The Influence of Learning Beliefs in Peer-advising Sessions: Promoting Independent Language Learning

Yukiko Ishikawa, Soka University, Tokyo, Japan

Ishikawa, Y. (2012). The influence of learning beliefs in peer-advising sessions: Promoting independent language learning. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 93-107.

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Abstract

This qualitative study was conducted in order to explore interaction between advisors and advisees in peer-advising sessions conducted with a view of promoting independent language study. The data was collected through observation, documentation, and interviews with a newly-trained and relatively inexperienced student peer-advisor. The data was transcribed and coded for closer analysis. The study revealed that the advice which the student advisor gave to peers was very much influenced by her own language study experience and beliefs, especially with regard to grammar-focused study and time-management methods. Moreover, the data offered a number of interesting observations, such as a feeling of relatedness between peers, and a conflict between being strict and being generous. In this article, the author will discuss the areas in which the student advisor’s own beliefs were most reflected in her advising. Other observations from the data will also be highlighted.

Keywords: peer advising, beliefs, qualitative study

Self-access language learning is implemented in many different ways around the world and has been a widely used approach to encourage learner autonomy (Gardner & Miller, 1999). Language counseling or advising is a growing field of interest which has recently emerged as a promising approach to support self-access language learning (Rubin, 2007). Language counselors (also called learning advisors[1]) play a unique role, which is fairly distinct from conventional classroom teachers. Some of the differences between classroom teachers and self-access counselors are illustrated as follows:

  •  Teachers are assessors of students. Counselors discuss with learners different ways to self-monitor their progress.
  • Teachers are instructors/organizers. Counselors are reflective listeners.
  • Teachers use a variety of teaching aids (board, overhead projector, video). Counselors demonstrate to learners how they can use materials and equipment.
  • Teachers monitor a whole class and look for common language problems. Counselors discuss on a one-to-one basis individual language problems.

(adapted from Gardner & Miller, 1999, p. 182)

Many studies have investigated the role of language learning advisors. In many cases these are either full-time advisors or classroom instructors assigned several hours of language advising in self-access centers (Karlsson, Kjisik & Nordlund, 2007; Mozzon-McPherson, 2007; Reinders, 2007). Yet, there seems to be little research investigating peer advising, in which student advisors advise fellow students. This small-scale qualitative study attempts to look into happenings during the peer advising sessions at the time when the author’s institution initiated a student advisor program at the self-access center.

There are a number of perceived benefits of peer-advising. Peer advisors are potentially friendlier, more sensitive to the cultural background of learners, and better able to create a supportive and collaborative learning atmosphere than teachers taking an advisor’s role. In addition, a number of studies suggest that peer advising can be beneficial for not only advisees but also advisors, since peer advisors will learn significantly from teaching, gain a sense of responsibility and become more reflective in their own learning by giving feedback to others’ learning (Gardner & Miller; 1999, Kao, forthcoming; Mynard & Almarzouqi, 2006; Rollinson, 2005).

There are also some challenges for peer-advising. One of the anticipated challenges mentioned in the studies above is that some students may not be easily convinced that students can be as good as teachers when it comes to advising. Both peer advisors and advisees may need to have the benefits of peer advising explained to them. Also, peer advisors need to acquire skills for effective advising as well as in depth understanding of independent learning in addition to language learning. Moreover, the role of advisors should be clarified in order to avoid authoritative teaching attitudes to peers. These research studies suggest that effective training is essential to clarify advisors’ roles and maximize the benefits of peer advising.

The issue of how advisors’ own experience and beliefs may impact their actual advising has not been widely investigated, but much related work has been conducted in the field of learner and teacher beliefs. Learner beliefs about second language learning have been studied to a large extent especially since Horwitz’s Beliefs About Language Learning Inventory (BALLI) was introduced (Dörnyei, 2005). Using the BALLI, Kern (1995) conducted a study which compares students’ and teachers’ beliefs about French learning. The study suggests that teachers’ beliefs are one of the factors that affect their students’ beliefs. The thorough review of research works on language teachers’ beliefs by Borg (2003) suggest that teachers’ beliefs are influenced by their prior language learning experience and the teacher education that they received, and that these beliefs are actually affecting their classroom practice. However, although one study has investigated advisors’ learning styles (Uhlik & Jones, 2008), little is known about how the beliefs of advisors – including peer advisors – affect the advice they give to their advisees. This study tries to explore this issue by examining the observation data of peer advising sessions and interviewing a student advisor.

