Leslie Barnes

Transformative learning through peers

A low stress, high impact professional development opportunity that covers a three-hour timespan, involves a conversation over coffee, and requires little to no pre-preparation of new material. That’s too good to be true, right?   

Not so, thanks to Dr Leslie Barnes SFHEA from the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), who has developed a peer-to-peer mentoring program following that very outline; the participant outcome being an enjoyable, collaborative experience that has a constructive pedagogical end goal.  

The seed for the program was planted during Leslie’s 2019 involvement in the CASS/CAP mentorship program. While that program had a wide remit, covering all aspects of academic life, Leslie harboured a desire to create a teaching-specific version. With the support of the CASS/CAP mentorship program convenors, Associate Professor Carol Hayes and Associate Professor Susanna Scarparo, Leslie drew upon her prior experiences in American universities, where it was ‘par for the course that someone would come in once a year and observe your teaching.’She developed a rationale, goals and observation paperwork for the peer-to-peer version and went about coordinating it from the ground up.

The net result was a teaching-specific program comprising 30 participants in 2019. Glowing feedback provided Leslie with confidence that the concept was worth pursuing and building upon.   

“I followed up with the participants at the end of the semester, and was struck by how valuable they were finding it,” she recalls.  

“I had senior lecturers saying, ‘I learned so much from my casual staff member; the way she organises her class, her time management and the way she presents her material is so different from the way I do it, and I am now really rethinking my classroom practice.’ ”  

A reluctance from Leslie to add to the load of overburdened colleagues during 2020 resulted in the peer-to-peer program being temporarily paused. New opportunities beckoned, though, with the challenges of teaching French online presenting a new set of hurdles, and prompting her to tweak the program into a student-to-student context. The goal was to have students do their work together, without teacher input, while alternatively taking on the roles of instructor or learner.

“As with observation practices among educators, we each have different strengths, and we have a lot to learn from each other, and we often don’t create the opportunities to learn from one another in these intimate settings – the same is true for our students,” she says.  

“I’ve had students say, in response to the peer-to-peer learning that we have done in the French program, ‘I discovered that my grammar is really strong and that my partner has perfect pronunciation, so we are able to complement each other’s strengths. The first meeting was awkward, but we have come to trust each other, and now we are just running with it.’ ”  

As campus life returns to some form of normality, Leslie is looking to build her peer-to-peer program back up so as to exceed 2019 participation levels. She is aware of perceptions that involvement from teachers could add to already high workloads, and is looking to spread the word that return on investment is high.

“It is just three hours of your time over the course of the semester, and for none of that time do you have to prepare,” she says.  

“You just turn up, watch your partner, have them watch you, then have a conversation about it and see what does for your teaching down the track. There is all sorts of transformative potential for very little time commitment.” 

To find out more, or to get involved in Leslie’s mentoring program : email leslie.barnes@anu.edu.au 
If you would like support to establish peer-to-peer mentoring in your local area email clt@anu.edu.au

April 2021

Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence team in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).  

Dr Leslie Barnes is a Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences. You can follow her on Twitter @lcasba.