Culturally relevant peer support for Māori and Pasifika student engagement, retention and success
A programme of culturally relevant peer support was trialled with first-year Māori and Pasifika students studying in degree and diploma programmes at the Open Polytechnic.
This project was supported by the Ako Aotearoa Central Hub through its Regional Hub Project Funding scheme.
A programme of culturally relevant peer support was trialled with first-year Māori and Pasifika students studying in degree and diploma programmes at the Open Polytechnic. One hundred and fifty students were contacted via telephone during semester one 2008 and offered support. The programme was informed by Kaupapa Māori Theory and principles of inclusive teaching practice and aimed to enhance student engagement and success.
Specifically, the programme’s objectives were:
- To welcome students to the Open Polytechnic learning community and help make a positive start to study.
- To help students plan their study and manage assignment tasks.
- To help students identify areas where they needed support and provide that support.
- To encourage students to contact their tutor or other staff for assistance with any concerns.
The programme was based on proactive contact with students rather than relying on student self-referral and contact was at times that have been identified as critical points in students’ progress through their courses (Simpson, 2000).
The peer supporters worked from a script developed by Learning Advisers in conjunction with tutors which provided a guide for conversation rather than a prescription. All conversations were recorded in a database, salient points noted and issues for referral to tutors and learning support staff identified.
At the conclusion of the programme, information from the peer support records, students’ academic records and the student survey was examined and basic themes extracted. Results reveal that first year Māori and Pasifika students, studying at a distance, value the opportunity to have regular contact with knowledgeable peers in addition to their tutors. They find the contact encouraging and motivational; it enables them to deal more effectively with the demands of study and to feel part of a learning community. This contact, which occurs at key decision-making points in students’ progress through their courses, assists in the identification of iissues that might be a barrier to that progress and provides opportunities to resolve these in a timely manner.
Six suggestions for learning support practice are given: provide academic counselling and pre-enrolment advice; offer academic preparation and study skills assistance; provide opportunities for meaningful and regular contact with students; make peer mentoring and support services available; advise and assist students who indicate they might withdraw from their studies; offer teacher professional development.
The peer support programme was developed in response to recommendations made at the Open Polytechnic Māori and Pasifika Advisory Groups’ hui and fono in 2007 in addition to the Learning Centre’s desire to provide culturally relevant support for Māori and Pasifika learners to enhance their learning and success.
The results of the programme reveal that first year Māori and Pasifika students studying at a distance value the opportunity to have regular contact with knowledgeable peers in addition to their tutors. They find the contact encouraging and motivational; it enables them to deal more effectively with the demands of study and to feel part of a learning community. This contact, which occurs at key decision-making points in students’ progress through their courses, assists in the identification of issues that might be a barrier to successful completion and provides opportunities to resolve these in a timely manner.
Students, particularly Māori students, placed great importance on belonging – the notion of tatau tatau. They considered that the regular contact with the peer supporters had contributed positively to their sense of belonging. This response from students is an indication of how culturally relevant the peer support programme is even when departure is imminent.
A small number of students (150) were involved in the peer support programme which aimed to help them make a positive start to their study and plan and manage it successfully. The project was not research and therefore the suggestions for practice are based on peer supporter and student accounts in addition to relevant information extracted from students’ academic records.
Student engagement and persistence are complex phenomena and are influenced by institutional, personal and external factors. The suggestions for practice identified below are from an institutional perspective, in particular that of learning support, and as such could provide useful direction for those services in an open and distance learning context.
Provide academic counselling and pre-enrolment advice
The majority of the students who had low or no secondary school qualifications did not complete their courses successfully. This result aligns with recent research (Earle, 2008) which found that for Māori students entering degree study for the first time as adults “Having higher levels of school qualification is particularly important for success in extramural studies” (ibid, p.3). Students who enrolled as part-time learners in two or more courses were less successful than those enrolled in only one course. Effective pre-enrolment advice about course choice and workload can improve outcomes (Zepke, Leach & Prebble, 2003).
Provide academic preparation and study skills assistance
The provision of timely and appropriate study skills support is important to students and is effective in building confidence and skills. Many students in the peer support programme found that managing study along with work, family and other commitments was challenging. Knowing what to expect from tertiary study and developing the skills and strategies to deal with the academic demands can help mitigate those challenges. Orientation processes (Pittaway & Moss, 2006) and preparation programmes (Zeegers & Martin, 2001) help to clarify expectations, and study skills support enhances student engagement in learning (Kiernan, Lawrence & Sankey, 2006).
Provide opportunities for meaningful and regular contact with students
Students reported that the regular contact with the peer supporters was encouraging and motivational. They said also that it contributed to their sense of belonging which they regarded as very important. Students need to feel accepted and that they belong (Deci & Ryan, 2000) and regular contact with teaching and peer support staff contributes to this. Additionally, contact with students is a key to in-course retention in open and distance learning (Simpson, 2002). Such contact assists in the identification of issues that might be a barrier to successful completion and provides opportunities to resolve these in a timely manner.
Students’ sense of belonging helps develop self-confidence (Black & Mackenzie, 2007) and meaningful, regular contact with teachers fosters the learning relationship and contributes to improved outcomes for students (Zepke, Leach & Prebble, 2003).
Provide peer mentoring and support services
Students reported positive outcomes from their contact with the peer supporters. Particularly important to them was the notion of tatau tatau (the opportunity to belong to a learning community) which was fostered through the contact with the peer supporters. Evidence in the literature suggests that relationships with and support from peers make importance contributions to student success (Black & MacKenzie, 2007; Zepke, Leach & Prebble, 2003).
Provide advice and assistance to students who indicate they might withdraw from their studies or transfer to the next semester
Results show a discrepancy between students who completed a formal withdrawal application and those who did not. It appears that students are reluctant or don’t know the processes for withdrawal (this pattern was similar with transfers). Not formally withdrawing can have repercussions if a student wants to re-enrol. Students who were not succeeding tended to fade away rather than keep on with their study despite encouragement from the peer supporters.
Provide teacher professional development
According to Earle (2008) the complex set of factors which have an impact on student success are “amenable to influence through…teacher professional development” (ibid, p.3). This assertion is supported by other research (Airini, Rakena, O'Shea, Tarawa, Sauni, Ulugia-Pua, et al, 2007) which also points out that we must understand our students in order to teach them successfully. This may involve new ways of relating and new attitudes to teaching.