Introduction

According to their roles and responsibilities, peer advisors can be classified under three categories (Ownby, 2007):

  1. information peers, for information sharing;
  2. collegial peers, for career strategizing and professional relationships;
  3. special peers, for confirmation, emotional support, personal feedback, and friendship.

The information that students can share with other students could take the form of tutoring or other forms of academic support. In terms of content, less academic, but still study-related peer advising, may involve the assistance of the fellow students with class scheduling, time management, and program progression issues (Diambra & Cole-Zakrezewski, 2002). Furthermore, to support the wellbeing and success of students in their study program, peer-advisors can ease transition through mentorship on the social aspects of student life: including loneliness, navigating university bureaucracy, new responsibilities of adulthood, and so forth (Simpson, 2014; Gafney & Varma-Nelson, 2008). As such, peer advisors from time to time enact different roles, such as those of “peer leader, learning coach, student advocate, and trusted friend” (Colvin & Ashman, 2010, p. 132).

Carefully considering the content peer advising will take on may help contribute to its successful implementation.

This section focuses on the continuum of topics that can be touched upon in peer advising ranging from academic to social. Peer advisors might have more experience than newer university students with the curriculum, examination, and navigation of university resources, but also with the social and physical environment and all the potential issues that arise from that. Peer advising sessions can therefore have different purposes, such as:

  • help with course choice,
  • social meetings,
  • academic tutoring,
  • peer review events, or
  • organised study groups.

Peer advising usually goes together with faculty advising and self-advising within the bigger picture of advising at an institution. The way that these work together differs per institution. This should be clearly communicated to participants, peer advisors, and faculty advisors to set the right expectations.

Academic peer advising

The demand for peer advising on academic topics might increase with a growing student body, growing freedom of curriculum choices, and growing stress on faculty to provide guidance. Adopting a peer advisor program might therefore relieve some responsibility from staff members, make services more approachable, and create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable about inquiring information directly and quickly from other students about formal and informal topics  (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002).

Documentation

An important takeaway from a case study of the University of Tennessee’s academic peer advising program is the focus on documentation. The program included a small group of peer advisors selected carefully based on transcripts, resume, and a motivation letter. This small group, led by a peer director, was trained, developed a program identity, led self-directed peer advising activities, and were open for ongoing evaluation and improvement (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002). In our own peer advising programmes we have also experienced that peer advisors are helped by handbooks created by previous peer advisors, detailing information about, for example, the organization of events and office management information (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002). The handbook is updated continuously, possibly as a main activity of one of the peer advisors or the organisational peer advising unit. Additionally, a collective journal of accomplished activities was kept by the University of Tennessee, in order to keep track of activities and aid evaluations of activities (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002).

Tool: UCM Social Handbook Template Committee.

Evaluation

In addition to documentation, ongoing evaluation is an important aspect of a well developed peer advising program. Evaluations should at least consider both student satisfaction and usefulness of an event or the program in general (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002). As events such as peer reviewing or help with course selection might happen several times a year, these events should be updated continuously. Feedback should be incorporated from both students and faculty and ideally include feedback from graduated student, to evaluate whether their academic advising has helped them in their further academic career. Feedback can be collected via surveys but also focus groups.      

Tool: UCF Evaluation survey Advisees,

UCF Evaluation surveys Advisors.

An open-door policy has been evaluated as one of the most helpful aspect of the peer advising service (Diambra & Cole-Zakrzewski, 2002). You should invite students to take a look behind the scenes of the program, but also take away responsibility from faculty to guide students through general mechanics of courses and the program as a whole. An open-door policy is also important so peer advisees understand the role of the advisors and feel that their service is accessible. A major obstacle to the success of the program is the lack of clarity surrounding the peer advisors role, which is discussed in the key decision Advisees Experience.

