The Covid-19 pandemic has increased feelings of social isolation and stress that some students, especially international students, can experience during their university studies (Sadasivan, 2021). Research shows that teaching strategies that make use of peer learning (Boud, 2001) not only benefit student learning outcomes, but also have positive impacts on student well-being and engagement (Rienties et al, 2013; Crowley-Cyr & Hevers, 2021). Peer learning doesn’t refer to just one approach. The principle can be implemented in a range of different ways and contexts, such as collaborative group work, peer review of assessment, and peer study groups or partnerships.
We talked with Associate Professor Boris Choy from the Discipline of Business Analytics in the University of Sydney Business School about his award-winning peer learning initiative, called Peer Learning Group (PLG). PLGs are study and social groups that are facilitated by students in some of the large quantitative units in the Business School.
What inspired you to start the PLG initiative? Was there a specific gap or need that you identified?
As the enrolment numbers in the Master of Commerce began to surge in 2014, some commencing international students expressed their difficulty in adapting to the new environment and making friends. I started with organising study groups for my students. I encouraged students of high calibre to take up leadership roles in the study group and organise social activities to enrich student life. Feedback from students and staff over many semesters indicates that the PLG initiative helps students overcome loneliness, improves academic performance, increases retention rates, and enhances student experience. This positive feedback contributed to the program receiving an Academic Enhancement of Student Life Award from the University of Sydney Business School in 2021.
What are you most proud of about the PLG initiative?
University staff are always doing our best to support student learning and enhance student experience. The PLG initiative brings students to learn together as a community. I am very proud of and indebted to my PLG facilitators who bring the best of their learning experience to assist students to overcome the fear of doing a challenging quantitative unit. Students appreciate our effort in helping them make the impossible possible and hence enjoy their own success. Student feedback over the semesters includes very positive and appreciative comments, such as the “PLG program is so amazing!” and “I really feel like learning in a community“. Students also told us that PLGs provide “…a very helpful way for us to communicate with peers when we have minimum chances to meet them during the pandemic“.
What would you say is the number one factor that is critical for the PLG’s success?
Selflessness is the number one factor that contributes to the success of the PLG initiate. Understanding the rationales of the project, PLG leaders take the deep learning approach and selflessly and patiently guide their classmates to study statistical concepts and methods effectively, as they understand the best way of learning is through teaching others.
If you were speaking to another educator who was interested in starting their own peer learning initiative, what advice would you give?
First, let students know that you and your teaching team are helping them to succeed in the unit of study. Second, recruit student volunteers to take up leadership roles in study and social groups. Third, provide opportunities for students to get to know staff and their peers. Finally, keep regular communication with students via formal and informal channels, such as Canvas, emails and WeChat to increase student engagement. We should treat students with great respect in order to build mutual trust.
You pivoted PLG during Covid-19 lockdowns to support students overseas through a satellite program. Do you have any other dreams to extend the PLG in the future?
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, we had the capability to support both domestic and international students using our PLG network. Our facilitators organised satellite PLG groups in major cities in China to connect and support offshore students. It is my dream that a PLG alumni network can be established in future to help one another in their careers.
For more on the benefits of the PLG from a student perspective, check out this previous post by PLG facilitator, Shaun Luo, called How to make offshore students onshore?