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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Informal peer learning: a student reflects on History of Art's "Buddy Groups"


During the 2020-21 academic year, the Department of History of Art organised all undergraduates (85 in total) into small peer groups of five students from a mix of Colleges and year groups. The aim was to create an informal, teacherless setting for discussion among students in the midst of the pandemic and online learning, when normal interactions had been curtailed. We spoke with a third-year undergraduate in History of Art about these "buddy groups", as the Department called them. In her experience, these groups not only helped to foster connections during the pandemic but also a mutually beneficial sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience. The exchanges she had with her peers prompted reflection on her learning and development as a student.

What did you like about the buddy groups?

It was great to have this organised by the Department, both to lessen the distance created by online learning and to make connections with other History of Art students across all years. It's a small Department, and you can be the only person in your College studying the subject, leaving you without a subject-specific "parent" in your College family (College "families" are intended to provide incoming students with a student contact who can help them with questions, concerns and settling in). Due to the scarcity of contact hours in this degree, it is also hard for first-year students to meet with second- and third-years. The buddy groups created a space for students to connect.

What was the structure of your group and how did you communicate?

Our group of five had two third-years, two second-years, and one first-year student. We set up a group chat and communicated via texts talking mainly about our work. We discussed essay writing; the first- and second-year students often questioned the third-years about planning and writing a dissertation. Following the demands of the first-year student we gave advice on note-taking and shared thoughts on time management, health and wellbeing. Their questions got me reflecting on my own experiences. It prompted me to step back and think about my methodology, about what has worked or not. I felt the questions the group exchanged encouraged me to think further in order to explain how I approach or think about my work.

What were some of the benefits you experienced from the buddy group?

The buddy groups created an informal context to discuss our studies separate from the formal structures in College or in the Department. My Director of Studies in College (Dos) is lovely, but I feel much more comfortable admitting to my peers that "I can't do this essay" than I would to my DoS. He is always looking out for my wellbeing and conversations with my DoS are really helpful in different ways, but they still tend to steer towards academic standards rather than the actual experience of reading and writing essays or dissertations. These are things that I can more easily discuss in the relaxed environment of our group.

What have you taken away from this experience?

Talking and hearing about the experience of studying History of Art with other students helped me to reflect on how much I have actually done and learned in my time at Cambridge. I feel it really got me thinking about the process of learning and the importance of communicating about it. This year, as a third-year, I saw a first-year student at the library picking way too many books for a supervision essay. I explained to her that from my experience she would probably benefit more from sitting back and thinking about the question and the arguments she would like to make than flooding herself in reading. This was the kind of specific advice, now drawn from my own experiences over the years, that I feel I would have liked to hear as a fresher. It was thanks to the buddy groups that I started to think more reflectively about these things.

Finally, I think being in the group also got me to see the value of learning with peers, which I have started to do more frequently of my own volition. During the Easter Vacation last year I decided to work with a small group of students from my own year on exam revision. We prepared visual analysis mocks for each, presented them and exchanged constructive feedback, which was incredibly helpful for exams.