P45 – Realising the potential of student leaders in facilitating the transition into higher education for first-year students.

Room A – TUESDAY 16:15-17:15

One hour paper

Jacques van der Meer

Jane Skalicky

University of Otago, New Zealand

University of Tasmania (Australia)

Jacques van der Meer (PhD) is Associate Dean (Academic & Research at the University of Otago (New Zealand). His research interests are related to the first-year experience, student retention, equitable access and participation in higher education and peer-learning/student leadership approaches to enhancing student engagement.

Jane Skalicky (PhD) is Associate Director, Student Life and Learning at the University of Tasmania (Australia), leading a large team of academic, professional staff and student leaders to provide language and academic skill development, academic transition programs, as well as a range of peer learning and engagement programs.


This paper will argue case that student leaders can play an effective role in first-students making the transition into higher education. Apart from discussing the rationale for this, and some research-based programmes, we will present data from a project related to building student leader capability and the initial findings of an international survey in collaboration with US-based National Centre for the First-Year Experience.


Transition is not a one-off event that can be ‘ticked off’ after the first week at university. Developing an understanding of the expectations of new educational environments, and forming new study habits that reflect these expectations, takes time and resources. And ideally these resources are not just hand-outs or web links that tell students how to do it.  Forming new habits, and becoming familiar with a thoroughly different educational environment is often best facilitated by means of direct interaction with people. Therein lies the problem for many institutions in a time when many universities are operating within tight financial constraints.

However, there are other students at universities who have been through the process before and are well-placed to take on the role of ‘guides’ for first-year students in making the transition journey. Realising the potential of other students to play this role of peer leaders is not a matter of ‘just’ getting them to do it, but requires an intentional process of training, monitoring and developing the skills of these peers so that they can perform their role to a high standard.

A great variety of programmes to support students in the transition during the first year have been set up over the last couple of decades. The “Peer Assisted Study Sessions” (also known in the US as “Supplemental Instruction”) is one of the better known examples.

Most studies into the effectiveness of these programmes is focussed on the benefits for first-year students. The argument can be made, however, that without the peer leaders these programmes could not operate. So it is important as well to focus on how these peer leaders can be most effective in their work and continue to be interested in volunteering for these positions.

This then leads to the question ‘why would students want to do this?’ In other words, what do student leaders get out of it? And, how can we make sure that the peer leaders in these important programmes are well-prepared to play their role in the life of first-year students? To this end, a group of Universities from Australia and New Zealand have initiated a project to study how student leadership capabilities and quality programmes can be built?

Part of the project involves collaboration with the US-based National Resource Centre for the first-year experience in administering an international survey into student leadership, along with universities in other English-speaking countries (including the UK). This survey sought to develop an inventory of the range and diversity of peer leadership programmes operating, as well as to assess the benefits of peer leadership as perceived by the leaders.

This paper will present the initial statistical analysis of the results of the Australasian cohort, both descriptive statistics and the results of factor analysis. Overall, the leaders perceived there to be a benefit. However, some of the results suggest that more can be done to help leaders identify the possible benefits participating in these programmes might have on their own academic performance.

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