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Peer learning strategies for grad student success

Lessons learned from Concordia University’s Graduate Professional Skills program.


From its inception in 2011, Concordia University’s Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) program has been serious about practicing what it preaches. GPS’s mission is to provide all Concordia graduate students with opportunities to acquire a wide range of competencies that help ensure a smooth transition to the world of work. What better way to achieve this than by involving graduate students themselves in the development and delivery of the program’s services?

Each year, a new team of approximately 15 graduate students is hired to carry out the development and facilitation of learning activities, the expansion of our social media presence, and the administration and promotion of our program. The GPS staff has always strongly believed – and still believe – that by providing employment to graduate students, we are giving them the chance to work in a professional environment where they can develop important transferrable skills. Although our student employees learn from our coaching and feedback, we are well aware that a large part of their professional development is happening through peer learning, and we deliberately design our activities to leverage these reciprocal learning opportunities.

GPS employs a variety of peer learning strategies. One formal strategy we use is peer teaching. Graduate students are employed to develop and revise learning material and facilitate workshops, drawing on their own experience and knowledge. As such, workshop participants are learning from their peer workshop leaders. Being in a similar situation and sharing the same status as their fellow workshop leader, it is easy for participants to relate to the facilitator and even be inspired by them. Without the hierarchical imbalance and the evaluative component of conventional classrooms, learning becomes a less intimidating experience for all. Most importantly, it becomes possible for participants and the facilitators to develop a sense of community and collegiality, aiding in even greater student success and learning.

Student participants are not the only ones learning through peer-led workshops; the student-facilitators are also benefiting. As with any peer-learning strategy, the learning is a two-way street. By leveraging the subject matter expertise that exists in this mature population, GPS allows student facilitators to develop confidence in their expertise and growing skill base. The facilitators learn from their peer participants by being part of a learning community, communicating and articulating their knowledge, and developing critical reflection skills by helping their peers learn. Workshop leaders examine their graduate school experience in more depth, and then share their thoughts with their peers.

A second peer learning strategy that GPS uses is reciprocal peer learning – learning among peers within the same activity or workshop. Various communication workshops and structured learning activities focused, for example, on peer review techniques, oral presentation skills, and thesis writing skills. Participants are mutually giving and receiving feedback, and providing each other with encouragement and challenges. Once again, a learning community is created, affording students the opportunity to offer mutual support by reflecting on their struggles and knowledge when offering observations from their own area of expertise.

Lastly, another strategy GPS uses is a formalized approach to peer learning embedded in our work-practices. From the beginning of their mandate, all new student hires are trained and hired by the exiting cohort of students. New hires shadow workshops facilitated by the outgoing team, attend end-of-year meetings to discuss successes and areas to improve, and review existing learning material with their outgoing peers. When developing or revising material for learning activities, and when practicing workshop presentation skills, the newly-hired employees are asked to work together so as to benefit from each other’s expertise. In this manner, GPS’s work practices offer the opportunity to graduate student hires to learn from their colleagues and peers.

From our observations working with students and the feedback we receive from them, we conclude that students leave their positions at GPS not only with valuable experience to add to their CVs, but also with enhanced skills, a better understanding of their strengths, and deepened self-esteem. We continue to balance formal and informal strategies of peer learning with the hope that all types of strategies will induce more informal peer learning beyond GPS activities and add positively to the university learning ecology.

Frédérica Martin is manager of academic programs and development at Concordia University. Kristy Clarke is coordinator of the graduate and professional skills program at Concordia.
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