Adopting a Peer Supervision Model to Enhance Student Support

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Christie Maier, M.Ed., Associate Director, Transformative Learning
University of Kentucky

 


 

Doing more with less

It’s a message many in higher education have received before: “do more, with less.” Whether it’s a need to expand services with no additional funding or an impending budget cut, student support units often must be creative with their program models to meet student demand with limited resources. This was the case for the learning center at the University of Kentucky back in the late 2000s when the drop-in Peer Tutoring Program expanded to support all 100 level math courses, as well as many 100 & 200 level science and business courses. The resulting demand required professional staff to develop a student leadership position to provide supervision and administrative support for the Peer Tutoring Program.

Student Program Coordinators (SPC) are undergraduate students who have worked for the learning center in some capacity, often as a peer tutor or front desk staff, for at least a year. These emerging leaders have demonstrated their ability to successfully balance their time, communicate effectively, as well as work on a team and are ready to take on additional responsibilities. SPCs work 20 hours per week and have three primary responsibilities: on-duty supervision of tutoring operations, primary supervisor to a team of 15-18 tutors, and programmatic administrative support (e.g., hiring, training, marketing, assessment, etc.). The peer supervision model the SPC role is based on is not only a cost-efficient staffing model but also a high-impact activity that assists student leaders in experiential learning, deep reflection, and growth in leadership competencies. The positive impact the SPC role has for the Peer Tutoring Program, the individual Student Program Coordinators, and the institution makes it a valuable model that can be applied to a variety of units across higher education.

 

Why peer supervision?

When the Peer Tutoring Program took on supporting all 100 level math courses as well as many additional business and science courses, drop-in tutoring sessions grew by nearly 500% in a single year. This kicked off a trend of a high rate of growth over the next decade, and from 2016 forward the Peer Tutoring Program saw nearly 29,000 tutoring sessions each year. At the same time, the learning center budget allowed for very few full-time professional staff; with the bulk of the budget coming from non-recurring funds to support student wages. While the institutional investment in learning center services has increased over time, securing recurring funds for professional staff is always more challenging. The bottom line became, for about a third the cost of a Graduate Assistant and a quarter of the cost of a full-time professional staff, an experienced undergraduate student could be hired and trained to fill the unmet supervision and program support needs. Thus, peer supervisors quickly became the most cost-effective way to scale up the Peer Tutoring Program to meet the growing demand.

Having peer leaders serve as supervisors has other benefits for the program as well. For example, drop-in tutoring was, and continues to be, offered in the afternoon and evening (Monday-Thursday 2pm-10pm and Sunday from 4-8pm), times that are great for students working on homework but less desirable for many professional staff. Peer supervisors also provide a similar benefit to the peer leaders they supervise, as the peer leaders do for the students they serve. Research has shown students who interact with peer leadership programs “can develop a stronger sense of community, greater social and academic integration, and a rich network of resources and referral agents dedicated to their success” (Shook & Keup, 2012). In large part due to their position as a peer, SPCs are able to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment where their team of tutors feel comfortable coming to them with concerns and questions; they are able to empathize and relate to their tutors in order to build meaningful connections; and they provide feedback as well as make compassionate referrals to resources in order to support the growth of those they supervise.

 

The student program coordinator model in practice

When implementing a peer supervision model, how do you make it effective, sustainable, and impactful? Here, we will share how the learning center at the University of Kentucky has built a successful model through the Student Program Coordinator position. While this model would be adapted differently to different institutions, much of what we have done is replicable.

First, arguably the most essential part of any peer supervision model is that professional staff need to view student leaders as colleagues; individuals who have expertise, valuable perspectives, and are capable of leading complex projects. If higher education professionals can make this paradigm shift to provide intentional professional, cognitive, and psychosocial development opportunities balanced with structure, accountability, and room for creativity and innovation then student leaders will thrive and programs will become more sustainable (Breslin, Kope, O’Hatnick, & Sharpe, 2018). This mindset of “students as colleagues” permeates all programmatic elements of the Student Program Coordinator position at the University of Kentucky and is the foundation for how the position functions in the learning center.

