Peers can lead to positive learning development (leading to academic achievement) and to the personal and professional development of the learner (improving adjustment to university study) (Chester et al., 2013; Colvin, 2007). While outcomes may be difficult to measure or otherwise intangible, advisees can experience various positive results from participating in peer advising. As Gafney and Varma-Nelson (2008) put it, “our students come in with a bad self-image. If at the end of the semester they can open their minds up, they can become a little more assertive, it’s a fabulous change... and it’s almost secondary to see their marks go up”.
One can approach these positive results by thinking through how students understand the goals of peer advising, how they will join, who will be their peer advisor, and what the meetings or activities will be like. Thus, this set of key decisions focuses on the experiences of the peer advisee and specifies the following features:
- Adjusting expectations
- Form of enrollment
- Assigned vs. choosing advisor
- Group vs. One-on-one advising
- Culture and community building
Once you’ve decided to implement and support a peer advising plan in your program or institution and you’ve identified goals and desired outcomes, it’s important to communicate those to students. Studies have shown that one of the issues that may arise in peer advising situations is that advisors and advisees have different perceptions of what their relationship entails (Storrs, Putsche & Taylor, 2008). It’s important for both advisors and advisees to have clarity of roles (Colvin & Ashman, 2010; Cross, 1998).
Students may not know the purpose of peer advising at your institution, so clarifying these aims in recruitment materials and/or a first session can help adjust expectations - potentially avoiding confusion or even dissatisfaction. For example:
- Which questions or problems are the peer advisors meant to address? (see also content)
- What training have the peer advisors received? (see also advisor experience)
- How often will advisors and advisees meet and in what capacity? (see also framework/structure)
- Will peer advisors reach out to advisees or will they wait to hear from the advisees about their questions?
Students should also have a contact person who is NOT their peer advisor to whom they could address questions about the peer advising program.
You may want to communicate the purpose of your peer advising program in a one or two-page pamphlet to help adjust expectations.
Tools: KCL pamphlet on English Department peer support
Leuphana description for student handbook
“Peer Advising” description on the UCF website: http://www.ucf.uni-freiburg.de/liberal-arts-and-sciences/support-and-advising
Perhaps especially if peer advising is not already established in your program or institution, you’ll need to consider how to enroll or recruit students. Some possibilities are making participation obligatory, automatic, or entirely voluntary. Each has strengths and challenges from the perspective of the advisee experience.
Obligatory enrollment means that students are somehow required to participate in peer advising.
Strength: All students are included, even those who may be shy or have trouble connecting with other students informally. Thus, all students have a chance to benefit from the peer advising experience.
Challenge: Peer advising may become another obligation or chore for students, detracting from a possibly enjoyable beneficial exchange.
Automatic enrollment means that students are automatically matched with a peer advisor or placed in a peer advising group. They may opt out, but they are invited to participate automatically. Some have recommended this approach (Hill & Reddy, 2007).
Strength: All students are included, even those who may not have made the effort to register voluntarily. Many first semester students at Leuphana reacted positively to being invited to participate in this way.
Challenge: Some students may still view this as too much of an obligation or as presumptive of participation.
Voluntary enrollment means that peer advising is somehow advertised as available to the students and they must take steps to participate.
Strength: Only interested students will participate in peer advising, perhaps making the quality of interactions high.
Challenge: Some students may not get the information or hold inaccurate assumptions about peer advisors. Shy students may not be enticed to register.
The Student Perspective on Enrollment
In this video, students from four European universities describe their experiences and ideas about automatic enrollment in a peer advising program versus students voluntarily signing up. Rather than projecting one specific plan for peer advising, “The Student Perspective” videos include a diversity of experiences and are meant to spark discussion about what form of peer advising may be useful at your institution.
Matching students by available time slots
At Leuphana, finding a time for the group (6 first semester students and one peer advisor) to meet was one of the biggest challenges expressed in a feedback survey from the pilot peer advising plan in 2018. They also tested out forming the peer advising groups by students picking from available time slots for one meeting each month during the advisees’ first semester.
Strength: Less time and energy spent during the semester to find times to meet.
Challenge: More organizational work at the beginning of the semester. Students may try to choose times when their friends are going, so groups may be less diverse or foster fewer new connections/friendships.
Allowing students to choose their peer advisors
UCF recently employed an online platform on which students could choose their peer advisors. This is an internal platform at which pairs of advisors present their interests and best availability. Students are in the first place assigned to peer advisors, so also shy students and students that would not get into contact voluntarily with a peer advisor are included in the advising system. After the first meeting with the peer advisors or later, advisees can choose if they want to stick with the peer advising group or if they would feel more connected to another pair of advisors.
Strength: More students may benefit from the peer advising system
Challenge: Some peer advisors may lose intrinsic motivation to spend time organizing the advising group if advisees drop out. Therefore, it is important to motivate the peer-advisors, that a dropping out does not have to do with them personally.
Tools: Sample Peer Advising Scheduling Form from Leuphana
From the perspective of mentees/advisees, one-on-one meetings with peers may provide a different experience than meeting in groups.
