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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Improving student engagement through a structured peer support program involving international students

Alexandra Ludewig and Tracy Dunne
Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
The University of Western Australia

Every year thousands of international students from all over the world are welcomed to Australian university campuses. Many of these students speak languages which local students are keen to learn in order to become true "global graduates". This paper documents a study carried out at The University of Western Australia (UWA) and outlines the development of a model of peer support that aids the learning of both local and international students.

Over a number of years, German Studies in association with the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS) has coordinated a voluntary peer support program between international students (who were native speakers of German) and local students (who were studying German). However, the success of the program has become difficult to quantify as it lacked formal structure and a sound evaluation methodology. In semester two of 2009 the scheme received an 'Improving Student Learning' grant, which enabled a dedicated commitment from staff with the resources to analyse the effectiveness of such a program. The overarching aim of the study was to evaluate a model of engagement and a manual for peer-assisted study that could be applied equally to other upper-level European and Asian language units taught at UWA.


Background

All forms of peer partnerships (in teaching, learning and research) have received a great deal of attention in recent decades (Griffiths, Houston and Lazenbatt, 1995; Bell, 2005; Grol, Mesker and Schellevis, 1988; Weller, 2001). Many of the educational benefits of peer support arrangements are related to the fact that they are collaborative and developmental in nature. Based on past research there seems to be ample evidence that
[s]tudents learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers. They develop skills by organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning (Boud, 2001, p. 3).
The support mechanisms and reflective practices of peer partnerships have been underpinned by pedagogical, financial and other pragmatic considerations, thus making peer activities uniquely popular in most academic disciplines around the world. Indeed, university peer partnerships appear "resource effective" (Muldoon, 2008, p.208) and are considered to hone attributes desirable in graduates. Therefore, advocates for peer partnerships also come from industry and government arguing that fostering of graduates' skills and abilities encourages an understanding of life-long learning. Candy, Crebert and O'Leary (1994, xii) cite "peer-assisted and self-directed learning" as the first of five teaching methods in undergraduate courses that encourage students to become life-long learners and, as such, equip them with what others term "key competencies" (Mayer, 1992), "transferable skills" (Assiter, 1995), "generic attributes" (Wright, 1995) or "generic capabilities" (Stephenson and Yorke, 1998).

With everything "peer" en vogue for some years now, various approaches, practices and nomenclatures have been developed. By now, most Australian universities provide opportunities for their students to become more involved "in their university community through voluntary participation in a range of activities such as mentoring and peer support programmes" (Muldoon, 2008, p. 207). As a result, the peer partnerships of today come in many seemingly interchangeable guises: including "peer learning", "peer tutoring", "peer partnering", "peer leading", "peer advocating", "peer teaching", "peer mentoring", "peer reflection" and "peer coaching" (cf. Ackland, 1991; Goy, 2005; Kohler, 1997; Ladyshewsky, 2004; Phillips, 2001; Showers, 1985). Nevertheless, these models differ in structural terms, being either self-directed or guided, compulsory or voluntary, embedded or add-ons.

Past research has also indicated that certain conditions need to be created for these processes of mutual teaching and learning to take place (Dearlove et al., 2007). These conditions refer to a set-up which ensures that peer support is facilitated formally (with reflective periods included), is structured progressively, and is offered as an integral part of a course or subject.

At The University of Western Australia (UWA) from 2004 to 2008 a model of "peer support" which was guided and voluntary (yet embedded into a course) was undertaken in German Studies. It capitalised on semi-structured social interaction designed to encourage an environment of sharing and nurturing, and to afford every participant a mutually beneficial teaching and learning experience. In the set-up, students studying a foreign language (German Studies students at UWA), as well as students on exchange [1] and study-abroad students [2] from German speaking countries attending UWA were invited to engage with each other in a semi-structured environment. By its very nature, the peer support arrangements used were designed to be a two-way learning process that involved the "sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience between the participants" (Boud, 2001, p.3), just like most other peer arrangements around the world.

In German Studies, peer support activities were embedded into the units by way of regular extra-curricular homework tasks and were also explicitly integrated as collaborative learning strategies. One such homework task may be to watch a German film at a specified time with peers from the same unit, but also with any attending international students, and in a following discussion to explore issues as outlined in their handouts. Alternatively, students had the opportunity to watch the films at other times than the one organised group screening at which the international students were present, and could also work through the handout on their own and in their own time. As such, the peer support set-up was voluntary and both local and international students could drop-in and out at leisure during the semester. An attendance roll was taken purely for statistical purposes and the participating German students knew that their attendance or lack thereof would not affect their mark.