The questions to be addressed in this paper are the following: (1) What does the student advisor choose to focus on in her advising sessions? (2) What does the student advisor believe about language learning and advising? (3) How do the student advisor’s beliefs influence her advising?

Context

The English Consultation Room (ECR) offers a one-on-one advising service to promote students’ self-study in English. The ECR is located in the Self-access Center at Soka University in Japan. Soka University is a private university with approximately 8,000 undergraduate students majoring in Law, Economics, Letters, Business and Engineering. The World Language Center has offered English courses across departments since 1999, and at the same time, runs various self-access facilities. Those facilities include a chat space for basic English conversation practice, English discussion groups on current global issues, tutoring programs for various foreign languages, a Writing Center, and a library with language learning resources. The ECR was established in 2006 with a view to guiding students in how to utilize these rich resources on campus effectively.

Students visit the ECR on a voluntary basis in order to seek answers to various questions from how to practice speaking in English to how to prepare for English courses. Questions related to test preparation are those most frequently asked, such as how to improve a TOEFL[2] score for study abroad or how to improve a TOEIC[3] score in order to enhance a C.V. and improve job prospects.

Since its initiation in 2006, the number of visitors to the ECR has steadily increased each year. Two years after inception, with one full-time advisor, the rate of use stood at over 85% for four semesters consecutively. In 2009, the administrative decision was made to employ two student advisors to meet the increasing demands for creating individualized learning pathways. Peer advising was selected primarily for financial reasons. However, the fact that peer tutors were already commonly employed at other self-access facilities on campus and perceived as highly successful in helping peers with independent learning was one of the central factors supporting the administrative decision. The peer tutors at the chat space, for instance, are serving as role models who represent successful “senpais” (this term will be discussed in detail in the subsequent section) who acquired a high level of English proficiency through study abroad experience and their own hard work. The positions are always competitive.

When recruiting peer advisors for paid positions, applicants were considered based on factors such as their experiences of self-access language learning on campus, TOEFL and TOEIC scores and test preparation experiences, and seniority (applicants should be senior students or graduate students).

Participants

Eiko[4], one of the student advisors at the ECR, was a senior undergraduate student at the university and majored in English Literature. At the time of the observation, she had received training two months before and had experienced about 25 one-on-one advising sessions. The training sessions were conducted for three hours on two days and given by the author, who was the full-time advisor at the ECR. The topics covered in the training include learning about the concept of independent learning, familiarizing the peer advisor with university facilities, learning techniques for effective question formation, and performing role-plays based on scenarios. The role of advisors, as distinct from teachers, as suggested in Gardner & Miller (1999), was especially emphasized. In addition, the values of advising, such as unconditional positive regard and empathic understating, as suggested in Kelly (1996), were also discussed in the meetings. After the initial training, the student advisors were assigned advising sessions for three hours per week, in addition to a one hour weekly meeting with the author to discuss the sessions as follow-up. There were two student advisors hired, but only Eiko participated in the study since the other student advisor took a leave for illness.

Two sessions were randomly chosen and observed by the author.

Advisee A was a freshman student majoring in Business. She would like to improve her TOEFL iBT[5] or ITP[6] score in order to study abroad. The observation was conducted during her third session with Eiko.

Advisee B was a senior student majoring in English Literature. Like Eiko, B was in the midst of searching for a job. It was also her third session with Eiko and B was studying in order to improve her TOEIC score.

Data Collection Methods

Firstly, in order to examine the actual peer advising session, participant observation (Hatch, 2002; Spradley, 1980) was conducted. Two of Eiko’s advising sessions were observed, each lasting for 30 minutes. Data was not obtained from audio recording, but from field notes of the observation, and from session reports which Eiko recorded during the sessions, as well as from the previous sessions she had had with the two advisees.