One-on-one sessions may seem preferable as students would be able to receive more attention and may feel more comfortable asking questions than they would be in the presence of a group. One the other hand, some students may find one-on-one meetings to be higher pressure, since all the attention of their advisor is on the one advisee.
While from an organizer’s point of view, group sessions have the strength of allowing fewer mentors to reach more of their peers, there may be other benefits as well.
- At Leuphana in their group peer advising sessions, students reported learning and sharing from the other peer advisees. Students reported forming connections with the other students in their group. These are the outcomes (learning potential and creating a ‘cohort effect’) expected by the literature on group peer mentoring (Collier, 2015, p. 159).
- At UCF peer-advisors reported that working in groups also helps them to guide the conversations rather than ‘leading’ them. Peer advisors reported that, in a group setting, there is less focus is on each individual, creating a more comfortable atmosphere.
Group sessions have the added benefit of having the peer advisors work in pairs (which would not be possible in one-on-one meetings). This gives advisees the benefits of multiple experiences and perspectives and may make peer advisors feel more comfortable as well. See the section on peer advising structure/framework for a further discussion of this. For a more complete exploration of the benefits and challenges of one-on-one (or ‘paired’) vs. group peer mentoring structures, see Collier (2015, pp. 153-159). This book also considers e-mentoring.
The Student Perspective on One-on-one and Groups
These videos were produced from informal conversations with students from five of CREATES partner institutions. Rather than projecting one specific plan for peer advising, “The Student Perspective” videos include a diversity of experiences and are meant to spark discussion about what form of peer advising may be useful at your institution.
The Student Perspective: What are the differences between one-on-one and group peer advising?
In this video, students from five European universities provide insight as to how one-on-one and group peer advising may be different experiences.
The Student Perspective: How many peer advisors should we have?
In this video, students from CREATES partner universities describe their ideas and experiences with having one or two peer advisors in a group.
Others have completed literature reviews showing the breadth of benefits that peer advisees/mentees experience (Collier, 2015). Culture development and community-building is an outcome that is difficult to measure, but may be the goal of many peer advising programs.
In a CREATES workshop held in November 2019 involving both university faculty and students, participants brainstormed what about a peer advising program could support positive culture and community-building. The conversation settled on three conditions they saw as supportive:
- Visible diversity of experiences,
- Somewhat flexible system, and
- Normalizing asking for help.
An outcome of culture and community supported by peer advising is that it helps generate future peer advisors.
Participants emphasized visible diversity of experiences amongst peer advisors. This means that advisors are not only the star students, but are those who are active on campus in various social and/or academic ways. If peer advising also allows advisees to meet and interact (such as in a group peer advising setting), students may also benefit from exposure to others they may not have befriended socially or in even classes.
Some participants stressed that the peer advising system should be at least somewhat flexible in both content and form to allow students to ask the kinds of questions and build the kind of relationships they need. This flexibility could be in the content discussed, the form or structure of the meetings, or even other elements of the peer advising. Thus, the peer advising plan provides the structure through which students can support each other in a variety of ways.
Also important to participants was ‘normalizing’ asking for help and seeking and receiving support. Indeed some studies of peer advising have found that some students assume this service is for those who are less confident or able - not something from which all students could benefit (Hill & Reddy, 2007). Some students may feel that their problems or concerns are theirs alone and that others do not or have never experienced them. A robust peer advising system makes peer support part of the culture of the program or institution.
Another outcome of using peer advising to build community is that current advisees will become the future peer advisors.
Would you like to learn more from the literature? Annotated bibliography
Would you like to assess the experience of current or past peer advisees?
Sample survey questions on advisee experience from UCF
Sample survey questions from Leuphana
Would you like to take stock of your current program’s design or brainstorm a new program?
Self-assessment/Brainstorming Worksheet (for organizers)
Collier, P. J. (2015). Developing effective peer mentoring programs: A practitioner’s guide to program design, evaluation, and training. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Chester, A., Burton, L., Xenos, S., Elgar, K. (2013). Peer mentoring: Supporting successful transition for first year undergraduate psychology students. Australian Journal of Psychology. 65. 30-37.
Colvin, J.W. (2007) Peer tutoring and social dynamics in higher education, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 15:2, 165-181
Colvin, J. W., & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks and benefits of peer mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18, 121-134.
Cross, S. (1998) Roots and Wings: Mentoring. Innovations in Education and Training International, 35:3, 224-230, DOI: 10.1080/1355800980350306
Gafney, L., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2008). Peer-led team learning: Evaluation, dissemination, and institutionalization of a college level initiative. Springer Science & Business Media.
Hill, R., & Reddy, P. (2007). Undergraduate peer mentoring: An investigation into processes, activities, and outcomes. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 6, 98-103. https://doi.org/10.2304/plat.2007.6.2.98
Storrs, D., Putsche, L. & Taylor, A. (2008) Mentoring expectations and realities: an analysis of metaphorical thinking among female undergraduate protegés and their mentors in a university mentoring programme, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16:2, 175-187, DOI: 10.1080/13611260801916499