In preparation for this study, an induction package for participating students and staff was designed and participants were made aware of the positive "side-effects" of peer support arrangements and thereby encouraged to capitalise on this "free" professional and personal development opportunity. In addition to the information and formalities relating to their recruitment, the induction package also included practical advice. All participants were given a list of strategies to overcome potentially dysfunctional group interactions and to foster positive group dynamics. The package also included a range of specific, subject related prompt questions and other pedagogic materials (cf. Dearlove et al., 2007, p. 24).

Although the model was based on sound pedagogy (i.e. peer-assisted learning), it lacked the resources for continued commitment and reliable feedback. The effectiveness of the program was dependent on staff resources at the time and evaluation mechanisms were somewhat flawed primarily due to their voluntary nature (i.e. the 'reflective student journal'). While the concept behind participants being asked to write a reflective journal is based on

the view held by supporters of self-directed learning ... that by allowing students to monitor and make judgements about their own learning, they take more responsibility for their own learning and are less inhibited in becoming independent learners who are able to critically assess their own progress (Muldoon, 2008, p. 214),
in reality students are 'time-poor' and non-assessed 'homework' becomes superfluous.

Anecdotal evidence gathered during 2004 and 2008 as part of the project appraisal demonstrated the students' positive opinions about their involvement. Although they felt unable to gauge the true level of success or to name concrete benefits, they indicated the main outcomes of their participation in such an initiative was "socialising", "having fun", "hanging out with like-minded people" and "making friends". International students indicated that the peer support they experienced helped them to "adjust" to the foreign language (English), to their new study setting in general, and to unfamiliar institutional rules. The local German Studies students corroborated the fact that the peer support they experienced helped them with their "confidence in speaking" a foreign language (German), as they lost their inhibitions about making mistakes and were willing to accept help from the international students, feeling that they in turn "could help" them.

Indeed, the preliminary results of this study confirm findings by Krause (2005) that university students do want peer support networks, as they realise they enhance their academic, personal and social adjustment to the tertiary education environment. Yet how is such a set-up best organised?

During the second semester of 2009 the program was awarded an 'Improving Student Learning' grant to enable the initiative to establish a sound framework and formally evaluate its effectiveness.

Study aims

Research to date indicates that students studying European and Asian languages at UWA (Ludewig 2008) and nationally (Nettelbeck 2008) desire more opportunity to sharpen their conversational skills, however, budgetary pressures have resulted in "a reduction in contact hours across the sector" (Nettelbeck, 2008, p.4). Peer support offerings can therefore supplement a perceived shortfall of contact hours in language learning.

On the other hand international students feel a level of isolation and a yearning to engage with the local university community (Sawir et al., 2008) while in reality facing a "dearth of opportunities [...] to socialise with their local counterparts" (Arkoudis, 2009). Again, peer support can provide a framework for increased social interaction.

The primary aims of the peer support initiative trialed at UWA are indeed to address both the shortfalls of conversational practice and social interaction by facilitating opportunities for international and local students to engage with each other. This not only provided conversational practice in the target language for local students, but also offered a chance for local students to get first hand cultural experience from 'peers' in the target language, while increasing the opportunity for international students to meet new friends and interact with local students in a social environment.

What form of peer support network is best suited to address these two student groups with very different needs?

While part of the learning experience lies in recognising the enormous achievements of communicating in a foreign language, the reciprocity utilised in the peer support set-up is based on the different skill-sets for each student group. While the local students have the added advantage of knowing the university, its structures, environment, and formal and informal rules, the international students bring their native proficiency in the target language and are seen as experts in their country's culture. This set-up for peer support is not formulated as a teaching philosophy, although it does examine the social capital underlying the learning process taking place.

Methodology

Past experience has demonstrated that international students are less likely to be interested in a program that is 'academically' focused and are instead more interested in social networking. Local language students on the other hand consistently bemoan the fact that they do not get enough speaking practice (Ludewig 2008). The initiative was therefore based primarily on social interaction between local and international students.

