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Economics study buddies: using Moodle to engage students with peer learning

Introduction and Context

During the COVID-19 pandemic student engagement has been a critical aspect of our teaching and learning delivery. We tried very hard to deliver something close to a normal student experience though in most cases it has been difficult to replicate in an online environment the normal excitement of lectures, seminars and workshops. Even when possible face to face interactions were allowed, we all faced the challenges of teaching in person with social distancing measures in place.

In many ways, this academic year student engagement has become more important and critical than ever. With the COVID-19 pandemic we had to deal with students feeling under enormous psychological pressure, having to stay in lockdown for long periods of time and looking for opportunities to meet other peers, and work with them to support each other.

The effect of COVID-19 in Higher Education (HE) has been not only to increase existing inequalities across different groups but also to exacerbate the difference between good and poor educational practices.

This case study provides an important and timely opportunity to share an example of good practice to help students engage with peer learning. In what follows, I will discuss an Economics study buddy scheme introduced to enhance the students’ learning experience, provide some preliminary data analysis on the level of engagement by year of study, and finally close with some concluding remarks.

The Study Buddy Scheme

I will focus here on the study buddy scheme and explain how to create this in a virtual learning environment (VLE).

The scheme was first introduced during the academic year 2020/2021 at a UK Russell Group University with the objective of helping students feeling less lonely and socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scheme was rolled out in March 2021 across 20 undergraduate Economics modules (10 core and 10 optional modules) and 14 MSc Economics modules (2 core and 12 optional modules). Prior to joining the scheme, module leaders in core and optional modules were contacted and received information about the main objectives of the scheme and a link to a module where the scheme was available as an example. They were then asked to express their willingness to participate to the scheme.

Using the ‘group choice’ activity in Moodle, I created a space in the VLE for students to join the study groups. This was either in the form of a new section or in the ‘General’ section of the module Moodle pages. In large modules, groups had a maximum of 6 students per group, whereas in small modules they were created to allow 2-4 participants per group. To incentivise engagement and make the scheme appealing to students, it was decided to start by adding a few groups (i.e., 10-15 groups) on each module Moodle page and, as soon as the groups became full, additional groups were created for students to join the scheme.

Instructions on how to sign up to a group were provided in a video along with details on how to get in touch with other students using the list of participants on the module Moodle page. Students were also directed to specific resources providing guidance on how to make use of MS Teams to set up a meeting and start working together. Study buddies were created such that students had the freedom to choose any group with space in it, join more than one group, and change groups in case they wished to do so. Students could join the scheme on a voluntary basis. However, it was their responsibility to manage and engage with their groups.

Some module leaders decided to make students aware of the scheme prior to the end of Term 2. Some others decided to wait until the start of Term 3, where students typically enter a revision period, attend revision lectures and receive hints and tips on how to prepare for their final exams.

General Aims and some Preliminary Data Analysis

The general aims of the scheme were to:

a) Give students an opportunity to connect with other students in their module.

b) Help students to work together in a collaborative and supportive online environment.

c) Help students to build confidence, sharing their experience and knowledge with others and learning from others especially during test and exam periods.

Some preliminary data analysis shows that, so far, Year 1 students are the most engaged with the scheme, followed by Year 2, Year 3 and MSc students (please see Table 1 below). Almost 18% of first year students participated in the scheme compared to an average of 11.3% of all other students in different years of study. This could be easily explained by the fact that Years 2 and 3 undergraduate students could have already created their study buddies during their first year of study, whereas the lower level of engagement of MSc students could be due to study buddies being advertised at the start of Term 3 in many MSc modules so higher participation is expected as we get closer to the final exams.

Table 1: Student engagement with study buddy Scheme in core and optional modules by year of study

Engagement/Year of study

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

MSc

Core

17.80%

9.50%

-

8.90%

Optional

17.71%

13.32%

11.31%

13.40%

Total

17.76%

11.41%

11.31%

11.15%

Note: MSc students have exams on some of their core modules at the end of term 1. Data on those modules is not included here. Core and optional modules include all core and optional modules offered by the Economics Department that agreed to participate to the scheme across all UG/PG Programmes.

Looking at module content, maybe not surprisingly UG quantitative modules show the highest level of student participation (see e.g., Dancer et al., 2015). To give an example, Table 2 represents a shapshot of core modules in the Economics BSc Programme. Something like 25.33% of students attending the core Statistics first year module joined the scheme as opposed to other less technical and analytical modules in Year 1 showing a lower level of participation (on average 19%). A similar pattern can be observed among second year students in the Econometrics module. A low level of engagement was expected in modules were some form of group work was already in place. However, data shows that students appreciated more chances to work with their peers and interact and socialise with others from their Programmes.

Table 2: Student engagement with study buddy Scheme in core modules by year of study

 

Module

Description

% Students Engaged

No. of Study Buddies

Total No. of Students in the Module

Year 1

EC104

The World Economy: History and Theory

21.09%

16

441

EC109

Microeconomics 1

17.21%

14

459

EC124

Statistical Techniques

25.33%

29

679

Year 2

EC201

Macroeconomics 2

4.70%

3

383

EC202

Microeconomics 2

7.92%

5

379

EC226

Econometrics 1

16.63%

13

445

Note: The No. of Study Buddies includes groups that achieved full capacity and groups with less than 6 students.

Concluding Remarks

At this stage, it is difficult to assess whether the scheme successfully helped students reduce feelings of loneliness, alienation and disconnection. A student survey and/or follow up focus groups might be useful to determine students’ perceptions of how the scheme contributed to their learning experience and mental wellbeing.

Having said this, the scheme has already received positive feedback from students and colleagues. Some MSc students indicated study groups as one of the things in the module that had most impact on their learning in module evaluation surveys. Similarly, colleagues reported that this was a great idea to improve the students’ learning experience and most of them were in favour of introducing the scheme in their modules.

Feedback from a colleague:

“Thank you so much for organising these across all the modules, they are a great option for students!”

There were no challenges in the setting up of the scheme, although, in future, a better way to make use of the scheme could be to set this up in all modules at the start of the academic year. Under normal circumstances, with support from an administrative coordinator helping students to secure rooms on campus to meet and work together, study buddies may become an innovative peer learning programme to help students’ transition to University life, improve their study habit and enhance their understanding of module subject contents. Different people may have different learning styles, but social learning can be very effective for many students, so I strongly encourage colleagues to consider this as an option if at all interested!

References

Dancer, D., Morrison, K., & Tarr, G. (2015). Measuring the effects of peer learning on students' academic achievement in first-year business statistics. Studies in Higher Education, 40 (10), 1808-1828. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.916671

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