Taking the teacher out of the classroom: Supplementary-Instruction Peer-Assisted Study Sessions as student support

Victoria Grace Walden


For a long time, remedial study skills programmes have proven ineffective (Ruth Talbot Keimig 1983), but tutor-led workshops about reading, presenting and writing are often still the norm. As a study skills convenor providing these types of sessions, I often sat in an empty classroom, or had to adapt learning experiences designed as group workshops into one-to-one or one-to-two tutorials, “on-the-fly”. This article discusses a pilot supplementary-instruction peer-assisted study session scheme (SI-PASS) that ran at the University of Sussex in 2018-19. It was designed to support first year students on a Media and Communication BA degree. The aim of this SI-PASS pilot was to consider how research into peer-assisted and active learning might enable us to offer subject specific study support provision that is well attended and helps a wide range of students in contrast to the much under-used remedial sessions we had previously offered. I will discuss how this scheme was setup, before exploring the successes and difficulties of the programme as assessed at the pilot’s mid-point.

What is SI-PASS?

SI-PASS stands for Supplementary-Instruction Peer-Assisted Study Sessions. It is one of a growing number of internationally-developed Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) schemes. Whilst PAL is an umbrella term for a wide range of student-to-student relations from tutoring and mentoring to coaching (Alexander Olaussen et al 2016), SI-PASS is a specific scheme that was introduced by Deanna Martin for the University of Missouri in Kansas City (UMKC) in the 1970s. Its basic premise is that newer students can be supported by those who have progressed slightly further in their studies to develop independent learning skills through the students in the higher years coaching and leading them to problem-solve in groups. Here, we can see the shared values that SI-PASS has with active learning. The latter involves students questioning more than listening to instructions, and working in a collaborative environment in which they try to address real problems without a designated leader (Robert L. Dilworth 2010). What could be a more ideal active learning environment than one in which students work together to tackle problems that they identify for themselves from their own study experiences in a learning environment in which the professional ‘teacher’ is removed altogether?

Martin’s SI-PASS scheme was based on three key principles:

  1. There are ‘at risk courses’ not ‘at risk students’
  2. Slightly more experienced students are the best influencers for new students given they can empathise more closely with the latter’s experiences than staff
  3. Collaborative learning helps students to problem solve most effectively.

(Leif Bryngford 2018)

Many empirical studies of SI-PASS programmes evidence that Martin’s principles have been enacted. Perhaps the strongest advocates, Harry West, Rhiannon Jenkins and Jennifer Hill argue that SI-PASS offers an all-round supportive environment that helps with the transition from other educational contexts, and enhances subject-specific knowledge, study skills, confidence, retention, engagement and enjoyment, and the transferable skills of participants and student leaders in an empathetic ‘safe space’ (2017, p. 460). This article was in part written by student leaders. For Enca Longfellow et al., the greatest benefits of peer-assisted learning are better subject knowledge, more confidence tackling assignments and a safer, less intimidating learning experience (2008, p. 98). SI-PASS is particularly helpful for supporting students with their transition to university in terms of developing their independence as learners and helping them confront anxieties (Green 2008; Court & Motesworth 2008; Zacharopoulou & Turner, 2013). Attintas, Gunes and Sayan are perhaps slightly more pessimistic about SI-PASS, nevertheless, they claim that the scheme supports ‘social aspects of learning’ even when it might not explicitly inform students’ assignments or study skills (2016, p. 330).

The theoretical grounding of PASS is not new. As Alexander Olaussen et al. recognise, collaborative, argumentative learning dates back to the dialectic practices of Socrates and Plato (2016, p.1). The basic philosophy of peer-learning is that ‘students learn from students’ (Ibid.). Yet, it is influenced by specific learning theories. PAL, in general, adopts a socialist constructivist approach (influenced by the work of Jean Piaget 1972; Lev Vygotsky 1978) as student leaders act as facilitators ‘to help learners process and understand information and construct their own knowledge’ rather than giving their peers information (Ning & Downing 2010; Longfellow et al, 2008; Roscoe & Michelene, 2007). SI-PASS is particularly grounded in social and co-operative approaches to learning in which a ‘well-functioning community’ is ‘underpinned by consensual moral and behavioural codes which are passed on through informal learning processes’ (Ning and Downing 2010, p. 242). As Nancy Falchikov argues, co-operative peer learning offers a ‘genuine exchange of thought and exploration, and assimilation of new ideas’ (2001, p. 95). Thus, students in SI-PASS sessions learn to adapt to the structures and expectations of university education, which are often starkly different to their previous encounters (Sally Baker 2017).

