Peer support and the learning experience of postgraduate research
Keywords: peer-support, networked learning, postgraduate, collaborations, research pedagogy
This article examines the importance of peer support networks in fostering interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations between postgraduate research students. Such networks engender spaces and interconnections where postgraduate students can enrich their learning experience by engaging with others with a similar status for mutual benefit. Peer support networks should therefore be viewed as an integrated part of postgraduate research pedagogy and a broader conceptualisation of ‘peer learning’. The article highlights initial findings from a recent survey mapping postgraduate research students’ and supervisors’ experience with the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies (MeCCSA) Postgraduate Network.
Peer learning as a form of research pedagogy
The role of ‘peer’ or ‘collaborative’ learning has attracted increasing attention in education research. Scholars have put forth a wide range of conceptualisations in relation to undergraduate teaching, including: peer learning (Collier, 1983), collaborative learning (Bruffee, 1999), cooperative learning (Mills and Cottell, 1998), peer assisted learning (Topping and Ehly, 1998), peer tutoring (Falchikov, 2001), peer facilitation (Micari, Streitwieser, and Light, 2005), and peer mentoring (Jacobi, 1991, Hall and Jaugietis, 2010). These studies share a central tenet that there is educational benefit in students taking responsibility for shared, self-directed learning from each other, working in groups independent of the teacher. That is, hierarchical status differences and barriers of power between fellow students are less than those between faculty members and students. ‘In these circumstances more open communication can therefore occur’, Boud and Lee asserts, ‘allowing for fuller engagement and potentially greater opportunities for learning (as distinct from teaching)’ (Boud and Lee, 2005, p.513). In so doing, engaging peers in pedagogic strategy have been positioned not only as effective ways of enhancing student performance (as indicated by higher grades), but also improving student experience of university life and reducing attrition (Hall and Jaugietis, 2010).
There has been little uptake on peer-related concepts in the context of research degrees and thus little documentation of its application to research pedagogy. Some exceptions to this appear in literature on professional doctorates, where a certain degree of peer learning in the form of engaging with the professional environment is often a component (Wellington and Sikes, 2006). Here the experience is often connected with the increasing focus on skills acquisition, connected with doctoral students’ employability on completion (Mowbray and Halse, 2010). Related concepts even appear in literature on professional development of senior academics as ‘peer coaching’ (Huston and Weaver, 2007). However, the unit in both of these examples usually constitute a pair or smaller group of colleagues working together rather than a larger nexus of interconnected scholars. This is despite Cullen et al’s (1994) assertion, that research students are ‘self-organising agents of varying effectiveness, accessing resources, one of which is the supervisor’ (Cullen et al, 1994, p.41). In their study, students also perceived themselves as being part of a nexus, ‘at the centre of a constellation of others’ (Cullen et al, 1994, p.41).
Part of the reason for this lack of attention on peers, is that the research environment has, beyond the role of the supervisory team (Barnes and Austin, 2009), traditionally been perceived as the provision of institutional learning support, consisting to varying degrees of departmental and graduate school support, library resources and infrastructure. Focussing exclusively on provision is itself problematic, of course, as it does not adequately cater for uptake or experience of such support mechanisms. However, Boud and Lee (2005) contend that by situating ‘peer-learning’ as an integral component part of the research environment, drawing on the ‘community of peers/experts/others’ envisaged by Pearson and Brew (2002), it engenders ‘an environmental that is intellectually, socially and geographically complex and dispersed’ (Boud and Lee, 2005, p.504, emphasis added). That is,
rather than seeing these complex and dispersed relations in terms of an ‘environment’ which is separate and apart from ‘pedagogy’, understood primarily in ‘vertical’ terms as ‘supervision’, we suggest that pedagogy be reconceptualized as significantly ‘distributed’ and ‘horizontalized’, with an associated dispersal of responsibilities and of agency. (Boud and Lee, 2005, pp.502-503)
Here they draw on Lea and Nicoll’s (2002) notion of ‘distributed learning’ to ‘refer to networks of learning in which learners take up opportunities in a variety of ways without necessary involvement from teachers or supervisors’ (Boud and Lee, 2005, p.503). They construct their notion of ‘peer learning’ as a ‘two-way reciprocal learning activity […] among students and significant others’ (Boud and Lee, 2005, p.503). Thus peer relations are not only about overcoming the isolation and loneliness of doctoral students, but indeed an active space and site of learning. Subsequently they argue, ‘the specific institutional ecologies of research degree communities and environments is crucial to meeting the often diverse and conflicting requirements of students, academics and policy-makers’ (Boud and Lee, 2005, p.504).