Further primary data was obtained from formal or semi-structured interviews (Hatch, 2002; Spradley, 1979) with Eiko conducted by the author, in order to explore Eiko’s experience and reflection about her advising process. Some general or ‘grand tour’ questions (e.g. “Could you describe a typical session?) as well as guided questions (e.g. “Did you feel something different when you talk with your peers of the same age or younger students?) were prepared, but for the large part the interview remained open, following the lead of the informants as the interview proceeded. The interviews were conducted two months after the observations. Prior to the interviews, there was an informal interview or conversation (not recorded) for one hour which also provided some information about Eiko’s feelings toward her advising experience. The interviews lasted for 45 minutes and were audio-recorded and transcribed.

Methods of Analysis

The interview transcriptions provided the primary source of the analysis. Rather than looking for parts related to the student advisor’s beliefs, inductive analysis was conducted in which data is examined thoroughly and pieces of information are gathered together into a meaningful theme which emerges from the data (Hatch, 2002; Miles and Huberman, 1994). The procedures suggested in Hatch (2002, p. 162) follow nine steps involving: reading the data and identifying frames of analysis, creating domains based on semantic relationships and assigning them a code, finding relationships, deciding if the domains are supported by the data, and so on. In this study, each of Eiko’s utterances in the interview were coded and categorized into domains. Within the data, parts which reflected Eiko’s beliefs toward advising were given prominence.

Presentation of the Findings

Based on the data gathered, much could be said, but this article presents some of the main points of interest. First, there were clear connections between Eiko’s beliefs and the actual advice she gave; namely, that about grammar-focused study and time-management methods. Also, there was a point when Eiko deliberately chose not to reflect her own experience when advising. In addition to highlighting how Eiko’s beliefs were influencing her advising practice, the observations and interviews also revealed a number of other aspects about the experience of peer advising. Interestingly, there was some evidence that Eiko felt more comfortable with peers of a similar age, rather than with younger students. Eiko’s reflection of peer advising as a learning experience is also discussed.

Eiko’s beliefs about grammar-focused study

Even though the goals of Advisee A and Advisee B were different, interestingly, Eiko recommended the same resource book in both sessions observed: a book which was written specifically for the TOEFL ITP grammar section.

In the last session, Advisee A had promised to study grammar. After that, Advisee A went to the library, but she could not find the book Eiko suggested. Advisee A borrowed a different textbook, but she did not like the textbook. Thus, Eiko showed the textbook on the computer screen to make sure that Advisee A could see what the textbook looked like and they decided to try again.

On the other hand, Advisee B was studying for TOEIC exams. In the session observed, Advisee B mentioned that she was weak at listening and reading sections; however, she and the advisor agreed to focus on grammar study by using the same textbook above. This might be because Advisee B mentioned that she could not spend as much time as she would have liked to on study for TOEIC since they had talked in the last session.

In the interview, Eiko mentioned that she strongly believed that grammar-focused study was very effective in improving test scores fast. Excerpt 1 below suggests that Eiko believed that it would be easier to focus on grammar and improve the score of that section first, before focusing on reading and listening sections, which would take longer.

Excerpt 1 (from interview)[7]

Eiko: I think that the fastest way to improve the test score is to start from the grammar section. I used “TOEIC Magazine” and tried to finish the grammar sections in 15 minutes. I repeated this procedure for approximately ten times using the same textbook. …After I became able to score high on the grammar section constantly, I started studying for listening and reading sections. …We should learn the basic grammar first. …However, I also wonder if this strategy would be as effective as it was for me for other students at different levels. If a student has no basic knowledge about English grammar, I think it might be confusing for him or her if I recommend this strategy. I am aware that it’s important to take advisees’ level of proficiency into consideration. In my case, the strategy was very effective.

Even though she was aware that the way she studied was effective for her, she was not sure if the same would apply to other students, especially to students with a lower level of proficiency; however, because she believes it strongly, she often suggests grammar-focused study in advising. This observation is supported by reports from other sessions conducted by Eiko.

Time management methods

References as to how to manage time effectively were most frequently mentioned by Eiko in the interview. This indicates that she believes time management is an important aspect in advising. In both of the observed sessions, Eiko asked advisees if the plan had worked for them since the last time they talked. Unfortunately, it did not work in either case, so Eiko continued to examine the reasons why the plans did not work. In both sessions, Eiko asked about advisees’ extra-curricular activities. Eiko’s conclusions concerning Advisee A was that A needed to clarify her goals once again.