The fundamental structure of SI-PASS in practice is as follows: a staff member trains to become an SI-PASS supervisor via one of the international centres. They then train a group of student leaders, who will facilitate study sessions with newer students. The leaders should be at least one year of study ahead of the participants. SI-PASS works best when the sessions are not rooted in general study skills, but rather are attached to a specific module on the students’ course and are led by the students’ agenda. SI-PASS sessions are designed so that participants first identify the questions they have related to the module then find answers to these questions by problem-solving in groups, usually through creative or research tasks. Student leaders do not deliver taught content. The supervisor meets regularly with student leaders and offers feedback on their performance through lesson observations. The student leaders and supervisor also feed forward comments from participants to the module convenor and tutors. Best practice in SI-PASS schemes includes convenors and tutors acting upon the participants’ comments so that the latter play a significant role in the development of their curriculum. Rather than target ‘at risk’ students, SI-PASS is available to all students and is driven by an agenda they create collaboratively rather than an imposed curriculum.

The “How to” Guide (in 10 easy steps)

  1. Establishing an SI-PASS supervisor
  2. Identifying ‘at risk courses’
  3. Budgeting and Timetabling
  4. Recruiting Student Leaders
  5. Preparing Training
  6. Training Student Leaders
  7. Establishing Initial Support Mechanisms for Student Leaders
  8. Student-led Sessions
  9. Continuing Support for Student Leaders
  10. Students informing Teaching and Learning

What I did

I qualified as a SI-PASS supervisor by attending 3 days of training with the European Centre for SI-PASS. The international centres run training days sporadically throughout the year. Details for training at the European Centre can be found here:  https://www.si-pass.lu.se/en/frontpage. Once qualified, I needed to identify which modules were going to be attached to SI-PASS. Research shows that existing SI-PASS schemes have defined ‘at risk courses’ in different ways. For example, Altintas, Gunes and Sayan (2016) selected a particularly challenging computer programming module in the second semester of their undergraduate degree. One might apply this logic by applying SI-PASS to modules that have a history of low attainment or retention, regardless of its place in the academic cycle. Alternatively, Green (2008), Zacharopoulou and Turner (2013), and Tariq (2008) instead suggest using SI-PASS as a tool to support transition from school-based educational contexts to university. It is the latter approach that I adopted so that our study skills provision could be as inclusive and as useful as possible to our cohort.

Adopting SI-PASS for our biggest first year core modules – one in the autumn term and one in the spring term – meant that it would guide all of our first year students towards the level of critical, independent study that we expect of them as university students. SI-PASS sessions are not designed to be workshops each dedicated to a specific study skill or as general subject specific training. They are attached to a particular module and students work together to solve intellectual, administrative and skills-based problems they discover whilst studying this specific class.

Once the need for SI-PASS provision was identified, perhaps the most difficult part of setting up the scheme was compromising with timetabling and budget resources to consider how it can work in practice. Many universities today are faced with increased pressure on room availability and are being confronted with budget cuts. My ideal budget would have allowed us to pay student leaders for:

  • 3 days of training at the beginning of term
  • 2 half days of continuing professional development
  • 1 hour for pre- and post-lesson observation support
  • 3 hours of work per week for the 12 weeks of term, which would include 1 hour of planning, 1 hour of delivery and 1 hour debrief.

