The Power of Learning From Peers
- At American University’s Center for Professionalism and Communications, students can receive in-person and virtual tutoring from classmates who are trained consultants.
- The student consultants also provide a “blitz” of in-class coaching for student teams prepping for major presentations.
- Peer tutors receive weeks of training and mentorship as they hone their own professionalism and communication skills.
Most U.S. colleges and universities are back to in-person learning, yet engaging students has never been more of a challenge. Professors report that few students attend either on-campus or virtual office hours. Students are disappearing from co-curricular clubs or signing up for events but then “ghosting” by not attending. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement 2021, many higher ed institutions have seen a decline in the popularity of interactions that historically rely on face-to-face interactions, such as receiving tutoring or attending workshops and symposiums.
Many factors are to blame for this lack of engagement. One is the pandemic-fueled reliance on Zoom, which allows students to interact from a distance. Another is the rise of social media, which provides an easy proxy for friendship.
How can business schools respond when students struggle to engage with both peers and professors? How can schools encourage students to practice the face-to-face social interactions that promote both their well-being and professional success?
One answer is to capitalize on the power of peer-to-peer learning. We have taken this approach at the Center for Professionalism and Communications at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C. Originally founded in 2009 as the Kogod Center for Business Communications at American University, the center’s mandate was to use peer tutoring to improve students’ business papers and presentations.
But in response to a 2021 internal initiative called “Reimagining Kogod,” we changed our name and expanded our instructional and experiential focus beyond oral and written communication. Now the center helps students develop other career-readiness competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), including teamwork and collaboration, professionalism and work ethic, and global and intercultural fluency. And we do this largely through the work of peer tutors.
A Slate of Services
The primary function of the Center for Professionalism and Communications is to provide support to Kogod students as they work on major business papers and presentations. We do this with a full-time staff of two and a part-time student staff of about 35.
In addition to providing traditional one-on-one tutoring, we began offering virtual tutoring in March 2020, when the pandemic shut down in-person interactions. At that point, we expanded our hours of operation because we no longer had to be confined to “banker’s hours.” We still offer the virtual option today because it is valued by students who live off-campus or are reticent about face-to-face interactions. However, we want to promote in-person engagement, so we hold virtual appointments only on evenings and weekends.
Additionally, we offer e-tutoring for students who need little more than a final review of a paper about which they feel fairly confident. In this modality, a peer consultant simply downloads and critiques a paper before returning it to the student.
The Center for Professionalism and Communications provides a number of ways for business students to receive coaching from peer consultants.
The center also provides students with easy 24/7 access to information they need to navigate online learning, which became the default mode during the pandemic. In our spring 2021 semester, we debuted a Canvas course that houses all our flipped classroom resources, including videos, slide decks, tip sheets, a Kogod-specific style guide, and LinkedIn Learning collections. We joke with students that our course is the most popular one in the building since it has no quizzes, assignments, or deadlines. The course is simply a place to house all our helpful resources for easy access.
We curate the site around “collections” of information. Some relate to certain cohorts, such as first-year students, international students, or nonbusiness majors. Others are built around specific functions, such as writing resources, public speaking, and data visualization. We automatically add all students who are enrolled in Kogod’s first-year business course, and other students can self-enroll. More than a thousand students are currently taking the course, and the home page of the course has been accessed almost 5,000 times since it launched.
Our Canvas site also acts as a resource for faculty, who can download selected resources that will support particular assignments and build modules with those resources on their own Canvas sites.
The Classroom Blitz
One of the center’s most effective and popular activities is something we call a “blitz.” This occurs when a professor invites us to come in during class time to provide training and support to students preparing for team presentations. In response, a group of student consultants descends on the classroom to provide that support.
During the blitz, pairs of peer consultants take two teams into rehearsal spaces where they take turns giving their presentations. After one team finishes, the other offers feedback on every aspect of the presentation from verbal delivery to slide design, while our peer consultants facilitate the discussion and ask questions. This process builds the students’ observational and critical thinking skills, while giving everyone a chance to practice both giving and receiving feedback. Our consultants offer additional guidance and point students toward resources that can help them improve.
Because the consultants are peer tutors as opposed to faculty or staff members, students are less reticent to ask questions and receive the guidance they need.