Additionally, with a considerable body of literature on the significant benefits of high-impact practices, it behooves any student support office to consider how best to incorporate essential elements of high-impact practices into their programs. Over the years, the University of Kentucky’s learning center has intentionally structured the SPC position to align and integrate key elements of high-impact practices including “performance expectations set at appropriately high levels,” “significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time,” “periodic, timely, and constructive feedback,” and “periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning” (Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013). While this is an on-going and formative process, at each stage of the SPC position careful consideration is paid to providing activities and opportunities for students to connect, reflect, and integrate their learning from inside and outside the classroom into their experience as an SPC.

 

Crafting the position

When crafting a peer supervisor position, start by defining the role and responsibilities that need to be filled. Asking practical questions such as “what needs does our program have?” or “what budget constraints need to be addressed?” as well as more vision-focused questions such as “what would benefit from a student perspective?” and “what opportunities exist to enhance the student experience?” can guide the development of a job description.

For the peer tutoring program at UK’s learning center, a Student Program Coordinator has three primary roles: supervision of tutoring operations, supervision of a team of tutors, and administrative support. For each of these, there is an established list of clearly defined responsibilities:

Supervisions of Tutoring Operations: SPCs serve as the on-duty supervisor during all tutoring operating hours. With multiple locations across campus, all operating during afternoon and evening hour, it’s necessary to have a team of reliable leaders who can ensure standards and expectations of the program are being met as well as fulfill operation requirements such as opening and closing the centers. SPCs are responsible for fostering positive relationships with tutors and students in our centers, conducting regular observation, and providing on-going feedback to tutors. They often also assist tutors in navigating challenging situations and are responsible for instigating any emergency protocols should a situation arise.

Supervision of a Team of Tutors: With over 100 peer tutors on staff at any given time, it’s necessary to have multiple individuals responsible for supervision of student employees. In a given semester, SPCs have between 12-18 direct reports, for which they are responsible for on-going communication (shift changes, excuses, general questions, etc.), bi-weekly time approval, performance evaluations, and leading any corrective action meetings.

Administration Support: Referred to as a secondary responsibility, each SPC takes a lead role for an assigned administrative component. These administrative responsibilities include hiring, training, scheduling, assessment, marketing, and tutor appreciation. Each secondary responsibility comes with a list of major projects ranging from coordination of the certified tutor training program to building the semesterly tutor schedule for over 100 tutors or analyzing tutor traffic data and providing weekly reports. While each individual SPC is responsible for leading their administrative area, the entire team of SPCs provide support with everyone playing a role in facilitating training sessions, conducting interviews, and tabling during marketing events.

While the SPC position fulfills a very practical need in the learning center, there is also an emphasis placed on the growth and development of the individual students serving in the position. The process of identifying job responsibilities is a crucial area to overlay key elements of high-impact practices, while setting appropriately high expectations. As our experience with the SPC model has demonstrated, peer supervisors will rise to the challenge of complex tasks and job responsibilities when provided opportunity, guidance, and accountability.

 

Hiring process

Incorporating intentional growth opportunities and role modeling our philosophy of students as colleagues starts from the very beginning with establishing a hiring process that mirrors that of many professional staff. Candidates are required to complete an online application through UKjobs, submit a cover letter and résumé, as well as respond to open-ended supplemental questions. Applications are reviewed by a search committee of 2-3 graduate and professional staff with the intention of offering an interview to as many candidates as possible. When interview offers are made, guidance is provided on available resources to prepare (e.g., services provided at the career center) and what to expect. All interviews are conducted with at least 2 interviewers, who use behavior-based interviewing techniques and questions.

To appropriately assess a candidate’s qualifications and experiences, it will be necessary to first identify the transferable skills associated with success in the established roles and responsibilities. For example, if a peer supervisor is going to be asked to lead training, someone with strong public speaking and/or facilitation experience would be useful; if they are responsible for performance evaluations, then how they deliver feedback will be important. Carefully considering and listing out the critical skills and experiences required for the job responsibilities will allow you to be more deliberate in crafting applicable behavior-based interview questions.