Realistically, the budget available allowed for students to be paid only for their weekly teaching and debrief at 1.5 hours per week. This helped inform how I planned the training conferences, to maximise the potential planning time embedded in our activities here. In terms of timetabling, ideally, SI-PASS classes would not be larger than 15 students. This was not always possible: In the autumn term, we had 4 classes for our cohort of 77 students, which had to be divided as follows: class 1 (20 students), class 2 (14 students), class 3 (27 students) and class 4 (16 students). Sessions were timetabled to encourage students to attend as previous feedback from student representatives suggested that the fact remedial sessions did not appear on their timetable was one of the reasons that they forgot about them. Sessions were scheduled for 50 minutes to run as soon as possible after each lecture for a first year core module.

Student leaders should be in the second or third year of their degree and should be familiar with the module that they are supporting. There is some debate about how to recruit student leaders. Some universities promote it as employability and skills training and thus do not pay, others recognise that with the demise of grants many students rely on work to support their studies so do offer financial reward. Given the philosophy underpinning our media curriculum, it seemed inappropriate for us to adopt the former option, so students are paid. SI-PASS is designed to be inclusive, therefore, many advocates of the scheme advise that one should not pick leaders based on attainment. In this spirit, my application form asked students to respond to questions about coaching and leadership, and asked for their grades for the relevant modules purely as evidence that they had completed it. Students were not asked to provide any personal data apart from their name in order to minimise unconscious bias in the selection process. The final cohort of five student leaders represented the diversity of our student body and included students from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and queer and trans-identifying individuals. Many of these student leaders had decided to apply for the role because they had faced challenges in their own educational experiences and wanted to help others.

Once student leaders had been recruited, they then needed to be trained. I developed the training resources for the conference, enrolled guest speakers (more on this later), booked rooms, and worked with our Student Experience Officer to arrange catering. I arranged for students to have free drinks and food throughout the conference days, created training certificates for them and offered to provide professional references for the future. Before the training started, I also contacted our administrator responsible for payroll to ensure I was prepared for the processes of paying our students leaders. It is worth noting that there is substantial bureaucracy for Tier 4 students, and it is important to familiarise oneself with the systems in place in your institution to best support these students to follow the rule of employment law. Approximately two weeks before the training, I emailed the leaders with the training schedule. To ensure the student leaders would be available, the application form included a question asking students whether they were free on the training dates. At this stage, it was also necessary to establish contact with the module convenor, to incorporate the module structure, assignments and potential issues into the student leader training.

I ran two student leader training conferences in September 2018 and January 2019. The European SI-PASS Centre recommends that student leaders have at least two full days of training before beginning their role. I established two intensive programmes of 2.5 days each, one for each cohort of student leaders, which were modelled on the structure of SI-PASS supervisor training sessions and inducted the leaders into the specifics of the scheme. They learned and practised teaching and learning theories and techniques, planned and delivered mock sessions, designed their session plans for the term, and considered ways to manage group dynamics, and learned about support mechanisms so as to provide a safe learning environment for all. Following the strategies presented at the supervisor training, the conference introduced student leaders to Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Collins and Biggs’ (1982) SOLO taxonomy, but I also added Geoff Petty’s (2014) Learning Pyramid so students could see that several theories of learning promote similar beliefs. I also introduced Puentedura’s (2013) SAMR model for using technology in the classroom to help leaders assess in what contexts educational technologies are appropriate. In keeping with the social constructivist grounding of SI-PASS, leaders were trained to encourage student-to-student interaction with techniques such as redirecting questions, wait time and checking for understanding, rather than how to give information from the module to participants. I strongly encouraged the leaders not to re-visit the module content to help them avoid adopting a ‘teacher’ role. We were fortunate in the respect that there had been a substantial re-write of our first-year modules in the academic year in which we introduced SI-PASS. Therefore, whilst the student leaders were familiar with the approaches and concepts discussed on these modules, they had not necessarily attended the same lectures or completed the same readings as the students they were supporting. This meant that it was easier for the student leaders to avoid slipping into teacher mode.

During the training conference, I modelled learning techniques and the structure of a PASS session for them and demonstrated how they could use technologies such as Poll Everywhere and Padlet to check understanding and gather feedback, before asking the leaders to assess the usefulness of these programs and to devise scenarios in which they might be helpful.