Relationship to Faculty Advising and Self Advising

Peer Advising, especially academically, should be highly streamlined with faculty and self advising. This is often a two, or in this case a three, way street. Streamlining information should guarantee that students get the right academic information from the right source. UCM, for example, has an informal set up where the three types of advising interact. Academic Peer Advising happens constantly through students interacting both informally, for example on facebook or simply in the hallways, and formally during events such as curriculum fairs (see event table below). Students can ask peer advisors questions about courses and can confirm during faculty advising meetings how these courses fit within their curriculum. Whether these courses fit within the larger interest or further academic goals of the student might then be considered with self advising tools.

Events

Academic Peer advising events can range from subject-specific to curriculum-wide and be as small as one-to-one interactions as program-wide events. Below, examples are given of such events.

peer-to-peer small group program-wide
subject-specific Coaching at Writing Centre Peer Review sessions Guest lectures arranged by students
experience specific Counseling Exam training sessions Life after the bubble”, inviting recent alumni to talk about experiences during and after graduation
curriculum-wide Asking and sharing experiences with courses Group sessions surrounding major/course choice Curriculum fair

Things to consider

The role of students in academic advising might become blurred once a peer advising program is established. There are several reasons to limit or encourage student’s involvement in advising.

Strength: Peer advising should not replace academic advising but rather complement it. Peers might have experiences about a specific course that faculty cannot provide.

Tip: Peer advising should be streamlined with faculty advising and self advising.

Strength: Meetings and advising with peer advisors can have different formats and objectives as compared to an academic advising session with faculty (Swisher, 2013).

Strength: Peer advisors can develop leadership and advising skills (Swisher, 2013).

Strength: Peer advising can offer a cost-effective supplement to regular academic advising programs (Swisher, 2013).

Strength: Peer advisors likely have more updated information on courses than faculty and can give a truer recollection of the experience being a student of a course.

Challenge: Peer advisors might give unupdated or untrue information about courses, or focus on extrinsic topics such as the educators involved in the course or the level of difficulty of the course.

Tip: Peer advisors should be trained in order to be aware of the influence they have, learning strategies to help the advisees’ making their own decisions..

Challenge: Setting up a peer advisor program requires a lot of time and energy, especially to evaluate and update events based on feedback (Swisher, 2013).

Challenge: There is a lot of turnover of peer advisors, which would be a large training burden to the institute (Swisher, 2013).

Tip: Use former peer advisors to train new peer advisors. This will not only ensure continuation of knowledge and skills but can decrease costs. Peer advisors should be kept updated on curriculum changes.

Social Peer Advising

Next to academic topics, also social topics can be incorporated in Peer Advising and have positive consequences for students and staff. Cuseo (2010) found that peer advising on rather social topics can also have many advantages. Student retention went up because students experience social integration and feel like involved members of campus. Peers also enhance student learning, as performance goes up when students learn together. Peer interaction influenced social and emotional development of students positively, and peer advisors reported on leadership development from participating in such roles during the program.

Byrom and Guliver (2014) found that a large number of students who are experiencing clinical levels of distress at university, especially during the first year, are not accessing professional support offered by the university. Though peer advisors are not meant to deal with clinical levels of distress, they might make services and aid more accessible to students who have not yet reached clinical levels or forward to students to the right services if they are unable to help their peers themselves. Peer Advisors could at least be trained to recognise distress in others and can point peers into the right direction regarding within the university’s care system.

Accessibility

An important feature of Peer Advising programmes is regular interaction (Rosenthal & Shinebarger, 2010). Peer advisors are more accessible than most faculty member, which means students have an easier time reaching out for help, but can also mean that students can talk about topics that might seem inappropriate to talk about with faculty members, such as home sickness, roommate conflicts and test anxiety (Rosenthal & Shinebarger, 2010).

Another benefit that students have reported on in successful Peer Advising programmes was that general topics were open for discussion with peer advisors (Rosenthal & Shinebarger, 2010). Students noted that topics were not only limited to university related issues and that more experienced students could also help them through these problems, which the advisors might have experienced themselves in earlier years. Often these topics are closely tied to the student experience. Faculty advising might therefore be inept to deal with these problems effectively.

Next to one-on-one interaction, Peer Advising programmes may also incorporated group sessions. Though these session can be academically minded, as exemplified in the table above, groups can also focus on the social side of university-related issues, such as time management and test anxiety. Importantly, faculty involvement has shown to be important, ensuring that peers could deal with all questions appropriately (Rosenthal and Shinebarger, 2010).