This past year, the learning center realigned the critical skills and experiences for the SPC position with UK’s Leadership Education office’s nine leadership competencies: productive relationships, verbal communication, inclusion, resiliency, strategic planning, self-understanding, decision making, giving feedback, and receiving feedback. During the interview, at least one behavior-based interview question was asked that aligned with each competency. A few examples include:

Productive relationships: Describe a time you were on a team and worked to bring people together. What are some strategies you used to build a cohesive team?

Resiliency: Tell us about a time that you experienced a setback or failed at something (personally, professionally, or academically). What was that experience like for you and what did you learn?

Strategic Planning: Describe a time you had to manage a project with minimal guidance/supervision. What was your approach and what was the outcome?

Decision Making: Tell us about a time where you had to make a critical decision. What things did you have to consider, and how did you come to your decision?

Delivering Feedback: Tell us about a time you had to deliver difficult feedback to someone. What was that like? What specifically did you do to effectively deliver the feedback?

While these nine established leadership competencies align well with the SPC position, there are numerous other transferable skills and leadership competencies that may align better with different roles and responsibilities. Looking back at our previous example, if an identified key role for a peer supervisor is leading training and the transferable skill you want to assess is public speaking, then you may consider asking a behavior-based question such as, “Describe a time you have given a presentation in class or at work. What strategies did you use to prepare? How did you ensure the audience was engaged with the content?”. No matter what quality or skill you are trying to assess in the interview, the key is to ask the candidate to share a specific example of a time they have done something similar.

Since all SPCs have responsibilities and projects that are designed to enhance these leadership competencies, aligning our behavior-based interview questions with the competencies allowed the search committee to better assess individual candidate’s current proficiency in a certain area while also evaluating a potential team’s strengths and areas for growth. Because we anticipate everyone will have areas of growth, it is often more about identifying a well-balanced team of SPCs then selecting the “ideal” SPC.

 

Training and development

The hiring process for SPCs typically begins in the middle of the Spring semester, with a new cohort of SPCs starting as soon as the Spring semester ends in May, and as with any new employee, the first thing on the to-do-list is training. The SPC training curriculum is structured to not only teach new peer supervisors the technical parts of their job (e.g., how to approve time, where are the supplies located, what is the process for completing a written warning, etc.) but also heavily emphasizes self-reflection, relational leadership theory, and communication approaches. The overarching goal of a strong peer supervisor training and development program should be to equip individuals with a toolbox of strategies so that when they are faced with an unfamiliar challenge, they feel confident, competent, and empowered to critically think through and evaluate the situation in order to come to a constructive resolution. With careful consideration paid to sequencing of content, the SPC training curriculum accomplishes this goal through three distinct sessions: May SPC Orientation, pre-semester training, and semesterly professional development. Here is how these three sessions prepare SPCs for the role:

May SPC Orientation: This week-long, time-intensive session is really the kick-off to the peer supervisors’ time in the SPC role. The week begins with nearly an entire day dedicated to getting to know the SPC role, the learning center, and most importantly the individuals who will be on the team. A high emphasis is placed on team building in this first week, with intentional time spent facilitating icebreakers and teambuilder activities, sharing meals, and structured break-time to provide the opportunity to build rapport and create bonds with team members. Other topics included in the initial orientation include boundary setting, relational leadership theory, communication styles, and expectations discussion. Throughout orientation SPCs are asked to reflect, discuss, and role play, with the intention of them beginning to integrate their experiences to develop an authentic leadership identity.

Pre-Semester Training: Before the start of the Fall and Spring terms, SPCs are required to be on-campus early to complete the learning center’s Senior Staff Training. Graduate and professional staff working in all learning center service areas, from Academic Coaching to developmental course work, also attend the pre-semester training, reinforcing our view of students as colleagues and allowing the entire leadership team to learn from and alongside one another. Reflection, discussion, and role playing are again utilized heavily throughout sessions, but the focus begins to shift from theory and leadership development to practical and logistical items that SPCs will need to know to perform their job responsibilities. Topics covered during the pre-semester sessions include policy & procedure, giving & receiving feedback, opening & closing procedures, goal setting, and the corrective action process.

