3 Ways to Help Peer Educators Succeed

In a related article, we asked Sarah Whitley, director of first-year experience and family programs at Longwood University, to offer her insights on what critical items are often missing from peer mentor training. Whitley's answers indicated the need for a shift in thinking about the support and development peer educators need, whether your peer educators serve primarily as peer mentors or whether they lead first-year seminar courses or other elements of the first-year student experience.

We decided to dig deeper in a follow-up interview.

Sarah Whitley and Jennifer Latino, the director of first-year experience at Campbell University, suggest three keys to helping peer educators step into a leadership role and take greater ownership of their work:

  • In training, shift the focus from orientation to leadership development
  • Create opportunities, in training and afterward, for reflection on their role
  • Rather than just present information and policies, discuss the rationale for decisions and invite input from your peer leaders

Shift the Focus from Orientation to Leadership Development

"Don't think of this as just training," Latino suggests. "Think of this as a process of development for peer educators. I think where we often fall short in administering these training programs is that we don’t take into consideration the impact on the peer mentor. We know that training peer educators is good for first-year students, but peer mentoring is also a profound experience for the mentors themselves. When our training is focused on what to do on campus tour or in classroom or what to say on orientation, we miss the leadership development opportunity. Help peer mentors think about their growth as crisis managers, as public speakers, as educators, as leaders."

Also, make certain that the logistics and design of your training programs support the development of your peer mentors:

  • Don't rely on a one-shot training workshop -- ensure that the educational process will continue beyond that workshop. "Even if you have only one Saturday to meet with your peer mentors," Latino suggests, "then offer some training and development activities online. If you only have the budget to afford one meal to feed your peer educators, then assemble small groups and use their meal plans. Approach this creatively."
  • Ensure that the training experience itself mirrors the experience of the students that these peer educators will be mentoring. For example, if a peer mentor will be working with a small group of five or six first-year students, don't train the peer mentor in a group of 80 others. If a peer mentor will be leading a first-year seminar course, then structure the training in a way that mimics that group of students. Design each training program in ways that assist peer mentors in seeing themselves in the role of the students they will be mentoring.

"Because we’re limited in time and resources, too often we try to do our training in a one-shot information dump. Yet because we know this approach doesn't work well for our first-year students, we offer our new students the first-year seminar, we do more than just a one-shot orientation. We should think in the same way about developing our peer mentors."
Jennifer Latino, Campbell University

The Importance of Reflection

"What often gets cut under the pressure of time is end-of-the-day, closing reflection. But you don't want your peer educators to just file content into a binder and then leave for the day. You need to offer them structured opportunities to reflect and articulate what they have learned and how they will use it."
Sarah Whitley, Longwood University

Whitley offers these recommendations:

  • Offer different activities for reflection at the end of each training program, such as journaling, small-group discussion or small-group activities, and full-team brainstorming around practical application or lessons learned from the day. Just as you would with first-year students, plan for differences in learning styles among your peer educators. Some will need time for individual reflection, while others will learn best through dynamic, interactive group processing.
  • Make sure your training occurs in a venue that is appropriate to the learning activities you're planning. If you intend to have your peer educators doing small groupwork, make sure you have space for them to spread out.
  • At the beginning of a training program, offer a challenge for the day (such as "Go out of your way to connect with a faculty member"). Select the challenge, whether specific or broad, based on your assessment of where this specific group of peer educators is developmentally.

Beyond training, make sure there are ongoing opportunities for peer educators to reflect on their work -- whether through brown bag lunches with other peer educators, follow-up workshops, or a survey to invite them to consider and share what they have learned.

Offer Transparency Around Rationale

Third, Whitley stresses the importance of training peer educators not just on the what but on the why. For example, rather than simply inform peer mentors of how a room needs to be set up, present them with the rationale for it. Perhaps you are using a particular setup because it will foster a particular relationship dynamic between mentors and mentees -- make this explicit. Whitley recommends engaging peer leaders in a discussion of these types of questions at the end of a training session: "Why do you think we are doing it this way?" Hear their responses, invite them to brainstorm with you about the reasoning behind certain decisions. And invite their feedback, particularly in training workshops beyond peer leader orientation. They may have found something that works particularly well. "You can plan programs all day long," Whitley remarks, "but the mentors are actually the ones in the field doing the work with first-year students. They will come to you with ideas based on experience."

If you decide not to act on their feedback, engage them in a discussion of why. Perhaps the barriers are the institution's policies, or the law, or an agreement with another office on campus. "Rather than just say no," Whitley adds, "talk about the rationale. This keeps decision making transparent, invites peer mentors into the thinking process, and most importantly, it invites them to take ownership of their work."