A final element of the conference was the inclusion of guest speakers from our study and student support services, whose involvement I enlisted several weeks in advance of the event. These professionals offered short sessions about referrals to ensure that the student leaders felt fully supported in dealing with participants disclosing issues to them. It is imperative that student leaders do not take on the role of a pastoral tutor or mental health specialist for which they are not qualified. Student leaders were also encouraged to access services on campus to support themselves too.

Now that the student leaders were trained, they were able to run their weekly sessions independently. They shared their session plans, developed during the training conference, via Google Drive. Student leaders do not have access to our register systems, therefore I created Google Spreadsheets via which they could share their attendance data with me easily and I could update the system for our records. Once the programme was underway, I met with the student leaders once a week for a half hour debrief where they could collaboratively solve any problems they faced and could pass on feedback from the students to me, which I in turn could communicate to the module convenor. Student leaders also had at least one lesson observation per term from me. We worked collaboratively at the conference to design their observation feedback form so that it most benefited their career development, and each leader had a one-to-one feedback session after their observation. At the weekly debrief sessions, student leaders would disclose feedback from their groups about the module content, assessments, and teaching and learning styles which were then passed onto the module convenor. This forum empowered students to inform curriculum and pedagogical changes.

The successes (what worked well)

Student feedback regarding this pilot scheme was gathered using anonymous online surveys via the Qualtrics platform at mid-term and end of term points. Students were encouraged to identify their biggest concerns about the module in the first week and to express the extent to which the SI-PASS sessions helped tackle these.18 students completed the first survey on November 8th 2018.Some of the problems students identified were managing readings, how they would be assessed, expressing ideas as an international student, knowing what to do, the work load at university, and the differences between university and school. The results showed that 77.8% (14) of students found the SI-PASS sessions specifically helped with the issues they identified. 16.6% (3 students) suggested that the sessions were more helpful than their seminars. Two students particularly commented on the learning environment created through these peer-assisted spaces as follows:

  • ‘I can breakdown stuff I don’t understand without judgement’
  • ‘The environment and the colleagues were very supportive and showed me that they were also unsure of what had to be done. Through their questions I was able to learn or deepen my knowledge’.

Both of these comments suggest that SI-PASS sessions offer students a supportive space where they feel they can make mistakes and yet be challenged in a safe way. The only criticism in any of the comments was from the second student above who suggested that the sessions could be longer in order to allow time to ‘trully [sic] feel sure that all your problems have been solved and all the unknown topics were debated’. The end of term survey was completed by 14 students. 78.6% (11) of the participants said that they found the sessions helpful, very helpful or extremely helpful. 1 of the remaining students, who had been in the class with the student leader who had to stop their sessions before the end of term stated that they wished they had been able to carry on with SI-PASS, which suggests that they did find helpful the few sessions that they had been offered. 7% (2) of the other students who had not found the sessions particularly useful were also from the classes that did not run to the end of term. Some of the comments from students at the end of term included:

  • ‘[SI-PASS] gave us advices [sic] on anything in our course or uni life’
  • ‘The pass session helped me a lot on lectures and especially some difficulty in the lectures’
  • ‘The sessions helped me a lot in understanding the module topics and how to do my assignments’

These particular comments highlight specific elements with which SI-PASS offered support. Here, we can see that it helped students prepare for their assignments, offered them a space in which they could breakdown challenging ideas and topics in the module, and offered support beyond the remit of the module. As such, SI-PASS did not act as a general, remedial study skills provision, but as a space for tackling subject, and indeed module, topics, but where broader issues relating to the transition to university could also be discussed. Many of the students’ positive comments praised the expertise of the student leader, referring to them by name, which suggests that a good comradeship was developed between leader and participants, and that students recognised the core value of SI-PASS: that their slightly more experienced students can be their influencers. Generally, this initial data evidences that SI-PASS was valued by those students who attended all or most of the sessions across the whole term. Some of the positive responses even came from students who admitted to attending only a few classes. Whilst participation in the survey was low, the small number of students who actually responded to the questionnaire still represents a larger cohort than attended our remedial study support undergraduate sessions in the previous autumn term. Although, student leaders encouraged students to complete the surveys in the final few sessions, in the spring term, I would bring this data collection forward to week 8, before the attendance drop that happened towards the end of term.

