Criminal Law Study Buddy Scheme
Whilst working as a Law TA during the first Covid lockdown in March 2020 – when the University had to move swiftly to online teaching – I was approached by a student who asked if there was a way of connecting with others to help with learning and to keep motivated during the run-up to the summer assessments period. In response to this request, I proposed to the teaching team that we could set up a ‘study buddy’ scheme specifically for criminal law students (see attached SB 2019/20 doc). Due to time pressures, this was based on a simple ‘matching’ process, which provided students with an initial connection to come together in their own time and organise independent revision sessions. Initial uptake was promising, with 45 students taking part in 2019/20.
Ultimately, this led to the development of the Criminal Law Study Buddy Scheme 2020/21. Given the move to online teaching, the Law School’s Criminal Law course unit director proposed that we re-establish the scheme, which I would run across the full year, as Peer Learning Coordinator.
The Criminal Law Study Buddy scheme was introduced in October 2021, and promoted in lectures, on Blackboard, and via email. Sign-up took place via MS Forms and, for matching purposes, students were asked to provide info on year of study, time zone, and what they wanted to get out of the scheme. Initial take-up was promising, with 157 students signing up from a cohort of over 400. Students were placed into groups of six but advised that they were free to work however they wanted to within that group dynamic, i.e., as a full group or in individual pairs.
The scheme was set up to operate on Microsoft Teams, with each group having their own private channel for group communication purposes. This gave students a flexible online learning space, which allowed for the development of a range of learning activities (via Class Notebook), gave them a space to connect socially (via Teams Chat), plus allowed me, as peer learning coordinator, to monitor and keep in regular contact with students as required (via various platform channels and the Chat function).
All learning activities in semester 1 were designed to be fairly structured and to track course unit seminar cycles. These included an introductory icebreaker task where students were asked to ‘mark’ anonymised sample exam papers from the previous year’s cohort; setting up their own ‘house rules’ for study buddy group work; and practising specific study skills, e.g., legal problem questions and essay writing.
Following formative assessment in January, semester 2 activities became more flexible and gave students an opportunity for independently organised group study. This was based on feedback that the students felt the semester 1 activities had been quite onerous, when positioned alongside the formal requirements of the criminal law course. Semester 2 activities included a feedback Q&A session; study buddy ‘speed-dating’ to encourage students to mix outside of their allocated groups; and online ‘shut up and study’ sessions to help students prepare for summative assignments. At present, the scheme is still ongoing.
What worked well?
- Lots of initial interest – demonstrating that students felt the scheme would be a worthwhile investment of their time.
- Positive feedback received about having an informal space to connect away from the course.
- Icebreaker task – valuable organised activity to get students engaged and help them to get to know each other.
What did not work as planned?
- Students were not as tech-wise as anticipated when it came to MS Teams. Lots of students were still unfamiliar with how the platform worked and needed additional training and support. Possibility that this discouraged some students from participation at the outset.
- Some students started using Teams, then chose to revert to more familiar ways of connecting, i.e., WhatsApp, with several groups requesting that they set up a separate space to communicate with each other. Possibility that this was because they wanted a private and unmonitored space away from Peer Learning Coordinator. Difficult to prevent groups from migrating elsewhere, which also made it difficult to monitor activity and/or troubleshoot potential problems.
- Some students felt that organised learning activities during semester 1 were too onerous in addition to formal study, even though they were voluntary. Possibility that this resulted partly from additional pressures of online learning environment for students during lockdown.
- Conversely, some students requested additional formal study sessions, but there was an frequently coupled with an expectation that these sessions would involve delivery of additional learning on top of course content, rather than be centred on peer study.
- Mismatch in expectations – some students saw the scheme as an extension of formal course learning, rather than a peer learning activity. In a few instances, students used the scheme as an opportunity to seek further engagement and feedback with me as peer learning coordinator but would not communicate or get involved with other students.