Professional Development: While training provides the foundation for success, SPCs need time to practice and reflect in order to progress. Having a purposeful, on-going, development plan in place provides peer supervisors the structure needed to make meaning out of their experiences and continue to grow as leaders. During the Fall semester this takes the form of monthly professional development sessions focused on a leadership competency and culminates in a reflection activity. During the Spring term, SPCs all complete a Personalized Development Plan (PDP) that requires them to identify 2 leadership competencies and design their own improvement plan with monthly check-ins to discuss and reflect on their progress. SPCs are encouraged to select competencies they feel mostly closely translate to their future career path and which they feel further development will be most impactful.

Training and development are an investment in a departments most valuable resource – people! For students accessing the learning center’s services to have a positive and meaningful experience, SPC must first have the tools and skills necessary to foster that experience. Through a strategically planned and well executed training and development curriculum, peer supervisors will not only feel more confident and be better prepared for their role; they will also feel more valued as a contributing member of the team and have increase buy-in for the success of the program. And as many experienced supervisors know, a dedicated staff member who views their success inextricably linked to the success of a program is invaluable.

 

Feedback and evaluation

In the workplace, one of the most desirable skills an individual can possess is the ability to reflect on one’s work, self-identify goals and areas for improvement, then formulate a plan to make those improvements and act on that plan. The goal of the feedback and evaluation process for SPCs is to provide structure and time to practice this skill while also providing accountability and guidance in their development. Mirroring established assessment practices in the classroom, the learning center utilizes both formative and summative feedback processes to guide the SPC work and support their growth and job performance.

Bi-Weekly One-on-Ones: Each SPC has an established bi-weekly, one-on-one meeting with their direct supervisor, the Assistant Director for Tutoring. In addition to providing a personal check-in, these meetings focus on project benchmarks as well as discussion of any tutor concerns or issues. Bi-weekly one-on-ones are intentionally structured to provide on-going formative feedback to SPC over the course of the academic year. At the beginning of the fall term, sessions are often heavily guided by the Assistant Director asking reflective question around process (e.g., “Tell me more about why you identified these learning outcomes for your training session”) and planning (e.g., “If the schedule needs to be released by the end of the month, when do you feel is an appropriate date to get me the rough draft?”), as well as providing constructive feedback on content. As the semester goes, SPCs are encouraged to take more ownership in leading their one-on-one session and project goals with the objective of becoming self-guided in their work. At the same time, regular meeting provide accountability for SPC to be making progress on projects and buy-in as they take ownership over how the work is done.

Personalized Development Plans: During the Spring term SPCs choose two leadership competencies they want to make improvements in, and they overlay the leadership competencies with those job responsibilities where they practice the competency most frequently. From here, each SPC crafts a Personalized Development Plan in which they select experiences (e.g., webinars, campus trainings, informational interview, etc.) and resources (e.g., articles, journals, videos, etc.) to enhance their selected competencies and build an action plan to accomplish their goals. There are regular check-ins with the Assistant Director and both formal and informal reflection activities throughout the semester culminating in a guided self-reflection paper connected to their performance evaluation.

Performance Evaluation: The primary summative feedback is provided through a semesterly performance evaluation. Similar to many standard performance evaluation processes, SPCs complete a self-evaluation and attend a formal meeting with the Associate Director to reflect and discuss their accomplishments and goals moving forward. In recent years, the University of Kentucky has adopted the Iowa GROW (Guided Reflection on Work) model and the learning center has incorporated these four quick questions into the SPC performance evaluation process twice a semester:

  1. How is this job fitting in with your academics?
  2. What are you learning here that’s helping you in school?
  3. What are you learning in class that you can apply here at work?
  4. Can you give me a couple of examples of things you’ve learned here that you think you’ll use in your chosen profession?