Phase one of the initiative required recruiting a peer leader who would facilitate informal and open weekly sessions aided by an instruction manual. Each session would be structured around specific themes or social events, such as language quizzes, campus tours, film evenings, etc. Phase two had a greater pedagogical emphasis, whereby students had to 'adopt' an international student and conduct an interview with them on a specific topic. Studies have shown that when students connect with native-speakers of their target language, particularly during ethnographic interviews, they not only gain a greater understanding of others, but also of themselves (Sobolewski, 2009, p.29). This aspect of the initiative was embedded in one of the advanced German units (GRMN2213) and was part of the overall assessment. Local students enrolled in GRM2133 were also encouraged to attend the facilitated weekly sessions, although participation was purely voluntary and open to all intermediate and advanced German language students.

The first step in the process was to recruit both international and local students to participate in the program. As students studying intermediate and advanced language units are often more interested in working on their conversational skills and gaining an insight into the cultural aspects of the language they are studying, the initiative was promoted as an opportunity to "brush up on your German conversation skills and learn more about German culture". The peer support program specifically targeted intermediate and advanced German language students and involved facilitated weekly gatherings structured around specific themes and social events, such as language games and quizzes, discussion of any topic of relevance to themselves and their peers, and many other benefits, including an introduction to international students with Germanic heritage.

Implementation of the program involved the specific targeting of international students from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Initially we requested a list of exchange students and study-abroad students from the International Centre and sent emails prior to their arrival in Australia and prior to them commencing the semester. We again invited them - this time in person - at their welcome meeting with the convener of German Studies during their orientation session, stressing that the peer support activities were to be offered as an opportunity for them to meet local students and get involved in the UWA community in a non-threatening environment.

Parallel to the incoming international exchange and study-abroad students with German-speaking backgrounds, our local German Studies students were targeted with promotional material inviting them to attend the weekly sessions designed to enhance their language proficiency.

Phase two of the project saw staff and students involved in very different issues. While the students met and worked on the conception of the ethnographic interviews embedded within the assessment structure of a German language unit, staff activities were centred on facilitation and subsequently data collection. Attendance numbers were monitored, an online questionnaire was developed and anecdotal feedback from staff and students was analysed.

Phase three concerned the analysis of the data and follow-up interviews with staff and students involved in 2008 and 2009. The discussion of the findings at a staff meeting and the dissemination of the results to colleagues in all language programs at UWA concluded the research cycle for this year. It is anticipated that the same data collection channels will be utilised in coming semesters to build a stronger case for or against the structured approach.

Participants

In total, thirty-nine local and eight international students participated in this program in 2008 and 2009. They comprised international exchange and study abroad students (from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and local learners of German. Nine local students and two international students (although four had initially registered) attended the weekly sessions in semester 2, 2009, when the more formal evaluation took place. Nine students participated in the international student interview (of which five also attended the weekly peer activity sessions).

A questionnaire was sent out to all students (fifteen) who participated in this initiative in semester 2, 2009, which achieved a response rate of 27 percent (n=4). Moreover, three staff members and six students provided input during focus group sessions.

Results and discussion of questionnaires

The following discussion is based on the analysis of the data collected and is organised around several of the themes explored through the research questions.

Based on qualitative data collected at the end of semester one and two in 2009, and revolving around interviews with international students, as well as focus group meetings with select staff and students, it became apparent that students enjoyed the process, although they felt that it required a more structured approach (most prominent issue from feedback the feedback in semester 1, 2009) and lamented the fact that so few students participated (most common concern in semester 2, 2009).

In both semesters, issues of time management, the voluntary nature and the open-ended nature of the support engagement were mentioned repeatedly by participants, both as liberating and restricting factors. It was felt that the social aspect was great, while it lasted ("It was a great idea, but as with all ideas, if no-one does it its unfortunately useless", online feedback from student 3). Frustrations related to a perceived lack of a long-term commitment by some students (both local and international) were also raised in informal feedback with staff and tutors.

Engaging students in voluntary initiatives is always a challenge. Local students have jobs and established circles of friends (mostly still from their school days), which draw them away from the university environment. As a result, "university is only a small part of their lives and they spend only the hours they have to on campus ... thus losing opportunities for close engagement with the learning process" (DEST, 2005). On the other hand, there are international students with few prior contacts in the country and at the university. Their "loneliness" has been well documented (Sawir et al., 2008) and the need for activities fostering a sense of community has been identified as vital.