- As students have moved away from the main study buddy scheme over the course of the year and either worked more independently or worked in groups outside of the scheme, it has become difficult to monitor engagement and evaluate impact
Evaluation / Student Feedback
What was done to evaluate effects, impact?
- Study Buddy Scheme 2019/20 – end of course student evaluation questionnaire (MS Forms):
- 80% were in contact with their buddy on 5+ occasions during 2/3 weeks of scheme;
- 80% found the scheme extremely or very useful;
- 60% believed that it had a positive impact on their final exam mark;
- 80% said they intended to keep in touch with their buddy.
- Suggestions for improvement: prefer to be matched with multiple buddies, rather than in pairs; better to have routine activities to focus on; and starting the scheme much earlier would be really beneficial.
- Study Buddy Scheme 2020/21
- Semester 1 evaluation: signed up to take part in Student Partners programme – http://www.yoursay.manchester.ac.uk/have-your-say/partnership-consultations-and-collaborations/project-consultants-and-student-partners/ – see attached for feedback.
- End of semester/year evaluation questionnaire to be issued
Student Partner quotes on the Study Buddy Scheme overall
‘This platform is evidently integral to the students on the Criminal Law pathway, as they are able to ‘meet’ people off their course, and have access to resources which some may say, are difficult to access via other platforms like Blackboard’
‘I think using Teams is a great way for collaborative learning between students. Peer marking and group work is helpful, especially when you are stuck with anything, so having a space with other students in your same year and course is great’
‘I appreciate the student notebooks being private and allowing staff to give their input’
‘There may be some teething issues, however once students begin to get comfortable with the platform and the idea, there are clear benefits to students having another resource to refer to, as well as increasing the possibility and chance of being able to contact a member of staff with any questions etc
- Manage large groups effectively
- Supports peer review and revision/understanding of content
- Facilitates/supports peer learning
- Develops independent study skills
- Encourages continuous learning and progression
- Encourages motivation and self-responsibility
Most important lesson learned: the need to anticipate, manage and communicate better with regard to student expectations.
If you were to do it again, what would you recommend?
- Peer collaboration still seems to be a big hurdle to overcome for some students – probably heightened by online learning experience during lockdown. To overcome this, I would aim to do more practical work to emphasise benefits of peer learning from the outset of the scheme and encourage students (especially Level 1) to engage with others as part of the learning process.
- Allow students more opportunities to come together and ‘find’ a study buddy themselves, rather than allocating groups from the start. This could result in more direct engagement from those students who are properly committed to peer learning and also help to prevent the problem of groups becoming inactive due to lack of engagement from some members.
- Fewer specific learning activities, but more opportunities for peer engagement from outset, e.g., study buddy speed-dating; shut up and study sessions.
Do you have any tips or advice for colleagues who may want to do what you did?
- Most important tip: set out as you mean to go on in terms of how you envisage your scheme should run – but be flexible in responding to the dynamics of your study buddy cohort and the individual needs of your students! It is a voluntary scheme rather than a part of the formal learning process after all, so it can be a tricky balance in terms of managing enthusiasm, expectations and engagement. I have found that the best way to do that is to work with the students in finding out what it is that they are expecting to get from the scheme and then continue to work with them to achieve that wherever possible.
Gamlath, S., ‘Peer learning and the undergraduate journey: a framework for student success’ (2021) Higher Education Research & Development 1-15
Rasheed, R. A., Kamsin, A. and Abdullah, N.A., ‘An Approach for Scaffolding Students Peer-Learning Self-Regulation Strategy in the Online Component of Blended Learning’ (2021) IEEE Access 9, 30721-30738
Thalluri, J., O’Flaherty, J.A., and Shepherd, P.L., ‘Classmate peer-coaching: A Study Buddy Support scheme’ Journal of Peer Learning 7(1) 92-10
School: Social Sciences
Discipline: Criminal Law
Academic: Caroline Henaghan
Course: LAWS10030, LAWS20300
Cohort Size: 400
Themes: Student support, Student community