/recommended students vs. accepting everyone who applied for the role
- Peer advisors recruit new peer advisors – self supported system
There are different forms of incentives (Young and Keup, 2018) that can be used to recruit peer advisors.
- Purely by intrinsic motivation: Students become peer advisors because they e.g. benefited from peer advising themselves, want to provide support to students and get engaged with students.
- Training offers: Students benefit from trainings/workshops that they can attend and enhance their skills e.g. communication, mediation.
- Certificates: Certificates are an easy way to honor the students' work and can support them for future applications. However, they do not necessarily prove how good students were as peer advisors.
- Course credits: Course credits allow students to become peer advisors without investing too much (or at all) of their free time. Using course credits as an incentive may enhance a greater diversity of students that engage in the role of peer advisors (e.g. students that have many co-curricular activities/hobbies, work, other voluntary obligations etc.). Additionally, institutions gain greater control over the students’ performance, over the type of training they need to attend and the skills they need to improve/acquire. However, the performance of students also needs to be controlled by lecturers/coordinators, so that the course credits can be awarded. In this case, institutions need to provide possibilities for students to incorporate the obtained credits in the curriculum and transcript. Moreover, institutions have the responsibility to offer certain training options, facilities where students (peer advisors and peer advisees). Moreover, the institutions need to consider if they would demand certain prerequisites from prospective peer advisors. Therefore, institutions could have the possibility to select students who will become peer advisors.
- Money (direct and indirect payment): Money as well as course credits has the advantage that it frees some students the time to be a peer advisor (e.g. not needing to do another job next to studying). It increases the control over peer advisors by institutions, e.g. institutions can check on the performance and may have stricter recruiting policies. This can lead to a higher commitment of peer advisors to do their work well. However, it can also decrease the number of applicants that want to become peer advisors due to intrinsic motivation. Next to paying students directly, they can be paid indirectly. They can be provided with vouchers to invite students e.g. to coffee or lunch for a meeting. They can have a budget to coordinate events e.g. parties, sport events, bowling etc. to enhance the group exchange. Thereby students may also increase their skills in working with a budget. They also get more agency. However, it might be that some students are more busy with planning events and spending money than actually using the events for advising.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to training future peer advisors. Some of the factors are resources available to train peer-advisors, incentives for being a peer advisor, group size, matching process, or virtual advising. While some might question the necessity of the training for the future peer advisors, we strongly encourage it and offer some recommendations with regard to the training’s format.
What to teach and tackle during training?
- What is peer advising?
Define peer advising, its role and its objectives to the peer advisors. Try to get a hold of their understanding of these concepts as well.
- Who/What is a peer advisor?
Make sure that the role of a peer advisor is clarified.
- What does a peer advisor do?
At this point, an open discussion about the tasks of advisors should happen. It is particularly important to emphasize what are not the tasks of a peer advisor.
- Skills and personal characteristics that are needed for peer advising
It should be clearly communicated to the future peer advisors what kind of personality and set of skills one needs to have to be a successful peer advisor. Also, different workshops can be offered to train these skills. See also the skills list above.
Which issues may occur with peer advisors and should be considered in training?
It is important to make peer advisors aware that advising will not always go smoothly. They should be properly trained and prepared to deal with conflicts, that could arise from intercultural misunderstandings, advisors' or advisees' insensitivity to diversity etc. Other limitations and boundaries that should be discussed in training include:
- Limited training of peer advisors
- Paraprofessional status
- Their role to enhance services, not to replace professional staff or faculty advising
- Time limitations with advisees
- Ethical dilemmas regarding confidentiality when confronting serious issues of an advisee
- Knowing when an advisee's issue or question is beyond the skills of the peer advisor and making an appropriate referral in such case
Possible Formats for Training
Students will get a short introduction into their role as peer advisors. They can additionally also be prepared for their role by including games and exercises. We recommend this to be the minimum of training the peer advisors should get. This short training is especially suited if resources and time is limited.
