PASS (Peer Assisted Study Support) at Queen Mary

Through a system of mentoring, students who have difficulty with harder subjects are assisted by students who have already successfully completed the course.

Objectives of the Intervention

PASS at Queen Mary fits within the University’s Widening Participation (WP) Strategy and is therefore part of a holistic approach to widening access and participation to Higher Education (HE). University documentation notes that the ethos behind the strategy is that an effective approach to widening participation must be multi-dimensional. Therefore, the College has a broad range of initiatives that support widening participation objectives in different ways.

One of the strategy’s areas of focus is on the recognition of the importance of student support and retention. In particular, students from widening participation backgrounds sometimes have to overcome more barriers during transition to higher education than students from other cohorts. PASS is one of the schemes that support this particular strand of the WP Strategy.

PASS is a course-based mentoring scheme where first-year (and sometimes second -year) students are given the opportunity to bring queries and topics to explore with higher-year students (mentors) in an informal and friendly environment, to help them settle into university life, the department and their studies. It runs as a voluntary, drop-in scheme.

In general, PASS is about:

  • Learning enhancement through student- to -student support scheme;
  • Trained PASS mentors facilitate study sessions for groups of lower-year students;
  • PASS is voluntary and intended to offer a safe, friendly place to help students:
    • Adjust quickly to University life
    • Improve their study habits
    • Enhance their understanding of the subject matter of their course through    collaborative learning
  • Enhance their awareness of course direction and expectations;
  • Content is based on course materials & PASS mentors are engaged in sharing their experiences and facilitating discussion rather than re-teaching the subject.

Over the past two years, the scheme has expanded to include four new Schools and departments. The following Schools are currently running PASS schemes in 2013-14: Biological and Chemical Sciences; Business and Management; Dentistry; Economics and Finance; Electronic Engineering and Computer Science; Engineering and Materials Science; English and Drama; Geography; History; Languages, Linguistics and Film; Mathematical Sciences; Physics and Astronomy; Politics and International Relations (i.e. all Schools except Medicine and Law).

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The motivation for adopting and continuing PASS within Queen Mary’s academic Schools and departments is based not only on retention issues.

The WP Strategy notes that, increasingly, schemes such as this are valued as a way to help first-year students across the ability range improve their confidence and skills as autonomous learners, getting guidance, encouragement, support and stimulation from their peers to help them arrive at their own solutions.

The motivation for adopting and continuing PASS within Queen Mary’s academic Schools and departments is therefore based not only on retention issues – though retention rates have shown steady improvement in recent years - but markedly on a perceived need for first-year students to become more confident in their approach to their studies and to wider aspects of university life. The benefits to mentors as well as mentees are seen as very important in PASS.

PASS has always been based in Widening Participation, running in partnership with academic Schools and departments. It was initially run as a pilot for the Science and Engineering Foundation Programme (SEFP) in Academic year 2002/2003. Subsequent funding was secured for the project from the Westfield Trust (now Westfield Fund for Enhancing the Student Experience). It became core-funded in 2008 and a coordinator was appointed on a part-time permanent position in January 2008.

Theoretical framework:

PASS is set against the backdrop of schemes in HEIs, widespread internationally, and known in the US and elsewhere as ‘Supplemental Instruction’ (SI). SI is an academic support model developed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) in 1973 that uses peer-assisted study sessions to improve student retention and success within targeted historically difficult courses. The SI program provides peer support by having students who succeeded in traditionally difficult academic courses (e.g., Organic Chemistry, Biology 101, Logic) help other students complete these courses. SI is a non-remedial approach that provides regular review sessions outside of class in which students work collaboratively by discussing readings, comparing notes, working together to predict test items, and sharing ideas for improving class material. Courses selected for SI tend to be “gatekeeper” courses for first- and second- year students—generally those classes that have a 30% or higher proportion of students who receive a “D”, fail, or withdraw (the DFW rate) from the course. Out-of-class review sessions are led by “SI leaders,” students who took the class already and did well. SI leaders attend all class lectures, take notes, and act as models to those currently taking the course.

The SI model is used for selected courses at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school levels, and has been adopted by colleges and universities in the United States and internationally.

Since setting up the first pilot in 2002, Queen Mary has benefited from networking with HEIs in the UK running peer mentoring, benefiting particularly from the national SI Network active at the time. Another university also active in this network, Manchester, maintains close links with UMKC, and is now their national centre for PASS (in their case, Peer Assisted Study Sessions) / SI.