As such, the peer support initiative would seem to address the needs of international students by providing them with a place where they are able to get together with fellow members of their ethnic group, as well as with other students acutely aware of their culture, in order to share experiences, give each other support and receive advice on any transition issues they may have been having.

The data obtained through the online questionnaires confirmed, students seemed pleased with the peer support set-up (50% were satisfied and 50% highly satisfied with their personal and academic progress) and felt that they had benefited in one way or another (personally or academically). While responses here were mostly inconclusive, with many students perceiving one another as "casual friends", without "feel[ing] like committing" to any further activities or relationships, a sense of benefit was communicated by all, despite misgivings about the perceived lack of commitment by fellow students.

Indeed, attendance levels varied considerably and no stable group dynamic developed. However, this pattern had been foreshadowed in the induction package and students acknowledged that "this is what I expected (a more social gathering over an academic one) and what would benefit me the most, however... not enough people went" (feedback from student 8). While part-time work obligations, as well as sport and other commitments, prevented the absolute majority of students to attend any or some of the meetings, those that attended felt rewarded.

It was encouraging to note that students saw that a lot of time and thought had gone into the planning, implementation and evaluation of the program. ("All German units so far have been very interesting and mostly well organised. One huge positive is that all German staff are extremely helpful and understanding which makes it so much more enjoyable", feedback from student 5).

While "listening comprehension" and "ability to speak" in the target language were listed as outcomes and tested in a final "oral examination", students did not make the connection between their casual meetings and their exams. Indeed, even when prompted they were unsure how their general discussions in the peer support set-up corresponded with the stipulated learning outcomes and general goals. For students of German Studies this link seemed intangible, while it was utterly irrelevant for the international students, as none of them studied German at UWA and the event was seen as a purely social activity.

The focus interviews with three students yielded the best set of data with regard to constructive feedback (shortened transcripts below):

Student 1:
What were the positive/ negative aspects of this project?

It was good to meet someone from Germany. It was more social than anything. It was difficult to find time to meet.
Would you like to be involved in a similar project in the future?
Possibly if it was organised better and we could see them [the other students] during class time.
Did you find these meetings beneficial to your language learning?
Very beneficial, as I recorded most of my notes in German.

Student 2:
What were the positive/ negative aspects of this project?

I quite enjoyed the interview aspect of this assignment, we had free reign as to which topics to discuss. This enabled me to probe a bit further into the Swiss German way of life and attitudes, which I found quite interesting.
Would you like to be involved in a similar project in the future?
Definitely.
Do you have any suggestions on how we could improve this project in the future?
Organising the interview was not always easy as some students took forever to respond, M. wasn't possible to contact until I went with a friend from Trinity College to find her there. Maybe if the interviews take place in a class...? Although this would remove the informal, casual interview which I really enjoyed.
Did you find these meetings beneficial to your language learning?
Yes.

Student 3:
What were the positive/ negative aspects of this project?

We were given a native speaker to 'help' us, yet when I got him to proof read or check any of my work, I was told that was classed as cheating and needed to resubmit the work without his help.
Would you like to be involved in a similar project in the future?
Yes.
Do you have any suggestions on how we could improve this project in the future?
Making clear to students what is required in the project. A handout or something on WebCT that states this.

Common concerns shared by these students related to structure, as well as to management of time and expectations, and shall be addressed specifically in the next cycles of the peer support program in 2010 and 2011.

Limitations

The evaluation of the data sets from 2008 and 2009 showed that ultimately dwindling attendance was a big issue throughout the study. The voluntary nature of the arrangement on both sides meant that peer support activities took the lowest priority in competition with other demands. Weekly reminders were sent out to all intermediate and advanced German Studies students as well as to international students for the duration of the scheme, and although there were no weeks with zero attendance, the mean attendance was three, with a range of between seven and one participants at the weekly sessions. However, as the voluntary nature of such an arrangement allowed them to drop in at liberty, other commitments took priority. That said, none of the students felt that peer support should take the place of structured language classes and preferred the social aspects of the arrangement to the educational undertones.

Also, attracting international and exchange students with a German-speaking background has been a big challenge for this initiative. Although email contact was established early on and face-to-face contact was initiated during their first week of semester, a continued commitment to participate in the weekly sessions and ethnographic interviews was a major obstacle for successfully achieving a wider range of outcomes within the program. Once the "first burning questions" had been answered and international students started to make their own circle of friends, they were less curious and their incentive and motivation for attendance declined.

