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Hidden in Plain Sight: The Power of Peer Influence

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This is a guest post written by Dr. George Kuh, HIPs Expert & Indiana University Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Higher Education.

No topic in higher education has attracted more attention during the past few decades than the rates at which different groups of students complete their educational objectives and what institutions should do to help more students finish what they start. The most widely used term to refer to these outcomes is student retention.  I am not a fan of the word “retention” and advocate using “persistence” instead to describe what is required for students to attain their postsecondary educational goals.  Here’s why.

Retention implies that institutions are solely responsible for student success.  For sure, colleges and universities must do some things differently and do some different things to make it possible for more students to complete their studies.  Even so, it is undeniable that students themselves play a key role in their learning.  For example, motivation and academic preparation are two of the many characteristics related to student success.

Another very important factor associated with student success is student engagement, a construct that combines what institutions do and what students do.  Student engagement is positively related to persistence, satisfaction, and a host of other desired learning and development outcomes.  Although engagement has multiple meanings and applications, I use it here to represent the time and energy undergraduates put forth in educationally purposeful activities combined with the policies, programs, and practices that institutions employ to encourage students to put forth such effort.  That is, both student effort and institutional effort are needed to increase the odds that all students will complete their studies and graduate with the knowledge and proficiencies they need to thrive in the 21st century.

The power of peer influence is often overlooked when considering what institutions can do to drive student engagement.  Indeed, the single most influential group on a college campus when it comes to shaping student attitudes and behavior is other students!  That’s right — one’s peers have a significant impact on the overall student experience.

Who one spends time with – inside and outside the classroom – is consequential to many of the desired outcomes of undergraduate education.  This is because peers have a disproportionate influence on the amount of time students spend studying and what they do with their discretionary time.  For example, compared with their counterparts, students who participate in a learning community (a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together) spend about 20 percent more time preparing for class each week.  They are also substantially more engaged than their counterparts in a range of educationally effective activities – interacting more with faculty and diverse peers and engaging more frequently in higher order mental activities such as synthesizing material and analyzing problems.  They also report gaining more from their college experience.  Moreover, the differences favoring learning community students typically persist through the senior year, suggesting that this form of peer influence continues to positively shape student behavior throughout their college years.

There are other well-documented instances in which educationally purposeful peer interactions are linked to desired outcomes.  Consider peer tutoring, which has uniformly positive effects for both tutors and those receiving tutoring.  Indeed, the evidence is compelling enough to launch a campaign to determine whether certain types of peer-to-peer interactions qualify as a high-impact practice.

While most campuses involve students in something akin to peer mentoring or advising roles and offer boutique-like student leadership opportunities, only a small fraction of students are involved and realize the positive effects.   The challenge is to find ways to leverage the power of peer influence by scaling purposeful peer-to-peer interactions to engage many more students.

As an enthusiastic proponent of experiential learning and especially high-impact practices, I’m excited about Knack’s approach to helping colleges and universities harness technology to scale purposeful peer-to-peer interactions in ways that benefit both students and the institution. I would encourage learning more about Knack’s innovative approach.