Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Peer Advising: A Literature Review

Scholarship on the role of peer mentors is a relatively new focus in the broader research area of advising and student engagement and achievement in the realm of higher education. I have been able to find a number of articles and research reports that have helped me think of my role as a Peer Advising Fellow and other peer mentoring type student service learning opportunities, from more formal sociological perspectives. As I worked on this project and considered my own research questions, I was guided by three main articles that focus on distinct aspects of the peer advising experience.

Peter Collier is the principal investigator at a consulting research group focused on college student support mentoring programs and author of “Why Peer Mentoring is an Effective Approach for Promoting College Student Success.” This article is a comprehensive assessment which brings together already-existing research by other scholars on peer mentoring and it also integrates Collier’s own observations from being a consultant for colleges with peer mentoring programs. This article focuses on the advantages and effectiveness of peer mentoring compared to other “hierarchical mentoring relationships” (Collier 2017: 10). Collier defines hierarchical mentoring relationships as ones where a student is being mentored by someone who is not a student, so a staff member or faculty member, who is required to advise as part of their job. Compared to systems of hierarchical advising, Collier concludes that there are three key advantages to peer mentoring: “cost, availability of a relatively larger number of potential mentors, and increased likelihood of mentees following mentors’ advice due to sharing a common perspective.” (Collier 2017: 11). He uses a “social-psychological” framework to think about the importance of “credibility” in assessing how effective different mentoring and advising systems are (Collier 2017: 13-14). He breaks down this idea of “credibility” into “expertise” and “trustworthiness” (Collier 2017: 13-14). He argues that peer mentors are seen by their mentees as having “expertise” since they have already (and are living) the college experience and that their “trustworthiness” is evident in the fact that they understand that experience and are not too distant hierarchically (Collier 2017: 15). Collier also begins to allude to some of the reasons why students choose to be peer mentors, including “out of a desire to give back to other students” and “helping new students learn the college student role” (Collier 2017: 12-13). Collier’s research and study here helped me generate hypotheses about the responses I would get from Harvard Peer Advising Fellows and gave me a foundational sense of peer advising more generally. With this foundational background, I was then better able to think more critically about the uniqueness of the PAF position at Harvard. I can compare, from my own interviews, the reasons why students at Harvard chose to be PAFs and what the perceived purposes and motivations for peer advising here, with Collier’s research on peer mentoring more generally.

Colvin and Ashman’s article, “Roles, Risks, and Benefits of Peer Mentoring Relationships in Higher Education,” focuses more fully on this question of why students choose to be peer mentors and what advantages they as mentors and their mentees take from the peer advising experience. From a survey and questionnaire they conducted of peer mentors, they identified that benefits of being a peer mentor could be defined in terms of “relationship benefits” (i.e. building friendships and connections with, and helping others) and “academic benefits” (i.e. preparing students to be better learners and scholars) (Colvin & Ashman 2010: 132). Reading this scholarly article helped me focus some of my research questions on how Harvard PAFs think about the benefits of advising and mentoring, and how these defined benefits may vary based on the different context of advising and mentoring than at the school that Colvin and Ashman studied.

In fact, in their conclusion Colvin and Ashman “assess whether these roles and recognition of benefits and resistance hold true to programs with contexts different from this particular study” (Colvin & Ashman 2010: 133). This assessment in their conclusion alludes to the importance of researching peer mentoring at a number of different institutions, so I am glad that through this project for Sociology 130, I can contribute to this research and understanding. Also, from their study, Colvin and Ashman identified peer mentors being seen as having “five specific roles” which are defined as “connecting link, peer leader, learning coach, student advocate, and trusted friend” (Colvin & Ashman 2010: 125).

Through my own qualitative research among Harvard PAFs, I hoped to examine whether this list of advising roles matches the expectations among administrators, peer advisers, and students at Harvard, and decide whether there are any additional roles that can be defined or any that are less prevalent here. As is discussed more in my “Story of Us” and Action Research Blueprint, a fascinating common theme from my discussions with PAFs was reference to the notion of “PAFs are fellows not friends.” This is an attitude that the College and Advising Programs Office has towards our roles – a policy/assertion that disagrees with Colvin and Ashman’s observation of peer mentors at friends. PAFs at Harvard had various opinions on whether we should be considered as more formal advisers, or more as a friendly figure for our freshmen advisees, which did not necessarily correspond with Colvin and Ashman’s discussion of the “five specific roles” of peer mentors.

Overall, Colvin and Ashman’s research study has been thought-provoking and important at reminding me that higher education policies and systems of peer advising work differently at different institutions. I therefore used it to help remind me that the realities of the peer advising experience are dependent on the culture of the institution, the structure of the advising system, and the support and training given to peer advisers and mentors.

In “Mentoring as Service-Learning: The Relationship Between Perceived Peer Support and Outcomes for College Women Mentors,” Jenna Marshall focuses on the benefits college student mentors gain from their experience as advisers in relation to the support and training they receive from the institution, program structure, and their peers who are also advisers and mentors (Marshall 2015). Marshall assesses how college women mentors perceived of the peer support they received and associated that support system with greater ethnocultural empathy. She concludes that “peer support may be useful for mentor benefits, which extends previous research showing that mentoring through service-learning has positive influences on the college student mentors” (Marshall 2015: 41). Among the benefits from mentoring and service-learning that Marshall identifies are “recognition of cultural dynamics, learning to negotiate group dynamics, confirmation of abilities and knowledge, and career guidance” (Marshall 2015: 39). The mentoring system Marshall studied and gained her evidence from was based on the “Self-Determination Theory (SDT)” and was specifically designed to emphasize and encourage “psychosocial and civic-minded outcomes.” These outcomes are based on three basic human needs: “to feel competent, related, and autonomous” (Marshall 2015: 39). The Young Women Leaders Program that Marshall studied was able to achieve these outcomes because it valued “mentor training and support” which consisted of weekly reflections among the mentors about their mentoring roles and a group of peers who they could speak to and get advice from about their advising experience (Marshall 2015: 39, 44). Marshall’s focus here on the training and support given to student mentors in relation to the perceived benefits, growth opportunities, and positive outcomes that they took from this student-learning role has encouraged me to apply and think about similar research questions in my project. In addition, it is important to note that this research study, and close interrogation and reporting on the actual structure of this peer mentoring program, gives specific recommendations and suggests best practices for other peer mentoring programs, which were worthwhile considerations for and helped inform my own action research blueprint.

I greatly enjoyed starting to think about peer advising in a scholarly, academic way after reading these three articles and these articles were invaluable for my own project. From these three readings, I learned more about some of the relevant ideas and themes that are important in higher education advising scholarship at the moment. Some of these key themes that require further research are and that I have hoped to address, to various extents, in my own project are:
  1. what consists of effective and efficient advising, and how those terms will be defined differently by different players and stakeholders.
  2. the purpose of peer mentoring compared to other approaches to advising, and how these systems may work together.
  3. the benefits and advantages of peer advising for mentors, their mentees, and institutions of higher education.
 
Works Cited
Peter Collier, “Why Peer Mentoring is an Effective Approach for Promoting College Student Success,” Metropolitan Universities 28, no. 3 (Summer 2017).

Janet Colvin and Marinda Ashman, “Roles, Risks, and Benefits of Peer Mentoring Relationships in Higher Education,” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 18, no. 2 (May 2010).
 
Jenna H. Marshall, Edith C. Lawrence, Joanna Lee Williams, and James Peugh, “Mentoring as Service-Learning: The Relationship Between Perceived Peer Support and Outcomes for College Women Mentors,” Studies in Educational Evaluation 47 (July 2015).

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