The autumn term student leaders generally felt well-supported and prepared to deliver their sessions. Their feedback suggested that the training could have involved planning most of their sessions for the whole term. This was the plan, but unfortunately due to the low recruitment of student leaders for the first term, we were only able to cover half of the term during the training conference. In the spring term, this was rectified as we now have a full roster of 4 student leaders and the conference activities included planning, modelling and practising a number of sessions each, which meant by the end of the training we had planned all 11 sessions for the term. One of the other autumn term student leaders highlighted that it was particularly difficult managing a large group and that running a session every week came with a high level of pressure. The suggestion of having a catalogue of plans before term start might also alleviate this problem. The issue of the particularly large class of 27 was rectified in the spring term when classes were divided into 19, 18, 21 and 19 students, respectively. In the first week, most of these classes’ attendance figures were at 2/3rds, which was much more manageable for the student leaders in general.

Alongside student feedback, I gathered some data of the relationship between attendance at SI-PASS sessions and attainment in the related module, and attendance at seminars. The results evidenced that students who attended SI-PASS generally did far better than those who did not. There were two formal assignments in the module which was attached to SI-PASS. The first was a portfolio, developed week-by-week and the second was an essay. The data showed:

  • 100% of students who attended all SI-PASS sessions achieved 2.1 in their portfolio
  • 100% of students who attended all SI-PASS sessions achieved at least 2.2 in their final essay (33.33% 2.1 / 33.33% 1st)
  • Of students who attended at least half of the SI-PASS sessions
    • 75% got 2.1 or 1st in the portfolio (41.67% 1st)
    • 66.67% got 2.1 or 1st in the essay (41.67% 1st)
  • 33.33% of students who never attended SI-PASS failed the portfolio
  • 33.33% of students who never attended SI-PASS failed the essay
  • Students who attended at least 50% of SI-PASS sessions attended all of their seminars

From the data there appears to be a strong correlation between attendance at SI-PASS sessions and success in the assessments. I would also infer that the fact 100% of those who attended all sessions achieved a 2.1 in their portfolios suggests that it is not simply high-achieving students who are engaging with the scheme, i.e. it is not those who would already attain the highest scores. Such a grouping of results infers that the programme may be helping students, who might otherwise achieve lower scores, to improve their grade potential (although more data would be needed to confirm this). Another significant result from the data is that those who attended most SI-PASS sessions attended all of their seminars, suggesting that these students were heavily invested in their studies for this module. It will be useful, going forward, to find out more about the correlation between attendance here. Does SI-PASS encourage students to attend seminars? Or do those interested in the module want to seek all the possible avenues for support available to succeed, so attend SI-PASS? We must be cautious of reading this data as conclusive that SI-PASS improves grades or attendance. Students self-selected whether to attend these sessions and it is possible that the most committed and studious students may attend SI-PASS because they want to seek all the opportunities they can to shape their success. Nevertheless, we should certainly encourage these individuals to do well by offering such provision. Furthermore, when compared to students’ attendance at their seminars and their final grades, this latter data represents a more standard bell-curve, which suggests SI-PASS does have some effect on attainment. As with much educational research, it is difficult to quantitatively measure the impact of SI-PASS sessions. We do not know whether, for example, the critical thinking skills developed in these classes may have more of a long-term than short-term effect on students’ development, and it is difficult to isolate the influence of just these sessions. Therefore, qualitative student feedback remains the most productive form of analysis.