Research from the US focuses in particular on grade improvement and retention but at Queen Mary it is also seen as valuable in improving cohesion and general level of satisfaction. As well as benefits to first-year mentees, the volunteer mentors also develop a wide range of skills highly useful for their personal and career development. Each team of mentors is headed up by a Student Organiser, hourly paid through WP.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

PASS benefits all Queen Mary’s students, and not just those from target widening participation groups. The strength of the scheme lies in integration with, not separation from, fellow students.

Queen Mary has a very diverse student population. According to 2012-2013 HESA undergraduate student data, 67% of Queen Mary’s students are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups and 34.6% are from lower socio-economic groups (NS-SEC groups 4-7); women make up 51% of the undergraduate student cohort.

It is recognised that transition issues can be particularly pressing for those with little or no family experience of education but there is no ‘screening’ of mentors (higher-year undergraduates) or mentees (first-years) by widening participation criteria. The strength of the PASS scheme is integration with, not separation from, fellow students and this helps to ensure that students from under-represented groups access the full benefits of higher education. Development of mentoring within WP reflects Queen Mary’s commitment to the whole student lifecycle. The ‘final’ stage of student life cycle, the seeking and gaining of employment, is also promoted by PASS and this is particularly welcome to those students with little or no family experience of higher education and the graduate job market.

Within PASS, there is close liaison in training and dissemination with Queen Mary Careers. There is also a PASS It On scheme, where graduating PASS mentors are invited to become part of a ‘bank’ of recently graduated mentors willing to give informal email advice to current mentors in their final year about how to cope with final projects and exams and entering the world of further study and work. Former PASS mentors contribute to the Alumni News section of the PASS Newsletter and, at an annual PASS awards event for current mentors; a former PASS mentor attends as a guest speaker, sharing the ways in which their mentoring skills have continued to be useful to them beyond Queen Mary.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Institutional strategy:
PASS fits within the University’s Widening Participation Strategy, Access Agreement and within the Strategic Plan, where support for student success if given a very high profile.

Overall these documents indicate the importance of raising the aspirations and achievement of students from groups currently under-represented in higher education, and also ensuring that the most able applicants from such groups are able to reach the standards required for admission to Queen Mary and to thrive academically and socially following admission. This includes specific support to improve attainment at level 3, to help students progress to competitive undergraduate courses at Queen Mary.

Widening participation is also about providing support to ensure that students who have the potential to do so succeed throughout the student life cycle at the College. Queen Mary’s Widening Participation Strategy goes further than simply bringing students into the institution, extending through their time at the College and beyond.

Particular factors supporting success:
External factors:
Given the difficult labour market conditions brought about by the recession, students are anxious about securing employment upon graduation. Being able to access and undertake volunteering opportunities, such as the kind that PASS provides, in order to be able to include this on CVs, is increasingly attractive.

The Widening Participation Strategy specifically highlights employability as a key aim, outlining a clear need to respond to the employability agenda on both a departmental and College-wide basis. In this context, skills and employability comprise a key aim of the Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy. The development of the PASS scheme is thus underpinned by close liaison with Queen Mary Careers.

Queen Mary aims to support all students by providing advice on how they should approach employment applications and interviews. Students who work on the PASS scheme, and on other widening participation projects as ambassadors and mentors, gain experiences that are designed to enhance their skills and employability. This is particularly important to those students with less family experience of graduate employment opportunities and recruitment practices.

Scheme design:
The scheme succeeds because of its flexibility. All academic Schools and departments share the same basic design and all mentors are trained by Widening Participation. However, the ownership of all academic aspects belongs to the School, represented by the Academic Coordinator. Everyone involved in PASS at Queen Mary has a realistic attitude to what can be expected from a student-led scheme, although the students sometimes surpass all expectations in their creativity and dedication.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

A ‘bottom up’ structure is a hallmark of PASS, its vibrancy and attraction to students being generated by the power of student-to-student interaction. The diagram below shows the structure, with undergraduate Student Organisers (mentor team leaders) at its core.


The core activity is the mentoring session. In addition to the compulsory mentor training, other extension training is offered to mentors during the year, ideas for which are generated by the Student Organisers in the central committee.

The most important people are the volunteer undergraduate mentors, chosen by their departments and trained by Widening Participation. Each subject team is led by a Student Organiser who liaises with a coordinator (an academic) in their own School or department and with the central coordinator of the scheme.Any first-year can come along to PASS sessions; they don't have to fit a particular profile.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

The backing and consistent staff support from Widening Participation is key to the sustainability of this project. All players within each subject scheme, from mentee to academic, are taking part in addition to their core activities and need support from WP as well as administrative support from their own departments on which some of them are able to draw.

Involvement of alumni gives a sense of legacy which students appreciate, knowing the work they do helps build on previous work and lays foundations for future success.