These blitzes have several advantages. First, because the run-throughs happen in class, students don’t need to make separate appointments to visit the center, and this appeals to their sense of efficiency. Second, because the consultants are peer tutors as opposed to faculty or staff members, students are less reticent to ask questions and receive the guidance they need. Third, the blitz sessions not only jumpstart critical revisions, they’re also social and fun for everybody. Finally, the blitzes give students a sample of what the center has to offer, which makes it easier for us to market our other services.
Consultants on Board
If we want peer tutoring to be effective, we must make sure our student consultants are suited for the job and trained to do it well. Each January, we ask faculty to nominate smart, emotionally intelligent, and team-focused students from a variety of majors, and we ask these students if they’d like to apply for roles as peer consultants.
After these students undergo a vetting and interview process, they train for six weeks. We then match them as mentees with current peer tutors so they can continue their learning and develop stronger bonds with the other consultants. We also engage our student staff by taking these five steps:
Requiring monthly hands-on training sessions. Topics range from managing professor expectations for specific assignments to developing career-readiness competencies such as intercultural communication. Some training sessions are run as DIY meetings, where the directors plan agendas and the attendees gather in small groups to collaborate on best practices for their assignments. Students post their takeaways to an officewide shared Google Doc. As peer tutors take on more responsibility, they build their skills and confidence.
Encouraging a teachable mindset. We remind our peer consultants that they, too, are in a learning mode. In particular, we want them to master two professional competencies: informal conversation and active listening. One consultant said he benefited as much as the student presenters did, “by picking up on both effective and ineffective methods of communicating. In later presentations that semester, I applied what I had observed within the student groups to my own projects, and my presentations were better for it.”
Building a mentorship culture. During the height of the pandemic in 2020–21, we struggled to get our peer tutors to engage with one another. Our solution was to formalize mentor-mentee relationships so peer tutors had structured opportunities to build the kinds of friendship they had enjoyed before COVID-19. The initiative was so popular with our student consultants that we have continued the program. One peer consultant noted that his mentor was “only a phone call away, which aided my sense of community in the center.”
Our peer consultants also are in a learning mode, and we want them to master professional competencies such as informal conversation and active listening.
Providing frequent, friendly, and specific feedback. We give written performance evaluations to our consultants on the quality of the feedback they offer their peers. All consultants receive rubric-based feedback each semester, and many of them thank us for providing it! These performance evaluations help standardize the quality of our work product, allow peer tutors to see how they’re improving, and give students a preview of workplace performance reviews. One of our peer consultants told us that staff coaching and feedback helped him regain his confidence, and he is “applying these insights to professional and personal settings.”
Promoting presentations at conferences. We believe our peer consultants can improve their skills through experiential learning, so we offer a select number of them the opportunity to co-present at relevant events. These include the Ann Ferren Conference, hosted by American University’s Center for Teaching, Research & Learning; and the annual conference held by the Mid-Atlantic Writing Centers Association. Preparing a professional presentation builds consultants’ research skills and bolsters their confidence. It also allows them to enhance their résumés with concrete examples of their teamwork and communication skills. In addition, conference audiences value hearing directly from students.
Signs of Success
We know that all our training efforts only pay off if students use the center’s resources. We believe one reason we’ve been so successful at engaging students is that we form strong, collaborative relationships with our faculty. Not only do professors invite us into their classrooms to hold blitzes, some of them also offer extra credit to students as an incentive for them to visit the center or attend our workshops.
Another reason the center is successful is that we create a positive environment. Students tell us they enjoy the center’s socially-centered learning environment where they interact with peer consultants who are approachable and knowledgeable. They also quickly find out that the center provides snacks, drinks, and AV-enhanced spaces where students can work on their slides. They find it both fun and informative to attend events like last April’s “Pizza and Practice” workshop, where they could rehearse their first-year business presentations the night before they were due. After one student attended a workshop on active listening, she said, “I wanted to improve my listening skills, but I didn’t realize I would have so much fun doing it.”
We are convinced that, to create dynamic tutoring opportunities, a learning center must do more than simply offer appointments. It needs to build faculty relationships, so professors encourage students to use the center’s services; and it needs to engage students in ways that help them understand how professionalism and communication skills can add value to their business diplomas.
At Kogod’s Center for Professionalism and Communications, we believe that classroom-centered interactions, multimodal self-learning resources, and a variety of mentoring approaches will do more than build important workplace competences in our students. These services also will prepare our students for a world in which their empathy and emotional intelligence will be critical to their personal and professional success.