This structured feedback and evaluation cycle, is the element SPCs continuously praise as having the biggest impact on their development and long-term success. Year after year, SPCs comment on how prepared they were for job or professional school interviews because they could clearly articulate their accomplishments and had tangible examples for questions around teamwork, communication, and project management due to their experience in the role. It’s also not uncommon for SPCs who are pursuing a graduate degree at UK to secure an assistantship with the learning center or another campus department due to their success as an SPC. And while it is far more common for SPCs to pursue careers outside higher education, some do follow a higher education path and in fact the learning center currently employees two full-time staff who started with the department as SPCs. In many ways the SPC position has grown to be an unofficial pipeline to a career in higher education; that success is grounded in the feedback and evaluation cycle.

 

Overcoming challenges to establish a peer supervision model

Constructing and operating a successful peer supervision model can be time-intensive and requires intentional planning. It will also entail a paradigm shift for many higher education colleagues. We found that many reservations or oppositions to moving in this direction can be eased or countered by:

  • Communicating the “students as colleagues” philosophy clearly and building the case for why this philosophy is essential to adopt.
  • Taking the time to identify the best supervisor for peer supervisors; just as you want to hire the right students for the role, hiring the right supervisor can make all the difference.
  • Prioritizing student growth in the evaluation and development of your peer supervisors.

First, it is key to communicate the philosophy of “students as colleagues” and why it is both critical to student success and impactful to the peer supervisors’ leadership development. While having students serve in leadership roles is not a new concept, developing a peer supervision model with students as colleagues could uncover some unique barriers related to common institutional practices, perceptions, and even policy. For example, as supervisor, an SPC is responsible for time approval but, initially, the idea of a student being responsible for another student employee’s pay was not well received. The underlying issue was that peer supervision was not a common practice; the assumption was that students were not prepared for this responsibility and that HR would not allow this type of reporting line. While the learning center understood SPCs as colleagues, more than capable of this responsibility, we had to more clearly articulate this philosophy and the value added by adopting it. Ultimately, by providing evidence and research on the impact of peer leadership coupled with communicating the intentional selection, training, and supervision model for SPCs, we were able to ease concerns and resolve misconception around time approval policies within HR. If you have a similar case to make at your institution, consider how you can best communicate the “students as colleagues” philosophy with key stakeholders. This may mean providing relevant research, detailing out the training and support structure of the peer supervisors, or emphasizing the use of high-impact activities in the role.

Next, selecting and training the supervisor for the peer supervisors is a crucial hurdle to clear before starting too far down the road of developing the peer supervision model itself. Because peer supervisors will inherently be new supervisors themselves, selecting an individual with prior supervision, leadership development, advising, and/or human resources experience will bolster the opportunities for role modeling and mentoring. Prior experience should also be supplemented with training in best practices around supervisory feedback, corrective action, and leadership development; this training can be provided by the department, campus partners, or especially Human Resources. Adding a peer supervision model may also mean that the professional staff tasked with supervising SPCs will be shifting time previously allocated to completion of administrative and programmatic tasks toward project management and supervisory duties. This can be a big transition for some, so accurately updating major job responsibilities and reallocating time for planning and meetings will be necessary for success in the role and for the peer supervisors themselves.

Third, ensure that the training, evaluation, mentorship, and professional development of your SPCs is focused on student growth. As higher education professionals, we are no strangers to the idea of balancing challenge and support to maximize student growth; we know the theory. However, putting theory into practice often requires a more complex and nuanced effort than we expect. The model outlined above is designed to give peer supervisors a high level of responsibility and to challenge them in a variety of ways. Inevitably, they will make mistakes and they will experience failures; this should be expected. Allowing students to stumble in a low-stakes environment and being able to turn mistakes and failures into learning opportunities is ultimately the responsibility of the supervisor and the program. At UK, SPCs are responsible for leading corrective action meetings for tutors who have policy infractions. This process includes a pre-meeting worksheet that is discussed with their supervisor, both the SPC and their supervisor are present at the corrective action meeting, and time for post-meeting reflection is always set aside. So, while the SPC is ultimately the one facilitating these challenging conversations, the supervisor is scaffolding the process at every point. It’s important to remember, a work environment that embraces and supports these learning opportunities has the potential to become a high-stakes environment for peer supervisors if accountability measures such as bi-weekly check-ins, planning worksheets, and guided reflection opportunities are not built-in and supported. Imagine how many ways a new supervisor could stumble in a corrective action meeting without any built-in supports. To effectively put the challenge and support theory into practice, those working with the peer supervisors should prioritize student growth and plan the time to provide the necessary support.