In the case of Advisee B, Eiko found that B had been involved in too many extra-curricular activities and therefore could not devote a large amount of time to studying for the TOEIC. Thus, they negotiated and decided that B would focus on grammar study. In the interview, Eiko frequently talked about the need to reduce extra-curricular activities in order to spend more time on studying, as well as the need for a strong sense of determination for B to achieve her goals. In addition, Eiko confirmed that she would always ask and take notes of advisees’ extra-curricular activities, such as part-time jobs and clubs, as she thinks it is an important factor when advising about time management.

While she acknowledges the importance of time management in advising, Eiko also realizes the difficulties in advising on time management. Her comments in the interview show that she was debating over the most effective way to help students to become independent learners especially in terms of time management, as shown in Excerpts 2 and 3 below.

Excerpt 2 (from interview)

Eiko: If the advisee has visited before, I make sure to ask them if the plan is working or not since the last session. When they said no, I try not to make them feel guilty. …Before, I heard some advisees say “I felt hesitant to come back here for advising.” I think it is natural for them to feel hesitant when they could not study as they planned. Also, it is not surprising that they fail, because most likely it is their first experience of planning their study by themselves. [However] when advisees come to sessions for the third time or more, some advisees become accustomed to say “I could not do as planned again.” Then it becomes a habit. Even though we do not want to intimidate students, we certainly want to avoid accepting such attitudes by saying “it is OK even if you could not study as planned.” In such occasions, I think we should remind them of their initial goals. The third session with an advisee might be the time to establish a good rhythm of self study in order to achieve their goals.

Eiko was still a novice advisor and had not had much experience with repeat advisees. She acknowledged that she felt more challenged with advisees who visit for the third session and beyond, compared to the first and second sessions. Especially when the advisees could not study as they initially planned, how to deal with the situation was a challenge for her. She did not want to intimidate students, but, at the same time, she wanted to avoid allowing advisees stay in the same situation.

When asked how Eiko herself managed time when she was studying for TOEFL, she shared an experience about one of her seniors’ strict admonishments that kept her going, as shown in Excerpt 3:

Excerpt 3 (from interview)

Eiko: “Oh, you are doing right”. To say this does not always mean that it is good for advisees. Sometimes they need a little pressure. …One day, one of my seniors said to me, “Eiko, you cannot get where you want to be if you continue doing as you do now.” I was hurt and felt pressured. “What should I do?” I struggled. However, I am here today because of that strict advice she gave me. …Still, I am not sure if this applies to others. I don’t know what is best for advisees.

After the advice from a senior, Eiko felt the strong need for changing her time management strategies. She reduced her extra-curricular activities and saved more time for studying. As a result, she obtained the target score on TOEFL and achieved her goal to study abroad. However, as mentioned in Excerpt 2, because she does not want to intimidate students, she decided not to be very strict about advisees keeping promises to follow study plans in the initial stages. At the time of the interview, she was debating whether she should be as strict as her senior, or be more generous in order to encourage peers. The fact that she encourages behavior which has been successful for her, but not uncritically, as she is aware that it might not be appropriate for everyone’s situation, and of the need to be supportive, may be influenced by the training she had. This supports Borg’s (2003) finding that a teacher’s beliefs are influenced by their own experience and by the training they received.

Senpai-kohai relationships

When asked about advising peers, contrary to the author’s assumptions, Eiko said she felt more comfortable with peers of her own age compared to talking with younger students. In Japanese culture, the younger or junior members (called kohai) at school or work respect the elder or senior ones (called senpai). It is usually a senpai that teaches and gives advice to a kohai. Thus, when employing peer advisors, it was expected that the student advisors would feel comfortable talking with kohais, but might feel hesitant about giving advice to their senpais or even peers of their own age. However, in the observation, Eiko seemed more nervous with Advisee A (who is Eiko’s kohai, a younger student), but seemed more friendly with Advisee B (who is Eiko’s peer, of the same age). In the interview, Eiko confirmed that she felt more comfortable with peers because with them she could relate to her own situation. As a result, she felt that she understood Advisee B’s situation more easily (Excerpt 4).

Excerpt 4 (from interview)

Eiko: She (Advisee B) was in the middle of job-hunting, like me. I understood very well that she needs a good TOEIC score. That’s why I felt closer to her and I could talk to her like a friend. …I could relate to her, and say things like “yeah, I am a fourth year student too, so I understand your situation.” I think it is very good.