For example, Marter (2016) has developed a training workshop for peer advisors that can take place over a weekend, with two days of training, with approximately six hours of training per day. This training is divided into four three-hour sessions, whereas different goals and objectives are set for each session:
Day 1, morning: Role of a peer advisor
Day 1, afternoon: University policies and advising skills
Day 2, morning: Study abroad programs and cultural competency
Day 2, afternoon: Workshop and university initiatives.
Different workshops on different skills and competences could be offered and students could pick those that they consider most relevant for themselves. While each institution needs to define their own needs and possibilities, certain aspects could be considered as part of a training:
Semester long, ongoing training
Students can receive a training during different workshops over the course of the semester or academic year to support skills and competences that are beneficial for peer advising. These workshops can be about communication, leadership and responsibility, teamwork, self-assessment etc. (See above section on skills and competences). This format is especially suited if students receive course credits or a payment for being a peer advisor.
We highly recommend that students are at least introduced to their role and responsibilities as peer advisors. This introduction can be effectively incorporated into the training session, in the form of a presentation of the theoretical foundation by a peer advising coordinator/person in charge, a discussion with the prospective peer advisors or in a combination of both.
Sample Slides for Training 1: Introduction to Peer Advising This example from University College Freiburg combines both the elements of a presentation of theoretical findings and discussion points in a training session.
Sample Slides for Training 2: Peer Advising Workshop This example from Leuphana offers peer advisors the space to work together to plan a peer advising session.
Games and exercises Research by Marter (2016) has shown that peer advisors enjoy interactive training much more than purely theoretical training. Moreover, it seems to prepare them better for their role if they engage in role plays, games, and open discussion with their colleagues. In this document, we offer some ideas on how to make the training more interactive through games, exercises, and role-plays.
Peer Advising Remotely or Virtually
The following materials were developed at UCF during the Covid-19 crisis of 2020, when most university campuses in Europe were closed indefinitely and students and faculty were teaching and advising from home.
Past Peer Advisors' Experiences
Here we share different experiences that we collected from peer advisors. As you may see, the experiences are quite diverse. Nevertheless, in general there is an overall agreement about the importance and benefit of having some form of structured peer-advising.
The Student Perspective: What does being a peer advisor mean to you?
In this video, students from four European universities express what being a peer advisor meant to them or what an 'ideal' peer advisor should do. Rather than projecting one specific plan for peer advising, "The Student Perspective" videos present a diversity of experiences and are meant to spark discussion about what form of peer advising may be useful at your institution.
For even more experiences from peer advisors, check out these Peer Advisor Testimonials from UCF.
Assessment and Next Steps
Surveys can help to identify positive aspects and room for improvement of the ongoing peer-advising format:
Looking to assess or plan for the experience of Peer Advisors?
Self-assess and brainstorm with our Peer Advisor Experience Worksheet for organizers
Ready to read more?
Check out our Peer Advisor Experience Annotated Bibliography
Diambra, J. F., & Cole-Zakrzewski, K. G. (2002). Peer advising: Evaluating effectiveness. NACADA Journal, 22(1), 56–64.
Gosser, D.K. & Roth, V. (1998) The Workshop Chemistry Project: Peer-Led Team Learning. Journal of Chemical Education, 75(2),185-187.
Marter, A. (2016). Peer Advising 101: A Training Workshop For Peer Advisors In Study Abroad.
Ownby, C. (2003). Handbook For Leap Peer Advisors. University Of Utah. https://leap.utah.edu/_documents/Peer-Advisor-Handbook.pdf
Simpson, L. (2014). University Peer Advisors Pursuing Careers in Educational Advising: A Phenomenological Study Examining the Influence of Lived-Experiences on Vocational Purpose. Dissertation. Liberty University.
Wunsch, M.A. (1994) Mentoring Revisited: Making an Impact on Individuals and Institutions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Young, D. G., & Keup, J. R. (2018). To Pay or Not to Pay: The Influence of Compensation as an External Reward on Learning Outcomes of Peer Leaders. Journal of College Student Development, 59(2), 159–176. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2018.0015