New research looks at media-based peer support in grad school

McLaughlin, Christopher and Sillence, Elizabeth (2018) Buffering against academic loneliness: The benefits of social media-based peer support during postgraduate study. Active Learning in Higher Education.

Summarized by Cyanea Poon

Notes of Interest: This qualitative study examined how postgraduate students can benefit from supportive peer network through social media platforms. This article concluded with some potential ideas in integrating institution’s involvement with social media platforms

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Although the support provided by social relationships may be essential to a successful student transition, the transition to postgraduate study has had little consideration from a social support perspective. The study described in this article investigated the role played by social support in postgraduate taught students’ adjustment to university, and how social media contributes to this support. Thematic analysis indicated that participants benefitted most from specialised support from peers dealing with similar academic challenges. Facebook groups showed potential as a platform for building supportive peer networks. However, the heightened visibility of communications on this platform led some participants towards Facebook Messenger as a medium for peer contact. The study suggested that, in order to meet postgraduates’ needs, institutions could ensure postgraduate students have sufficient opportunity for collaboration within their cohorts. In addition, while social media may aid this process, students’ individual communication preferences may inevitably influence their engagement with particular platforms.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Universities should be aware that postgraduate students may hold a set of personal priorities that differ from those of undergraduates, and therefore require different forms of social support. Whereas undergraduates may benefit from help in forming social connections at university that extend beyond their academic work, a positive postgraduate experience for participants may depend on their ability to develop peer networks that can provide specialised support as they deal with their challenging independent workloads. This means that postgraduate students may benefit from more opportunities to collaborate with students within their degree cohorts as part of their studies.

Institutions should also consider that students may differ in their preferences for communication when engaging with their peers online. Not all students who are provided with an online space for collaboration, such as course-specific Facebook groups, will necessarily benefit from these opportunities. In the study described here, Facebook Messenger emerged as a potential alternative to Facebook groups as a platform for peer support. It will therefore be important to consider how this type of IM service may be used alongside other platforms to encourage connection between students.

Facebook’s services overall may be of particular benefit to part-time students who have limited opportunity to interact with their peers in physical university-based spaces. However, it is important to temper this conclusion by noting that a key characteristic of the Facebook and Messenger groups in the study was that they were self-generated and self-selected, with no institutional involvement. Because of the organic, unforced nature of these platforms, and the social connections they facilitate, it cannot be guaranteed that institution-promoted versions of these groups would have the same efficacy. There are also inevitable limitations to how institutions can ensure

parity of experience in this area, because relationships are not interchangeable, and friendships (and personalities) cannot be forced to fit in order to meet social support needs (Weiss, 1982). An alternative form of institutional assistance may be to ‘check in’ with postgraduate students about their sense of integration, possibly during pastoral tuition sessions if appropriate, to ensure they are connecting with other students through their own means and discuss any barriers they may face in doing so. This would allow universities to play a responsible role in postgraduate students’ wellbeing while accounting for the fact that loneliness develops and dissipates through more organic, person-specific processes.

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