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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Photo of Gavin Stevenson

Author: Dr Gavin Stevenson is the Director of Student Development and a Fellow in sociology at Murray Edwards College. He has taught extensively across undergraduate papers in sociology as a supervisor and has supervised dissertations at MPhil level. Gavin is passionate about widening participation and access to Higher Education as well as fostering inclusive practices in teaching and learning within Higher Education settings. As the Director of Student Development, Gavin oversees the Gateway Programme, an academic, personal and career development programme available to all current students.



How do you facilitate peer learning in the Gateway Programme at Murray Edwards?

Through the Gateway Programme, we utilise 'subject advisors' as part of our academic development (study skills) programme for first-year students. Our core study skills programme runs for five 1-hour sessions throughout Michaelmas Term, divided into an Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences Stream and a Science/Technology Stream. Each week, the first-year students are joined by a subject advisor, a second- or third-year student in their subject who has been recommended by the Director of Studies as someone with a strong academic profile.

Subject advisors contribute to the session by offering subject-specific coaching and advice to the first-year students on a range of topics depending on the theme of the week ("academic note-taking", "making the most of supervisions", "Good work", etc). We also have a session on preparation for revision in Lent Term. Student advisors are paid for both their preparation work and participation in the sessions, and this experience doubles up as a form of skills development for these students too.

The participating students are incentivised to attend the Gateway Programme through a credits system, whereby they gain credits for session attendance. Where a threshold of credits is met by the end of an academic year, students can apply for "Gateway Challenges Funding", which can contribute to travel, research placement and internship opportunities, or other personal development projects; everything from language courses to holidays abroad.


What inspired you to develop this initiative?

I was very lucky, when taking up the role of Director of Student Development at Murray Edwards, to inherit this initiative, a staple of the Gateway Programme for many years now. Going forward, however, I am inspired to think about ways we can provide more training and support to our student advisors, thinking about the skills enhancement opportunities that might bolster the transferability of key skills to a professional context for them too.


What are some of the benefits students have experienced from peer learning?

Our feedback shows that this is one of the most valued aspects of the Gateway Programme. We also find that subject advisors are helping in encouraging the first-year students to attend, and that it's valuable in fostering inter-year collaboration (anecdotally, the students tend to stay in contact via WhatsApp groups or similar and support one another outside of the main programme once we've begun fostering that space for collaboration).

"The student mentors in each subject [gave] tailored advice about what is expected in supervisions, essays and exams. It was invaluable to talk to someone who had recently been through the same process." - First-year student

"It was good to have lots of opportunity to discuss ideas and thoughts with the subject mentors, so that they could give us advice specifically tailored to our subjects." - First-year Arts/Humanities student

"It was really great to speak to my subject advisor about any concerns and just the course in general. She made me feel more comfortable with the idea of writing essays and it was really useful to hear what the essays were like." - First-year STEM student


What advice would you give to colleagues interested in facilitating peer learning?

One thing I think is crucial when facilitating peer learning is to develop a level of trust with those who are facilitating and delivering. I welcome and encourage the student advisors to offer nuance or, if necessary, to contradict my more general study skills advice if it does not seem suitable to their disciplines, though in a way that encourages dialogue - so getting them to think about and express why it's less suitable for their discipline. I think this encourages the kind of open and more horizontal feedback process that empowers learners to chat candidly about the challenges of, whilst also being critical about, the process of learning. I try to encourage humility at all levels by demonstrating that I'm also learning new techniques all the time, to drive home the message that we're all learning together all of the time.