The past months have witnessed a complete switch to online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic both in schools and in universities. Unfortunately, research has found online teaching to be inferior to classical classroom-based teaching. The key hypothesis for these problems is disorganisation among students in online teaching environments and a lack of personalisation. Switching to online teaching may thus aggravate a situation in (higher) education in which many students struggle to complete their studies in time.
Our recent research provides the first evidence on a low cost and easily implementable way to make online education more effective, namely assisting students in their self-organisation and enhancing personalisation by providing remote peer-to-peer mentoring. We ran an experiment at a large German public university that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, switched to online teaching for the summer term 2020. We randomly offered second term students the opportunity to sign up for the program. Around 140 of 340 students we offered the treatment to signed up for the program.
We designed a structured peer mentoring program that focused on providing students with general study skills, such as self-organisation in a learning-from-home environment, weekly study schedules, and techniques on how to study effectively. Mentors were instructed not to discuss any coursework or any specific content-based problems with mentees. Mentors and mentees met one-on-one online five times during the summer term. In every meeting, mentors discussed specific topics, using materials and templates provided by us. The meetings also involved follow-up discussions on how mentees were coping with putting previous inputs to practice.
Each mentor handled a maximum of 10 mentees. Thus, this type of mentoring could be scaled up easily and at low cost: including one additional mentee into the program would cost just about €20 per month. To assess the effectiveness of the peer mentoring program, we combined survey data that we collected shortly before the start of the examination period in the summer term in late July with administrative student data. The survey elicited the students’ study behavior and views on the department and on online teaching in the summer term.
We find strong effects of peer mentoring on students’ assessment of their own study motivation and study behavior. Most importantly, students’ self-reported motivation increased relative to the control group. We also find that students in the treatment group (i) report having managed to study continuously throughout the summer term more (ii) tend to think they prepared for exams in time and (iii) to a larger extent think they provided enough effort to reach their goals, compared to the control group. In contrast, students’ views on departmental services or online teaching in general were not affected.
Our results on administrative student outcomes show that students who received a treatment offer registered for more credits than students who did not receive the offer of program participation. Students do not pass all courses for which they register, such that there are only small effects on earned credits. We then dig deeper and investigate the heterogeneity of effects on exam outcomes by splitting our sample into terciles of initial performance before the intervention took place. For the bottom two terciles there is no effect of peer mentoring. For the highest tercile instead, the probability of reaching the designated performance goal of 60 credits after two terms increases substantially. If anything, in our context, male students seem to benefit more from the peer mentoring program compared to female students.
Overall, the program strongly affected students’ behavior and motivation during the online term. Our results thus provide the first evidence on the effectiveness of a low-cost intervention such as peer mentoring to improve student motivation and university performance in online higher education. Given the cumulative nature of learning, our results on students’ motivation and study behavior may suggest that a more permanent peer mentoring program may improve student outcomes even more. In addition, younger students at school may also benefit more from such a program since they lack study skills even more than university students. Most importantly, our program is an easy to implement intervention to improve students’ motivation, study behavior, and exam outcomes in a time where universities and schools around the world are forced to teach online.