PALS in Charleston

In April 2019, The Department of Peer Learning & Support at Edinburgh University Students’ Association led a learning exchange to the College of Charleston, South Carolina. We were generously supported by the Air Miles fund. Two staff (Lisa Nowak and Jilly Burdge) from the Peer Support team took a group of 6 students to the US, to meet students and staff from the College. The 6 students who accompanied us are all volunteers with our PALS and Peer Support Schemes.

PALS stands for ‘Peer Assisted Learning Scheme’. In PALS, trained student Leaders run academic support sessions for other students. Sessions cover course content, study skills, assessment support and exams. In Peer Support, trained student Leaders run sessions aimed at building community and providing pastoral/ wellbeing support.

Over the 5 days, our Student Leaders heard about how things work at the College of Charleston (where they also have a substantial Peer Learning & Support system). They also worked with Peer Educators from the College of Charleston to discuss common challenges they faced, and to identify solutions to them.

We had a fantastic time, and we hope that this will be the start of a great partnership between the University of Edinburgh and the College of Charleston. Below, you can read what the students had to say about the trip, and how they will implement their learning in their own PALS & Peer Support Schemes.

If you have any questions (or would like to find out more about PALS/ Peer Support), then feel free to get in touch with us at Alternatively, you can go to our website.

Julija (BioPALS)

My name is Julija, I am a 3rd-year Biochemistry student and I am a co-coordinator of BioPALS.

Our team has experienced a very warm welcome from the staff and students of the College of Charleston, who familiarized us with their work and were as interested to learn about our PALS schemes. I was surprised to discover how well the College of Charleston Peer learning system is established and is more uniform than our individual PALS schemes. The support they receive from staff seems exceptional and encouraged me to take stands to improve the communication between our PALS scheme and the teaching organisation of our school.

Moreover, I liked their practice of drop-in sessions where students who are struggling with any academic subject can get help from student tutors. I would like BioPALS to create a similar safe space where students could come along without any prior arrangements and ask their peers for help with any questions from academic content to university life. It was also exciting to be involved in planning a course for iCharleston programme students through which I once again acknowledged that peer support is integral for students transitioning into the university. This educational exchange was a very inspiring and eye-opening experience after which I am motivated to make changes in our scheme and hopefully the whole community of the School of Biological Sciences.

Katie (BizPALS)

My name is Katie, and I am a 3rd year Business Management student.  I am heavily involved in the Business School’s Peer assisted Learning and Peer Support Schemes, so I was very excited to go to Charleston, learn from others, and gain insights as to how to improve my own scheme.  My favorite part of the trip was getting to know the Charleston Peer Facilitator students and bonding with them, both over our challenge and while exploring the city.

I learned a lot from the Charleston students, and have identified a few things we can do in BizPALS to solve the challenges we face. These include:

  • BizBuddies Replacement:
    • Add quick question drop in sessions once a week or so where students could pop in and ask questions
    • The purpose of BizBuddies was that they can text their buddy any time and ask questions, but no one utilizes that service, so maybe have one general number that they can text and ask questions
    • Replace Buddies with Families b/c that would be more social and has worked for other schools, so first years hear that their medic friends always have ‘families’ meetings and they feel excluded that they don’t have something similar
    • Look into giving our BizPals 5 extra credits that goes on their HEAR record (separate from Edi Award) instead of monetary payment
    • Have the times of PALS sessions put into their online timetable!!!
    • Decide the order of the session topics already in place, give that info to them as a syllabus the first week, and continually market that as well
    • Work more closely with lecturers to make them do the shout outs, they have more clout
    • Potentially offer bonus credit points on a project or something if they attend a certain number of Pals sessions (need to work closely with lecturer for that)
  • BizSkills Classes Ideas:
    • Bring in your class schedule, we will give you a weekly timetable sheet and help you fill in other activities and study time to manage time effectively
    • We want to start doing sessions on the main fields of business and discuss a little content to give students an idea of what they like and what classes to take in 2nd year and we’d also want to ensure that they know the important frameworks for future years
      • We wouldn’t teach content, we would have them get into groups, take 10 minutes to google as much as they can about a different framework per group, each group presents that framework, then they switch and the next group doing that framework has to fill in the gaps and then present, etc…

Rosie (WellComm at Kings)

My name is Rosie and I’m a second year Biological Sciences student, and I was one of the founders of WellComm at Kings, and have been elected as the LGBT+ Students’ Officer for 2019/20.

I really enjoyed going to visit the College of Charleston, and one of my favourite parts of the experience was meeting and spending time with the incredible student volunteers who went out of their way to show us around campus, talk to us about their experiences of studying, and of the community they had at their University. For me, an incredibly productive and beneficial part of the trip was hearing about the student support services at CofC: the help, guidance and opportunities provided to students were very different from some of the things we see here in Edinburgh, and it was great to listen to staff talk about the new strategies they had implemented and how these had been received by the student body.

The students at CofC all go through a ‘First Year Experience’ Programme that focuses on integration and life at the College – it was helpful to hear about the diversity and respect sessions these students participated in, which included discussing pronouns, race, identity and privilege: I think all schemes would really benefit in operating with a knowledge of this sort. We have been talking about providing peer-to-peer workshops about inclusivity and accessibility. I think this would be an engaging and formative way for students to lead, learn and listen. 

Overall, the trip to Charleston was a very welcoming and safe environment for students to talk about the principles behind peer learning, the roles we saw our schemes taking in the future, and how we could learn from each other and from our counterparts at CofC! I’m very grateful to have visited and thankful to Lisa and Jilly for making our trip so good!”

Sebastian (InfPALS)

My name is Sebastian, I am a third year Computer Science and Mathematics student. I am one of two School Senior Leaders who organize our Informatics Peer Learning Scheme.

My favourite part about visiting Charleston was being able to meet peer educators from a different university and sharing our experiences. The way the College of Charleston seems to approach peer education varies from how we do it here at the University of Edinburgh, in some areas more than others. The exchange about how different boundary conditions – sessions mandatory or not, peer educators give assignments or not, etc. – shaped our respective schemes has been quite educational.

I have definitely come to understand that certain conditions on our sessions, such as non-mandatory attendance, which I believed to be holding us back in a way, are not as impactful as I initially thought. At the College of Charleston, first year students get set exercises to complete outside the sessions. I quite like the idea of a sense of continuity throughout the year given by practice or revision questions that can be done between the regular session each week and I will attempt a version of this fitting for my scheme next year. The most intriguing concept I have learnt about, however, was that of “Quick Question Drop-In Session”, which seem to be nothing more than a peer educator being readily available to talk to outside of the sessions at a certain time and place. These drop-in sessions are meant for smaller problems that tend to have quick solutions or can quickly be delegated to appropriate places within the university, such that it would not necessarily require attendance of an entire session. I think it would be worth a try to place a table outside a lecture theatre once a week with two leaders from my scheme ready to answer quick questions from students who just finished a lecture. I believe this would also have an interesting effect on question time during the actual sessions.

Categories: USA

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