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Published Date

11th April 2017

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The ‘students as partners’ approach is an institutional-wide change programme and this was very much evident in the SRS project. Students have played an important role in evidence gathering for the project.

The student partners were involved in data collection on the identification of first-year issues (students led focus groups with staff and other students) and subsequently put forward ideas to staff for interventions to address these.

These interventions were co-developed by the student and staff partners. In this process, students acted as organisers, teachers, advisors, researchers, evaluators, and decision-makers.



  • Professor Aine McKillop
  • Dr Roisin Curran
  • Grainne Dooher
  • Professor Ian Montgomery

Project Description

Two of the key strategic aims of the HEA Student Retention & Success (SRS) project at Ulster University was to develop supportive peer relations amongst and between staff and students throughout their student journey; and provide a safe, yet challenging learning environment that supports students to engage and learn with fellow students from diverse backgrounds and identities. Peer support and peer assisted learning is increasingly becoming an important study support feature in many higher education institutions across the UK and beyond. The benefits of peer-peer support are well established (Lindy et al. 2013, McKiggan-Fee et al. 2013) and evidence from the SRS What Works Phase 1 study demonstrates that peer mentoring is based on an ethos of mutual support, in that students help students to succeed (Clare & Andrews 2012). Studies by Falchikov (2001) found that student leaders provide “expert scaffolding” that steps students from one level of learning to the next within the discipline area.

This case study aimed to investigate and analyse the value of peer-support as an approach to (i) assist students in the transition to higher education (ii) build a supportive student community that responds to student diversity and (iii) contribute to the evidence base that demonstrates the impact of peer relations in the student learning experience. This case study provides evidence on how peer-peer relations when introduced from an early stage of the programme can be used to improve student engagement and belonging. This case study also provides a route map for the successful implementation of peer support more widely.


Ulster University was one of 13 institutions involved in the Change Programme which aims to improve the strategic approach to engagement, belonging, retention and success of students. Seven disciplines have taken part in the HEA SRS Project with a range of interventions involving induction, active learning and co-curricular activities. The What Works Project has had a positive impact on the student experience and the sense of student belonging at Ulster. One of the key themes emerging from the SRS Phase 2 project at Ulster is the supportive environment created by students when there is a shared responsibility and identity within disciplines. This is shown to engender a strong sense of student belonging.

Evaluation Approach

The impact of peer relations was evaluated using qualitative and quantitative evidence from across the seven disciplines involved in the HEA SRS project. Semi-structured interviews were held with students and also with staff and analysed using a six-stage approach to qualitative data analysis as detailed by Braun and Clarke (2006).

Evidence of Impact

Evidence from the SRS project demonstrates that facilitating social integration within the academic sphere creates a sense of belonging and community. Social integration can be promoted within the academic sphere through induction, field trips, icebreaking events, group work, and society-organised events. This is particularly important as some students may not get the opportunity to integrate outside of the classroom setting such as those that commute to University or part-time students.

The qualitative feedback from students indicated that they appreciated receiving advice from older year groups. The students recalled how older year groups attended their induction and modules, and provided encouraging advice and support. Students would prefer to have more formalised mentor support and can see the benefits of this

Reflective Commentary

The success of a mentoring programme is dependent on a team effort and forward planning. Staff noted that it is important to correlate final year student’s timetable and availability with first years students timetable and availability.


These areas of good practice will inform the development of Ulster University’s new Student Experience Principles. This project has demonstrated that in times of transition, whether that is moving into higher education or during times of personal difficulties or during period of intensive assessment, peer-peer interaction and particularly study groups can provide the support necessary for success.

Students recognise the benefits of study groups within courses, particularly those students who have other personal commitments.

Study groups help students to be more effective at managing their workload particularly if they are feeling overwhelmed.

Informal study groups have sprouted where no formal process is in place. Students in some programmes are allocated to study groups in first year. In other disciplines, students have formed small informal study groups and communicate with each other through social media.

More formalised study groups from year 1 which are student-led has been a key theme arising from the peer-relationships data.


  • Braun, V, Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology. 3(2):77-101
  • Copeman P, Keightley P, (2014) Academic skills Rovers: a just in time peer support initiative for academic skills and literacy development. Journal of Peer Learning 7:1-22.
  • Clark R, Andrews J (2013) Peer mentoring in higher education: a reciprocal route to student success. Phase 1 What Works? Student Retention & Success project
  • Dugdale, S. (2009) Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape Educause Review 44:2
  • Falchikov, N. (2001) Learning together: Peer tutoring in higher education. London, England: Routledge.
  • Goodenow C (1993b) Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescence 13(1):21-43.
  • Gill B (2013) Peer Mentoring at Aston University: the study life cycle approach. Phase 1 What Works? Student Retention & Success project
  • Lindy RK, (2013) Meet-Up for success: The story of a peer led program’s journey. Journal of Peer Learning 6: 1-16.
  • McKiggan-Fee, H, Walsh L, Hacking C, Ballantyne C (2013) Postgraduates who teach: a forgotten tribe? Not here. Practice and Evidence of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 8:159-173.
  • Neary, M., Harrison, A., Saunders, G., Parekh, N., Crellin, G., and Austin, S. (2010) Learning Landscapes in Higher Education, published by the Centre for Education Research and Development, University of Lincoln


This case study was part of a three-year What Works? Student Retention & Success Change Programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, co-ordinated by the Higher Education Academy (now, Advance HE), and Action on Access.

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