The student advisor positions at the ECR are open only to senior students, in order to avoid intimidation in giving advice to senpai; thus, the number of sessions with senpai is relatively small. One of the limitations of this study is that no data is available to enable us to examine how Eiko would feel when she had advising sessions with her senpai (older students). In terms of advising kohai, Eiko might have felt under pressure, as a senpai who should serve as a role model, to give good advice to younger students. Still, I think the student advisors should be senior students, since senpai advising kohai is more acceptable in Japanese culture than kohai advising senpai.

Peer advising as an opportunity to grow as a learner

At the end of the interview, Eiko mentioned that peer advising gave her the opportunity to grow as a learner by having to analyze the advisees’ needs, negotiate study plans, and give advice as best she could in as little as 30 minutes. Excerpt 5 is from Eiko’s response to a question in the interview about any changes in herself through peer advising experience.

Excerpt 5 (from interview)

Eiko: I think there are mainly two things which I gained through advising. First, I think I acquired the skills such as building rapport, analyzing the person’s needs, and providing necessary information as much as possible, when meeting with someone new, in the very limited period of time. I learned how opening my own mind helps advisees to open their mind. … I learned these communication skills by making many mistakes. The other skill is negotiating plans based on their needs. When a student comes to advising, they have some sort of problem. But, sometimes they are not aware of where the problem lies. I learned the dynamics of helping them to realize their own problems by asking effective questions. …When we find the problem, we discuss possible solutions. I think I acquired the skills to suggest plans as options promptly so that the advisees can think and choose by themselves. Well, more properly, I want to develop such skills.

Those skills mentioned in Eiko’s comments are advanced skills which require higher level thinking and considerable practice. In the conversation preceding the interview, she said that the experience was invaluable in terms of job-hunting because she came to realize her own strengths through this advising experience. As her trainer, it was my great pleasure to learn that Eiko had not only acquired broader understanding about independent language learning, but that peer advising had also given her opportunities to gain skills that could potentially benefit her in the rest of her life.

Conclusion

In this very small-scale qualitative study, it was observed that the student advisor’s own language learning experience and beliefs influenced her advising. In this particular advisor’s case, her beliefs about grammar-focused study and time-management methods were reflected in the advice she gave to peers. However, it should be noted that these beliefs were not always accepted uncritically and directly transferred to her advising practice, but that she reflected on and engaged with the beliefs while deciding what approach to take with each learner. Also, it was observed that the student advisor did not feel intimidated about advising peers of her own age, compared to those younger than her, and while basing her advice on her own experience or beliefs was inevitable, it was not necessarily harmful. Sometimes advisees benefit from listening to the advisors’ own experiences and feel closer to the advisors. At the same time, it is also important for an advisor to be objective and to be aware of more options to present to advisees in order to be able to cope with a variety of different learners.

This study is limited in the way that the observation was conducted. Since the author trained and supervised the student advisor, the level of involvement is an issue. Also, an examination of a single student advisor’s case is certainly not sufficient to make general conclusions. However, struggles like those faced by Eiko are also shared by professional advisors. Opportunities such as peer observation and information exchange among advisors could be beneficial for professional development. Further research investigating the impact of advisors’ beliefs and experiences using a larger sample is necessary.

Finally, the student advisor’s comments on her positive changes through her advising experience supports the previous research on the benefits of peer advising programs; peer advising would seem to offer the participants, both advisors and advisees, potential for growth and great opportunities for learning. Interviewing peer advisees and exploring how peer advising impacts their perspectives compared to teacher-advisors are areas which could be further investigated.

Notes on the contributor

Yukiko Ishikawa earned a Master’s degree in TESOL at Soka University of America. She has been working as a full-time learning advisor at Soka University in Tokyo since 2006. Her research interests include independent learning, advising, and Computer-Assisted Language Learning.

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[1] In this article, the term “advisor” is used.

[2] The Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service (ETS).

[3] The Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC, is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service (ETS).

[4] Eiko is a pseudonym.

[5] Internet-Based Test

[6] Institutional Testing Program

[7] All excerpts from interviews were originally in Japanese and translated into English by the author.