The unexpected difficulties

Some of the challenges I faced introducing SI-PASS into our curriculum were foreseeable. These included budgeting, timetabling, recruitment and retention, and the student leaders taking on too much of a ‘teacher role’ and thus just reiterating the learning styles of the lecture format rather than offering something else. Whilst SI-PASS might sound like a fantastic solution to many problems, we must be careful of considering it a magic wand. SI-PASS can be expensive, particularly if applied to large core modules. We pay each of our student leaders for 1.5 hours of work per week during term time, which covers their 1-hour teaching session and debrief. SI-PASS groups should be relatively small to enable the student leaders to manage them effectively. Ideally there should be no more than 12-15 students per group. With a cohort of 100, this could lead to 7 groups, which equates to 10.5 people hours per week based on our structure. This also has an impact on timetabling, as the university needs to find the rooms for these groups and SI-PASS works most effectively if the study sessions can all run immediately after the lecture, when questions are still fresh in students’ minds and so that the sessions can work as a bridge between the lecture and readings, and the seminar. With students taking increasingly diverse curricula, including electives, and working during university hours, it can be challenging to find slots when both the student leaders and students are all free. In both terms, we did not succeed in timetabling SI-PASS so that it could be adopted by every single student, there were a handful whose schedules could not be reconciled. One potential resolution to this problem is to divide our current 2-hour seminars into 1-hour SI-PASS sessions and 1-hour tutor-led seminars. On the one hand, one of the students commented that the sessions were currently not long enough, so would this be feasible? On the other hand, several of the students commented that SI-PASS was more useful than their seminar, so perhaps structuring the teaching and learning so that students problem-solve as a group independent of any faculty member, and then consolidate learning immediately after this with a tutor might be a useful strategy. It is likely that this would encourage higher attendance and would solve timetabling issues if the sessions ran consecutively in the same room.

As Yvonne Hodgson et al. (2013) have noted, retention in SI-PASS can dip later in the year, as is common on most undergraduate courses. Foreseeing this difficulty, I included a session on promoting SI-PASS in the student leaders’ training, and weekly attendance monitoring helped us to reflect on strategies to encourage students back in the classroom. Some student leaders have been excellent at using email to communicate with their peers between sessions to encourage attendance. In the two autumn class groups that ran for the entire term, there were two significant points when attendance dropped, which were as predicted. The first was in week 3, once students came to realise that the SI-PASS sessions were not compulsory and therefore self-selected whether they wanted to continue with the support. The second was towards the end of term, after the mid-term assignment had been submitted. This drop was similar to trends in seminar attendance which often trails off as timetables become lighter, self-study dominates students’ schedules, final essays are due, and flights home for Christmas are cheaper than the weeks after term finishes. However, the drop towards the end of term was more significant in one class than the other. Whilst the class sizes were uneven at the beginning of term, they levelled out to approximately 10 students in the middle of term. The attendance drops at week 3 and towards the end of term matched the experiences shared by other SI-PASS supervisors at the training I attended.

A final issue identified by Court and Molesworth (2018), in their study of SI-PASS on a Media Practice module, is that student leaders can creep into a teacher role and then students can expect this of them. Encouraging student leaders to explain their pedagogical choices in the weekly debrief can help to identify times when they have become too much like a teacher and offer opportunities to help steer them away from this. The lesson observations also support this process. The main points I identified for improvement in early lesson observations of student leaders were: (1) that they needed to prepare less content and feel confident enough that their students’ agenda will help shape the session; that they only need to come with a toolbox of learning strategies not content. (2) That student leaders could encourage participation by circulating around their class as students work in groups to try to solve problems. In the spring term, one student leader was particularly productive at allowing their students to lead the agenda. She asked her group in week 1 not only what they would like the content of their session to cover, but how they would like it to be structured. The students, by now, used to SI-PASS from the autumn term, explained that they would like to problem-solve in groups as much as possible. This suggests that, as a cohort, they are mostly invested in the pedagogy of the scheme.