Whilst an important theoretical contribution, Boud and Lee’s (2005) study appears to lack ambition on the scale of the imagined peer learning environment. That is, I would argue, the interconnections envisaged are predominantly with peers at the same institution or research groups. However, the effectiveness of such communities within a given faculty depends on the size of the research student cohort. Whilst some may be able to sustain peer learning communities of their own, many others will not. It is my contention, therefore, that we need to look beyond the university as the main institutional ecology of peer learning, and, as Boud and Lee do acknowledge, examine who doctoral peers are, where and how they connect.
This article will now turn to examine one example of a peer support network, the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, which is organised by postgraduate research students within the parameters of a subject association.
The MeCCSA Postgraduate Network
MeCCSA is the UK subject association for media, communication and cultural studies, and its Postgraduate Network aims to bring together postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers ‘from different intellectual traditions and cultural backgrounds in order to form research, and teaching and learning networks and also ensure peer support’ (MeCCSA-PGN Aims and Objectives statement). The MeCCSA Postgraduate Network articulates its goals as being to:
- situate postgraduate researchers in the national landscape of media, communication and cultural studies
- provide a national forum where postgraduates can participate in workshops/seminars related to teaching, learning and research
- bring together members of the postgraduate community in order to debate contemporary issues in media, communication and cultural studies
- provide a supportive environment where postgraduates can establish valuable contacts for the future.
These goals are primarily achieved through the organisation of an annual postgraduate conference. The inaugural conference was hosted by Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, University of Central England, on Monday 20 September 2004, with a reported 49 delegates. Subsequent annual conferences have been two-day events in June or July, hosted by Cardiff University (2005), University of Ulster (2006), University of the West of England, Bristol (2007), University of Sussex (2008), Bangor University (2009), University of Glasgow (2010), and Bournemouth University (2011). The Postgraduate Network has also supported a series of one-day subject specific seminars and workshops. In 2007 it launched an online, open access journal, titled Networking Knowledge, with one or two issues published each year since. It also operates a dedicated mailing list with more than 500 subscribers.
The MeCCSA Postgraduate Network was originally supported by the Higher Education Academy’s Art Design Media Subject Centre (ADM-HEA), which provided an annual grant to fund the network’s activities. The network successfully secured additional support from the AHRC Collaborative Research Training fund for its 2006-2008 annual conferences. Following the current government’s financial restructuring of the Higher Education sector, the funding for the Postgraduate Network and associated activities has come under further pressure. This affects members on both an operational level, with traditional funding streams no longer available, and on a personal level since institutions have fewer funds to support postgraduate students’ attendance at conferences.
In July 2011, I conducted a survey asking research students and supervisors to reflect on the role of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network in relation to traditional forms of postgraduate research supervision. Instead of favouring one over the other, responses reaffirmed the different levels at which support is required. Peer support was perceived as being: ‘broadening’ (R104), ‘complementary’ (R60), a ‘useful addition’ (R41), a source of ‘additional support, networking’ (R5), and of course ‘social’ (R58). One respondent said: ‘peer advice and feedback, is much less intimidating than [the] supervisory panel’ (R31), thus highlighting students’ need for emotional support, with the supervisory environment itself perceived by many as a potential source of stress.
Another respondent explained how the Postgraduate Network ‘has helped me with all of the elements (panics) associated with conducting phd [sic] research’, noting that ‘it's always good to know other people are freaking out as much as you are!’ (R68). Supervisory teams were described as being ‘rather insular’, with the Postgraduate Network helping ‘to mitigate the isolation that a PhD can bring about’ (R21). The Postgraduate Network was clearly perceived as offering a different type of environment, that ‘is more informal, less targeted, but gives me 'space' to explore and experiment without risk’ (R91).
Enriching the learning experience
Some 17% of the respondents described themselves as actively involved in organising the Postgraduate Network or associated events and activities. When asked to describe their role and experience of organising a postgraduate network, they revealed an overwhelming positive attitude to its impact upon their research environment and personal development. It is ‘Rewarding and illuminating. Excellent confidence booster.’ (R31), one person noted. Another claimed ‘It was an truly enriching experience to improve my PhD experience, connect with fellow students and organize events to facilitate this’ (R60).
