Friday, July 25, 2014

Peer Leadership as an Emerging High-Impact Practice

Like many, my college years (interrupted by two years of missionary service) were transformative for me. Mars Hill University, the University of Utah, and Brigham Young University (yes, I transferred twice) were all tremendously impactful.
 By the time I had graduated I had new intellectual skills, had learned what it meant to be part of a diverse community, and had a much clearer idea of who I was and who I wanted to become (both vocationally and otherwise).  As with any kind of learning, there were a number of factors that contributed to my growth during this period, but my undergraduate experiences at

To be more specific, there were particular aspects of my experiences at these schools that were impactful.  At +Mars Hill, intercollegiate athletics helped me feel a sense of belonging and identity on campus, the common "Liberal Arts in Action" curriculum gave me a chance to reflect on and have conversations about big questions, and an internship in the Athletic Training department was my first taste of authentic experiential learning in the college setting.  I was only at "the U" for a semester, but it was impactful in that I figured out (a) that I really didn't want to be a doctor (thanks to 1,000 seat "weeder" classes in biology and chemistry) and (b) that I was really going to hate my college experience unless I found a way to really immerse myself in the experience, which was hard to do living at home with my parents.

Eventually I ended up at +BYU.  While I enjoyed many aspects of my BYU experience, it wasn't the classes I took (although I took some great ones) or my major (which I enjoyed immensely) that most influenced me during my three years on campus.  Instead, it was the two years I spent as a peer mentor in what was then known as "Freshman Academy."

More than any other experience I had as an undergraduate student, being a peer mentor met the criteria for high-impact practices put forth by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  It provided me with meaningful interaction with faculty members, engaged me in critical thinking about important issues, provided me with undergraduate research opportunities, and taught me to work collaboratively with others on sustained projects.  In fact, in the recent alumni survey I completed, I cited it as the single most impactful aspect of my experience at BYU.  I say this because it made a more meaningful contribution to my realization of essential learning outcomes than any other part of my experience, and, more importantly, launched me on a career trajectory in higher education that I would never have imagined.

AAC&U has defined 10 discreet high-impact practices (HIPs) that are widely-tested and linked with substantial educational benefits:

  • First-year seminars/experiences
  • Common intellectual experiences
  • Learning communities
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Undergraduate research
  • Collaborative assignments and projects
  • Diversity and global learning
  • Service and community-based learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone courses/projects
I'll argue, both here and hopefully at AAC&U's Centennial Annual Meeting next year, that peer leadership should be included on this list because of it's potential to contribute to 21st Century Learning outcomes and provide for a transformative undergraduate experience.  National studies of peer leadership point to this practice as an emerging HIP with potential to fulfill the promise of a liberal education (e.g. Keup, 2012).  Indeed, peer leadership promotes the hallmark outcomes that characterize liberal learning by integrating many of the characteristics of the more established HIPs llisted above.  

Yet, the quality of the PL experience varies across campuses.  But, when institutions merely cobble together sexy “best practices” rather than intentionally inter-weaving established HIPs to form a focused and intentional educational environment, the potential for the PL experience to yield substantial educational benefits is lost.  In contrast, when stakeholders thoughtfully integrate established HIPs into the PL experience, students are positioned for tremendous growth.

What are the characteristics of a high-impact peer leadership experience?

Close ties to the academic curriculum.  Peer leadership comes in a number of flavors, with peer leaders being used to support student athletes, first-generation students, and women in STEM.  And, at some level, any type of peer leader experience can be impactful.  But, peer leaders are likely to experience greater gains when their work is aligned with a credit-bearing course that is part of the required curriculum.  Required first-year seminars are a great setting for this type of peer leadership, but it could also take place in another substantial academic course that is a required part of the curriculum.  This alignment brings validity to their work, while also providing opportunities for peer leaders to engage with course content and pedagogies in ways that promote critical thinking.  Even better -- embed peer leaders as part of a learning community where peer leaders and students engage "big questions" and work to integrate their learning across courses.

Meaningful engagement with faculty members.  A big part of the reason I was changed by being a peer mentor was that it brought me into a situation where I was being mentored by full-time faculty members who were interested in my development and new how to challenge and support me.  Too often, peer leaders are hired or selected, provided with minimal sub-par "training," and then set loose to somehow figure out how to "lead" their peers.  In these cases, being a peer leader isn't likely to lead to much growth.  Worse--there's a decent chance it will do more harm than good.  Peer leaders should be provided with opportunities for regular and meaningful interactions with the faculty members who supervise them.  Even better -- engage peer leaders in research and assessment examining the impact of the peer leadership initiative of which they're a part.

Make it academic.  Peer leadership is often critiqued by those who view it as nothing more than taking students on campus tours during new student orientation or organizing weekend social events.  There isn't anything wrong with peer leadership experience that is firmly grounded in the social aspect of college; However, peer leadership that takes on a more "academic" tone, will both be viewed more favorably by the academic officials on campus, and contribute to the academic outcomes of the institution.  Whether it's substantial writing assignments or tasks completed by peer leaders, undergraduate research, capstone projects that invite peer leaders to integrate and articulate the learning they've experienced in their role, or an academic course that they register for as part of the experience, the peer leader experience needs to have some kind of connection to the academic life of the university.

Clear learning outcomes and focused assessment.  It isn't enough to just claim to be providing a great learning experience for peer leaders.  It needs to be directed by well-articulated learning outcomes and documented by high-quality assessment.  

High-impact peer leadership experiences are already happening on a number of campuses, but for peer leadership to really emerge as a truly high-impact practice, institutions need to approach it as such.  Considering the above issues will be a great start.

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