In terms of replication: as noted in Point 3, PASS is based on the Supplemental Instruction model, which has been adapted for use in HEIs globally. Currently, over 1500 institutions in 29 countries have SI Supervisors trained to develop a programme at their institution. Overall, the SI model has therefore been replicated, while maintaining a common set of core principles (hence, it has been adapted to fit different local contexts).

Resources used in the initiative

PASS is core funded by the University (see also point 3). All mentors are volunteer undergraduates but the Student Organisers (mentor subject team leaders) are hourly paid (London Living Wage) through Widening Participation for their non-mentoring duties. Mentor teams hold either one or two sessions a week in Semesters A and B and sessions usually are an hour long. Students operate a rota, with at least two mentors present at each session.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

The WP strategy devotes a section on monitoring and evaluation.

It states that the Strategy will be monitored by:

  • Using annual HESA statistics and data provided through Queen Mary’s Student Record System as clearly measurable evidence of progress towards meeting targets and milestones.
  • A series of detailed case studies that will look at the longer-term impact of established widening participation programmes. The first of these was undertaken on the PASS scheme during the summer of 2010, based on interviews with key stakeholders in the scheme and data collected through existing evaluation methods, including observation of mentoring sessions. Findings from the study were used to inform further expansion of PASS at Queen Mary by highlighting both challenges and good practice.

However, measurable targets and measuring the effectiveness of a peer mentoring scheme, from whatever perspective (for example, grade enhancement, retention, social and personal development of both mentees and mentors) is problematic because, in any HE intervention, a scheme such as PASS will be one of a series of support strategies offered to new students. If Mentee A has stayed on the course, improved grades and been involved in the life of the department, it is likely that attendance at PASS sessions has promoted this but, even if comparing Mentee A with a student of a similar profile who has not attended PASS, this still is not a useful ‘control’ as both students will have had a range of additional support available. It is also the case that PASS is a voluntary, drop-in scheme and that mentees have the intrinsic motivation to attend that the non-attending student may lack.

With this in mind, however, the success of PASS can be seen through the following:

  • The success of the intervention is shown by the almost 600% rise over six years of the schools/departments deciding to adopt the scheme and the interest among students who wish to become mentors. It is also shown in the interest retained by many mentors in the scheme after graduation (see Point 4). As PASS sessions are drop-in, the number of mentees varies greatly – not only from week to week but from year to year, especially when a new subject scheme is becoming established.
  • If a School/department – both academic staff and students- wishes to continue running the scheme after the pilot and further on, this is a central measure of success. Individual scheme measures of success vary, depending on why the department / school chose to join PASS.

Currently, the scheme is evaluated through the following means:

Mentee evaluation:
At the end of each semester, the Student Organisers enter the recorded attendance from each session on a spreadsheet which is sent to the central and academic coordinator. Mentors and mentees are also invited to add comments to the sign-in sheets and this is a useful source of qualitative data. A useful aspect of session feedback to academic departments is that common difficulties with aspects of the first year and its courses are often identified, allowing for rethinking in course planning. However, while mentees are asked to record their attendance at sessions, they are promised individual confidentiality. Mentors may report back to their Student Organiser or academic coordinator, for example, that many students are finding a particular topic problematic but not that a named student is struggling as an individual.

Mentor evaluation:
This begins with the evaluation of training via questionnaire feedback, which is used to make changes to the sessions for the following academic year. The training handbook is also modified according to student feedback. For each session at which they have mentored, mentors are asked to contribute one comment reflecting on the session or on their performance. Because this demand is modest, they are able to meet it.

The Peer Mentoring Coordinator carries out, with students’ permission, observations of sessions recorded on observation sheets. Feedback is given via email to all mentors present and to the Student Organiser (s) and Academic Coordinator for the relevant department. Good practice from these sessions is disseminated at mentor meetings and via the PASS Newsletter.

Student Organisers meet together twice a year, as the PASS Central Team, for planning and reflection. ‘Retiring’ Student Organisers are asked to fill in a questionnaire reflecting on their role and giving suggestions for the development of the scheme. They are also asked why they wanted the role, if it met their expectations and what they learned from it. The central coordinator observes occasional sessions, at the invitation of the Student Organiser. Feedback from these is given to the mentors and their Academic Coordinator.

Informal evaluation:
Comments by academics, mentors and former mentors in informal settings, in the PASS Newsletter and in personal communications often give valuable insights and pointers to help consolidation and development.

Additional information:
The WP Strategy highlights that It can be difficult to collect meaningful data from students once they have left Queen Mary. However, the College will continue to explore ways in which employment outcomes for students from the widening participation cohort can be identified and analysed.

A further point to note is that a range of peer mentoring schemes that have Supplemental Instruction as a core model have undertaken evaluations and most of them indicate a positive level of impact.

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