Evaluation

Lastly, Rosenthal and Shinebarger (2010) emphasized the importance of evaluation and implementation of feedback and persistence. Feedback should continuously be used to decide whether activities should be excluded from the program or have to be changed. Persistence is necessary to promote the program under faculty members as well as students. Therefore, it is important that the role of faculty in the program is clear and also faculty members are trained to work with this role. Moreover, outreach and publicity should follow a plan which is continuously updated in accordance to the (automatic) enrolment guidelines of Peer Advising in order to enthuse the right target group (see advisee experience)

Events

Social Peer advising events can range from university-related issues to personal issues and be as small as one-to-one interactions as program-wide events. Below, examples are given of such events.

peer-to-peer small group program-wide
University social issues Committee events such as open mic nights or game nights Extracurricular events fair
Personal issues Peer support Well-being events Introduction week activities

Things to consider

Social peer advising can have great advantages for faculty and student body, but because students are not trained mental health professionals, the role of the peer advisor in providing support should be considered carefully.

Strength: Peers are experts in adjusting to university life. They may come up with questions and answers that faculty members cannot provide.

Strength: Peers can have the opportunity to be better trained on how to deal with social topics than faculty.

Strength: A peer advisor program can be cost-effective, as pre-clinical issues can be discussed timely with peers rather than untrained faculty, if discussed at all (Cuseo, 2010).

Strength: Peer advisors report to gain great leadership skills by taking on a leadership role in the program (Cuseo, 2010).

Challenge: Students might indulge themselves in providing mental health support and act as paraprofessionals, though they are not trained for this (Swisher, 2013).

Challenge: Students are not equipped to deal with more serious issues.

Challenge: Small colleges might increase the “bubble” feeling when emphasis is put on creating social connections within the college. Large colleges might require a lot of organizing of social activities and important decisions should be made about the type of enrolment.

Next Steps

 

Consider how students may experience academic and/or social content for peer advising:

Would you like to learn more from the literature? Annotated bibliography<

Would you like to take stock of your current program’s design or brainstorm a new program? Brainstorming worksheet coming soon!

Reference List

Byrom, N. and Guliver, E. (2014). “Peer Support For Student Mental Health”. Student Minds. Oxford, UK.

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. https://www.essr.net/~jafundo/mestrado_material_itgjkhnld/IV/Mentoring%20and%20tutoring.pdf

Cuseo, J. B. (2010). Peer power: Empirical evidence for the positive impact of peer interaction, support, and leadership. E-Source for College Transitions, 7(4), 4-6. https://sc.edu/nrc/system/pub_files/ES_7-4_Mar10.pdf

Gafney, L., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2008). Peer-led team learning: Evaluation, dissemination, and institutionalization of a college level initiative. Springer Science & Business Media. 

Ownby, C. (2003). Handbook For Leap Peer Advisors. University Of Utah. https://leap.utah.edu/_documents/Peer-Advisor-Handbook.pdf 

Jones, R., & Brown, D. (2011). The Mentoring Relationship as a Complex Adaptive System: Finding a Model for Our Experience. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership In Learning, 19(4), 401-418. doi: 10.1080/13611267.2011.622077

Diambra, J. F., & Cole-Zakrzewski, K. G. (2002). Peer advising: Evaluating effectiveness. NACADA Journal, 22(1), 56–64.

Rosenthal, K. I., & Shinebarger, S. H. (2010). Peer mentors: Helping bridge the advising gap. About Campus, 15(1), 24–27. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.20012 

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. 

Simpson, L. (2020). University Peer Advisors Pursuing Careers in Educational Advising: A Phenomenological Study Examining The Influence of Lived-Experiences on Vocational Purpose (Ph.D). Liberty University.

Swisher, E. E. (2013). Practical Considerations in Developing Peer Advising Programs. The Mentor – An Academic Advising Journal, 15. https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2013/03/considerations-peer-advising-programs/