Personal outcomes

Students bring their own personal expectations of achievement that precipitate their participation in a program such as this (Dunne & Ludewig 2009). Among the many reasons listed for their participation, recurring themes included their desire to "meet new people" and their desire to "help". As these motivations were satisfied during the peer support period, the overall experience was perceived as "beneficial" and "true to original expectations". It did not seem to matter for most students that the activities were extra-curricular and the benefits not truly tangible in terms of better grades or clear-cut improvements in their performance. Indeed, the outcomes could not be measured on this level, although a majority of the participants reported higher levels of engagement and satisfaction with themselves and their study experience. Most of all, however, they seemed to appreciate the "freedom" afforded them by the voluntary, non-committal nature of the peer support set-up, which allowed them to engage and disengage at any time.

Institutional outcomes

Ultimately, on an institutional level, a key strategic objective of UWA has been the need to diversify the study experience of students. This peer support initiative has been a novel addition to other current institutional efforts to increase interaction between onshore international students and domestic students. The Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS) has undertaken efforts to improve the student learning environment through a peer support initiative to primarily aid student transition, both for domestic students (at an academically challenging juncture of their studies at the advanced language levels) and for commencing international students (who benefit from contact with 2nd and 3rd year students who can assist them in gaining a foothold in their new study environment).

However, for all participating students this peer support set-up was first and foremost a social activity and not an exercise in teaching others.

Conclusion

The above discussion outlines the difficulties relating to peer support arrangements as perceived by the participants. The biggest draw-card for peer support, i.e. its voluntary and non-committal nature, proved also to be its biggest stumbling block. The freedom in the set-up allowed participants to develop loose social bonds but also accounted for the poor participation levels.

While the evaluation of the current model indicates that staff and students perceive this form of peer support as a useful program, the need for improvements was highlighted. Areas of concern identified by all participants related primarily to low levels of take-up and the decreasing levels of participation over time, especially by international students.

Participation rates could be improved if the peer support activities were more closely linked with the assessment components of the course. However, how can the voluntary nature be preserved and equity and access guaranteed in such a set-up?

Another area of concern relates to the educational outcomes. Despite the model outlined being couched in sound pedagogical terms (induction packages, guiding hand-outs, assessment choices, etc.), the educational benefits were not easily measurable and require further research. While the majority saw some potential benefits in their interactions, which were worthwhile in terms of improving language proficiency as well as inter-cultural competencies, only 25% of participants used the target-language "sometimes" or "most times". How can the use of the target language be further encouraged without making the peer support a quasi-language class?

Both participation rates and greater reflection on educational outcomes could be achieved with the help of portfolios or e-portfolios which participating students would create. Within their portfolios students could be encouraged to link their experiences to graduate attributes or educational principles, especially with regard to transferable skills and employability, international perspectives and cultural understanding. UWA's educational principles seek to imbue students with a desire to "develop personal, social, and ethical awareness in an international context", especially with regard to inter-cultural literacy, to develop students' capacity "for effective citizenship, leadership and teamwork" (UWA 2010). Peer support models such as the one outlined above, can be employed for this purpose and suggest that this particular model could be employed in other foreign language contexts, to European as well as to Asian language units, or indeed to cross-cultural peer support groups in most Humanities disciplines.

Endnotes

  1. UWA has numerous partner universities (87 as of 2008) with which it exchanges students on a fee-waiver basis. Among them are the following eleven German-speaking universities: The University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), The University of Vienna (Austria), Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration (Austria), Aachen University (Germany), Albert Ludwig University Freiburg i. Breisgau (Germany), Eberhard-Karls University Tübingen (Germany), Technical University of Clausthal (Germany), University of Koblenz-Landau (Germany), University of Passau (Germany), The University of Stuttgart (Germany) and The WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management (Germany).

  2. International students from a university or college that does not have a formal student exchange agreement with UWA can study for up to two semesters at UWA on a fee-paying basis. The same applies for students from partner universities, if they missed out on an exchange place. Both options are called study-abroad.

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Authors: Alexandra Ludewig and Tracy Dunne, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Western Australia. Email: alexandra.ludewig@uwa.edu.au, tdunne@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Ludewig, A. & Dunne, T. (2010). Improving student engagement through a structured peer support program involving international students. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/ludewig.html

Copyright 2010 Alexandra Ludewig and Tracy Dunne. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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