Offer students a personal touch through peer support

As universities expand, they will need to take more of a personal approach to higher education – despite the huge cohorts – but how? Emma Norman suggests looking to the students themselves

Emma Norman's avatar
3 Aug 2023
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Two students walking down a corridor talking through some notes

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Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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Embedding peer support among students in large online lectures
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For some students, university feels like a lonely place. Although typically depicted as a highly social experience, for many students being away from home in a much larger university environment can be incredibly isolating. In the wake of the pandemic, it feels more crucial than ever to make university a friendly, inclusive and supportive space. However, with Ucas projecting up to 30 per cent more UK higher education applicants by 2030, institutions must seriously consider how they can provide a more personalised, supportive experience to a growing number of students.

As a former secondary school teacher, on coming to work at university I noticed immediately that the traditional school model of having one member of staff who each student can rely on does not – and cannot – exist as the norm in higher education. I believe this is a contributing factor to the loneliness problem – and part of the solution.

Why is that?

Cast your mind back to secondary school and I suspect you picture particular teachers, students or non-teaching staff members who really knew you. They asked how your day was going, how your holiday had been, how your sibling was doing. Crucially, they also offered you support and help when needed.

As a secondary school teacher, I spoke to my tutees every day, and knew the learning needs of every student I taught, personalising and adapting lessons accordingly. Meanwhile, as a student, my lecturers did not even know my name. This experience is not universal. There are departments and academics who work incredibly hard to ensure every student feels special.

But working in professional services, my typical signposting to students might involve three to five staff members who they need to contact for a single problem. These will likely be staff members who the student has never so much as passed in the corridor.

It is a big leap from secondary or further education, where you have a network, however small, of people looking out for you, to higher education, where the average staff-to-student ratios are usually much higher. It would be easier to make all students feel included if they all felt seen.

This lack of visibility and personalisation risks damaging efforts to improve access and participation. While more mature students are accessing higher education, for example, there are implied social norms that they struggle with, as their age and life situations do not conform to “typical” student characteristics. Often the main encouragement and support these students receive is from generalised mass emails aimed at the “typical” student demographic. Such mass emails tend to overlook the needs of mature students who may need individual learning plans in order to fit exams or coursework around parenting and other responsibilities. If this is their main source of human interaction, can we blame them for thinking they do not belong?  

So how can we personalise university amid increasing numbers of students?

One way is through peer support programmes. Peer learning has been increasingly shown to generate better confidence among students and support them to become independent learners – two elements crucial in making them feel like they belong at university. At the University of Exeter, we offer two types of peer support programme:

  1. Academic (often called peer-assisted learning)
  2. Pastoral (often called buddy schemes)

Among the latter, our team oversees several cross-faculty, widening participation programmes, including a mature student mentoring scheme. Every year, this scheme recruits current mature students who are matched with first-year undergraduate mature students starting their studies in September. They make contact prior to the mentees arriving so that they can alleviate any doubts and make the incoming students feel welcomed and excited about their higher education journey. The mentors will remain contactable by that student for however long both feel is appropriate. 

Why do peer support programmes matter?

Such initiatives create communities where students know one another, not just by name but by personality, likes and dislikes, and disciplines. With the advice and support of their student mentor, mentees feel more empowered to go out and make themselves known to the staff who can help them – in the way that happens at secondary schools. By becoming independent members of the university community, they can take ownership of their studies, safe in the knowledge that they have a peer who will ask them, “How was your day?” If we cannot make universities smaller, then we must create close-knit pockets within the university, so that everyone has someone who values them and who can help them reach out when needed.

A school-type model with class sizes of 30 and a named point of contact for each group is not currently a realistic way forward for universities. However, we must consider what universities are trying to sell to prospective students. We cannot present universities as small, intimate spaces where everyone knows everyone. Instead, we can say that you will not know everyone, but we will make sure you have access to the people you need. If we are going to continue to welcome large cohorts, we need to adopt the policies and initiatives that ensure each individual student is still firmly, personally supported.

Emma Norman is academic skills and student engagement officer at the University of Exeter.

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