There were two unexpected difficulties with the programme, both of which were related to student leaders. These were recruitment and retention of leaders, and the protection of these individuals’ well-being. It was very challenging to recruit the first group of student leaders despite creating a process designed to encourage high levels of interest. As SI-PASS was completely new to the university, I ran an information session for students who were potentially interested in becoming a student leader, which was advertised to the cohort by email in our weekly School newsletter and through reminders. This attracted approximately nine students, who were all very keen. Nevertheless, only four applied and two of these dropped out before the scheme started due to work and study pressures. The scheme therefore ran in the first term with only 2 student leaders, each of whom took on 2 classes. Unfortunately, however, one of these leaders later stepped down from their position due to feeling stressed. How to manage the well-being of student leaders appropriately is a question that will underpin any further developments I make with SI-PASS. We must remember that our student leaders are both coaches for their peers and still students themselves, many of them in the midst of the most stressful parts of their degree. Also, the type of students who are likely to be attracted to the role are those that are keen and ambitious, and may well be taking on part-time work, apprenticeships or internships, and likely incredibly studious. An element of pastoral care is necessary on the part of the SI-PASS supervisor towards the student leaders. It is important to encourage student leaders to also create a supportive community amongst themselves. In the spring term, once SI-PASS had been running for one term, there were 3 new applications and we had a full cohort of 4 student leaders, each running 1 study session per week. We have numerous applications for the well-established student mentor programme in our School, so I would predict that as SI-PASS becomes more established, recruitment will grow. Particularly now that a large number of students have experienced how these sessions run. However, it is vital to not only support student leaders through induction to the scheme, but to continue to support them through the process. This both aids retention of student leaders and provides a duty of care to them. Allocating budget allowance for student leader team-building exercises or social events could help create a cohesive, social bond between them so they feel like a team. As has already been noted, one of the concerns for the student leader who left before the end of the term was the size of one of their classes (27 students). This number of students is much larger than the typical seminar group in our School (15-20 students) and it is unfair to expect that a second or third year undergraduate might be able to manage such a large group. Ensuring that training offers time and space for the student leaders to develop a cohesive, supportive community in which they can work together to create their plan for the entire term, continuing pastoral and professional support for student leaders throughout the academic year, and imposing strict class size limits can all contribute to providing the best care for student leaders. Training more leaders than needed would also offer a buffer to cover sickness or leaders that leave.

Two student leaders, one in each term, had difficult sessions in their first few weeks that affected their motivation, which further evidences the need to offer them pastoral support. Their groups were resistant to the practices of SI-PASS and instead demanded that the student leaders explain content to them, and expected that the student had done the readings and attended the lecture for them. In both instances, I coached the student leader, emailed the class involved to reiterate the SI-PASS ethos and expected behaviours and sat in their next sessions. In the communication with students, I re-emphasised what is the student leader’s role and that the sessions are not compulsory. Despite this, the first of these two troubled student leaders left soon after. The second student leader clearly adopted techniques from the training to manage her class and immediately sought support from me. By this second term, it is likely that I was more aware that this problem could arise and was better positioned to offer pre-emptive training and structured guidance. The experiences of these two student leaders emphasised the need for careful, micro-management of both the student leaders and the SI-PASS groups. It might seem too easy to let the student leaders manage their groups and only support them, but regular communication with the students involved in the scheme could also help manage the behaviours of all.

Concluding thoughts

After our SI-PASS pilot scheme has run for a little more than a term it is clear that many of the benefits identified previously have been evidenced here. My experience of leading this scheme mirrors Longfellow et al’s (2008) conclusions that SI-PASS helps students strengthen their subject knowledge, develop confidence about how to complete assignments, and offers a safer, less intimidating learning experience than seminars and lectures. Contrary to Attintas, Gunes and Sayan, our scheme demonstrated that students got much more out of these peer-assisted study sessions that solely the ‘social aspect of learning’ (2016, p. 330). SI-PASS is a productive practice to support students to independently problem-solve issues they encountered related to a specific module and with more general queries about university life, thus also aided their transition to higher education. Nevertheless, this does not mean it comes without challenges. With the increasing marketization of the university sector, it is important to be prepared for, and think creatively about how to tackle, budget and timetabling restrictions. Furthermore, given the so-called ‘mental health crisis’ characterising higher education today, we should be particularly attuned to strategies for supporting the well-being of student leaders.


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Disrupting Traditional Pedagogy: Active Learning in Practice Copyright © 2019 by Victoria Grace Walden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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