A peer education project for sustainable improvements in student transitions

Entering university can be a challenging time. To improve outcomes at this transition, the University of Sussex and Mental Health Foundation have co-produced five workshops with students to be delivered by students.

Making the transition from further education to university is a challenging time for many students. It can be a time of considerable upheaval during which students can experience changes to the place they live, their contact with friends and family, the structure of their social groups as well as the subject and the educational setting in which they study.

Students may also need to learn new skills of self-care and financial management, which can add to the pressures of making the transition.

Major life transitions, like that from further education to university, are known to be stressful events and are associated with mental health problems and a reduction in wellbeing for some individuals (e.g. Wheton, 1990 and Praharso et al., 2017).

At the same time, successfully negotiating a transition can be important for future personal and academic success, whilst experiencing difficulties during transitions can lead to longer-term difficulties.

The central challenges that the SITUATE (Students In Transition at University: Aiming To Enhance mental and social health and wellbeing) project addresses are:

  1. Given the potential difficulties that some students experience during the transition into university, is it possible to produce a sustainable intervention that can support students making the transition?
  2. Can such an intervention help with making the educational transition, as well as addressing social, financial and self-care?

The approach to a sustainable intervention has been to co-produce a peer education programme with students for delivery by students.

The process of co-production has been iterative throughout the life of the project, with various touch points with students (university and further education) and young leaders (brought together through Leaders Unlocked) from a variety of backgrounds and with differing lived experiences at three key stages:

  1. Scope and plan: Using co-production workshops to identify the focus of peer-led workshop content by reflecting on the need and wider context.
  2. Design: Developing workshop themes and topics, creating aims and objectives for each workshop as well as a list of must have criteria.
  3. Refine: Testing and getting feedback on workshop content, developing activities and making changes to workshops in line with feedback.

Co-production has determined the number of peer-led workshops, the topics they cover, the length of each workshop and the types of activity within the workshops used to engage participants.

To date the project has facilitated 12 co-creation workshops with groups of eight to 15 people. These were delivered in person and moved online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The intervention itself consists of five workshops:

  1. Introduction
  2. Health and Wellbeing
  3. Social Pressure
  4. Financial Pressure
  5. Academic Pressure

These topics were identified in co-production sessions as being key contributors to student mental health during this transition.

All five workshops were piloted with first and foundation year students in April 2021. All feedback from the workshops so far was extremely positive from both student participants and student facilitators, with both groups feeling that all sessions met the aims stated at the outset.

All student participants said they felt confident transferring the skills learned in the workshops into real life.

Student comments on the aspects of the workshops they found most interesting and useful included:

  • ‘chatting to other people and realising we are in similar situations’
  • ‘opportunity to reflect on how I currently use coping mechanisms in my life’
  • ‘sharing experiences and meeting people interested in talking about these issues’.

Having developed the workshops and piloted them in April 2021, the project has engaged in another round of co-creation working with the student facilitators to improve the workshops further.

There is a great deal to learn from these students in terms of what worked and what did not work in the pilot. The next step involves recruiting more students for a full run of the workshops in September and October 2021.

The project will be working with sixth form colleges and schools, as well as students at the University of Sussex. It will also make use of having developed workshops both for online and in-person delivery, which allows it to work with schools and colleges further afield. By the end of October, it should have enough data to evaluate the workshops fully.

Further details

Find out more about the project.

This case study was written by Professor Jeremy E. Niven (School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex) and Ms Lauren McConkey (project manager).

Published 17 August 2021

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