Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.
What are the biggest benefits of near-peer learning?
I think that students really appreciate getting to know fellow students from other year groups. Especially with a first year unit, the older student can pass on a whole host of tips for being a successful student. This mirrors what Imogen Moore has recently talked about in law: students like hearing the voice of other students.
Did you encounter any challenges? How did you overcome them?
I was anticipating challenges to the ‘legitimacy’ of being taught by fellow undergraduates, but that has never happened, possibly because they’re not awarding marks. Also, they’re not really teaching – it’s more that they’re facilitating learning, which is why I always call them facilitators. Timetabling is problematic – trying to get students from two different year groups to the same place at the same time is not straightforward.
Do you think near-peer learning could be effective with other areas of the curriculum?
I think that it’s especially useful for what we call ‘transferable’ skills. I would think long and hard before using a similar scheme to teach academic knowledge, though there are many examples of instructor-led near-peer teaching sessions where students help teach factual knowledge, with an academic present to provide oversight and fill in the gaps.
What advice would you give to staff who wanted to set up a similar project?
Make sure that you’ve got a reliable group of facilitators, and write a ‘lesson plan’ for every session. Then, go through each session beforehand with them as participants so that they experience it as a student.
What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?
I like Graham Gibbs ‘53 powerful ideas’ series, available at https://www.seda.ac.uk/53-powerful-ideas. Bite size chunks of deep teaching wisdom which should be compulsory reading for anybody teaching in HE.
If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?
Student fees. When I went to University I went purely because I was interested in chemistry, and my only goal was to learn as much about it as possible. Nowadays, students end up with such a huge debt that there is tremendous pressure on them to do well and get a well-paid job, and that pressure is detrimental to their well-being.
Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?
My chemistry teachers at school, Mr Herrett and Mr Waugh. Both of them were old-school masters who delighted in setting fire to things, preferably with as much coloured smoke as possible, and who didn’t get too upset when I blew the bin up, or pointed the Bunsen burner at their hand.