The broader benefits of active engagement with the Postgraduate Network was also highlighted as not only ‘a great experience to work with other students and academics’, but also a way ‘to learn about academic affairs’ (R5). As such, being part of organising peer support structures was deemed to be not only ‘extremely useful’, but also something that could be directly utilised in ‘my future academic career’ (R21).
However, not everyone was equally celebratory about the need for peer support or role the Postgraduate Network played in the PhD supervisory environment. Relationships with the supervisory team were by some described as close, whilst the Postgraduate Network was distant and detached from respondents’ research. However, common for those expressing doubt about the Postgraduate Network’s influence was a lack of direct involvement with it. Either as a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. ‘I don't use it much so it is not as influential as my supervisors’ (R90), or as consequence of having ‘very good supervision and excellent support at my university’ (R67).
Postgraduate research supervisors maintained peer support networks had little or no influence on the way they supervised students, but that it was of great benefit to their students’ learning journey. One participant concluded that it made their students ‘more open and willing to put themselves out there at conferences’, gave them ‘much more confidence’ and made them ‘eager to try new things’ (R26). Another highlighted the practical benefits, with the Postgraduate Network having in their eyes provided students with ‘a useful forum for exchange of information, contacts and as a first platform for presentation of work in progress’ (R88). The breadth of benefits were also apparent, with one supervisor surmising:
the MeCCSA network was very useful in providing a source of information and help for students; helping them understand different approaches to research; enabling them to see the breadth of activity in media studies; encouraging them to take responsibilities for activities (two of my students ran one of the annual conferences); and supporting them when they gave papers at the main MeCCSA conference. (R92)
‘It's good for the cv of course’, they concluded, ‘but much more than that it give[s] a genuine understanding of the shape of the field and how a new researcher can pick a way through it’ (R92). Given such benefits, several supervisors noted how they encouraged their students ‘to participate fully, offering papers to conference[s], getting involved in running of PGN’ (R71).
Supporting peer networks
Evidently, peer support networks can for some form an essential part of their postgraduate research environment, complementing the supervisory team and other institutional provisions. For some survey participants it contributed to alleviating many of the traditional challenges with postgraduate research, including experience of isolation, loneliness and problems with self-efficacy. Sharing experiences about supervisors, who often completed their own doctoral study a long time ago, serves to both advance peer learning and provide therapeutic relief for research students. Moreover, since the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network seeks to achieve for its members a greater degree of proximity to life as academic, its peer support serves an important function in terms of career development. Whilst this might be most beneficial to those postgraduate students wishing to pursue academic careers, it nevertheless demonstrates the need for advancing peer learning beyond the institutional ecology that Boud and Lee (2005) proposed.
The main obstacles to participating in the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, according to the survey results, were uncertainty and lack of awareness - about how it might benefit you, or how to become a member. Indeed several respondents mentioned a lack of awareness of the Postgraduate Network’s existence as directly responsible for them having not been involved until the latter part of their studies or even at all. Costs also figured as an important factor in non-participation, in part connected with a lack of awareness around postgraduate membership through institutional affiliation (all postgraduate students are automatically members for free).
It is worth noting that many survey participants called for a more direct and detailed engagement from the Postgraduate Network on subject specific areas. In other words, many postgraduate students would like the Postgraduate Network to operate even more closely within their PhD supervisory environment. Thus rather than viewing peer learning as something extra curricular, they perceive it as holding potential to benefit their research project, as well as meeting their pastoral needs and career aspirations. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the greater the involvement of participants in the network, the greater the benefit they derive from it. Therefore, such opportunities to enrich the learning experience should not be lost in the mire of higher education cuts, but instead be pursued as an integral part of postgraduate research pedagogy in the future.
Dr Einar Thorsen is Lecturer in Journalism and Communication in the Media School, Bournemouth University. His pedagogical work concerns blended and technology enhanced learning strategies, including research into use of news websites in journalism education, wiki tools as collaborative student notes, blogging as reflective journals, and online assessment handling and feedback. His other research is concerned with online news and journalism’s relation to civic engagement, public discourse and democratic life. He has published journal articles, book chapters and edited collections concerning online reporting of elections, BBC News Online, citizen journalism, blogging, social media, Wikinews and WikiLeaks.
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 The survey was conducted during July 2011, attracting 140 responses from postgraduate research students and supervisors. Detailed findings are pending publication in a journal.
Header and listing photo: Lyle Skains, MeCCSA PGN Conference