 

Conclusion

The Student Program Coordinator position has been a part of the learning center at the University of Kentucky for nearly two decades and has proven to be one of the most valuable roles that contributes to student success. We have found the SPC position to be a cost-efficient investment to scale-up services, reaching more students more often and in a more impactful way. Our services benefit from having the expertise and perspective of these passionate student leaders who can build deep and meaningful relationships with those they supervise as well as assist with complex administrative projects. Finally, SPCs themselves have benefited from the personal and professional growth opportunities by developing transferable skills that are highly desirable by future employers, including the learning center itself.

For those interested in instituting a similar peer supervision model, the SPC position outlined here is an excellent guide. At the same time, designing a program that is sustainable and relevant to another program will require adaptations. When evaluating how best to modify the SPC model consider these essential questions:

What is the unmet need or gap that a peer supervisor model will fill/support? For the learning center at UK, it was scaling up services in a cost-efficient way. For another program it could be more effectively serving a targeted population or expanding services with additional hours or additional locations on or off campus. Being able to clearly express the goals and purpose of the program will lay a strong foundation and should bolster support from stakeholders.

How will the peer supervision model align with my institutions strategic plan, mission, and values? Aligning with the priorities of the institution is elemental for any program to stay relevant and instituting a peer supervision model is no exception. Beyond retention and graduation rates, UK places a high emphasis on experiential learning which positions the SPC role well to align with the institutional strategic plan. Intentionally linking a peer supervision model to your institution’s vision will ensure it is serving an essential function.

What will a “students as colleagues” philosophy look like and mean for my program? Consider how you may, and may not, already be incorporating this viewpoint into your work. Take time to deeply reflect on this shift and what it will mean for your program or service. Hopefully the positives far outnumber any potential drawbacks, and you can identify multiple areas student experiences, perspectives, and skills can be better leveraged and valued to improve outcomes.

The answers to these questions will allow another program or department to adjust and flex the SPC example of a successful peer supervision model to meet nearly any institutions distinct needs. For the learning center at UK, what grew from the necessity to do more with less has grown into a cornerstone of the peer tutoring program’s success; perhaps a peer supervision model can have a similar impact on your area.

 


Works Cited

Breslin, J. D., Kope, M. H., O’Hatnick, J.L., & Sharpe, A. G. (2018). Students as Colleagues: A Paradigm for Understanding Student Leaders in Academic Support, The Learning Assistance Review, volume 23 issue 2, 41-62.

Iowa GROW (n.d.). The University of Iowa Division of Student Life. Retrieved June 20, 2021 from https://studentlife.uiowa.edu/initiatives/iowa-grow%C2%AE/

Kuh, G.D. & O’Donnell, K. (2013). Ensuring Quality & Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Shook, J. & Keup, J. (2012). The Benefits of Peer Leader Programs: An Overview from the Literature. In J. Keup & B. Barefoot (Eds.), New Directions in High Education: Peer leadership in Higher Education, 157, 5-16. https:// doi.org/10.1002/he.20002.

 

Christie Maier has been at the University of Kentucky since 2015 working with in the learning center, Transformative Learning, to oversee the administration of multiple campus wide academic support programs including The Study’s drop-in Peer Tutoring Program as well as Supplemental Instruction. Christie holds a B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies from Colorado State University and a M.Ed. in Student Affairs and Higher Education from the University of South Carolina.