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Peer-led qualitative research

Image showing peer-led qualitative research


The use of young people as peer researchers has steadily increased in popularity over the last decade. Whether the research is around public engagement activities or other research questions which ask questions of students’ experience, using peer- researchers can overcome issues of legitimacy and accuracy which traditional methods can pose. The peer researchers are already located in the world of those being researched; they share a common language and common experiences. Being similar in age and experience also encourages research participants to open up to peer- researchers in a way that power relationships may prevent in traditional research. Involvement in peer research also benefits higher education students directly by allowing them to develop research skills, to increase confidence, and to enable them to gain ‘real life’ experience of research. It can also be a cost-effective and practical way of conducting qualitative research, although the level of training and support students need should not be underestimated.

Speaking at the launch of the Manifesto for Public Engagement Oliver Gregory, a member of the Advisory Board for the vinspired students program and graduate of Durham University, urged participants to consider the many ways in which students can help staff in universities maintain and develop their public engagement strategies and activities. Involving students in research on student volunteering is one way of developing a better understanding of university provision and how to develop it.

This guide presents a brief overview of some of the practical considerations when supporting students as peer researchers. It was developed by the Institute for Volunteering Research and based on their learning from supporting student researchers working on Bursting the Bubble: Students, Volunteering and the Community. 

“We found peer researchers input into development of research tools such as the topic guide to be invaluable as were student’s comments on piloting the survey.” Institute for Volunteering Research

Getting started

Developing research which involves a peer-led methodology can be approached in a number of ways, depending upon the time and resources available. Students can be given a range of responsibilities, but key to success is providing a clear brief, training and ongoing support.


You can generally advertise the opportunity to take part in the peer-research project through the university volunteering service, the students union or by contacting academic staff. Depending on the research proposal it may be appropriate to target more specific groups of students, who are more likely to have an interest in the subject area. Conversely it may be useful, as in the case of researching student volunteering within the university to recruit as diverse a group of student researchers as possible so that they reflect the diversity of the university. 

You may be surprised at the level of interest from students in this role. One university participating in the Bursting the Bubble study received over thirty applications from students across the university. Students’ motivations for participating are likely to be diverse, but understanding differing motivations from the outset will be important in retaining students’ interest until the end of the project. Students greatly value the experience of contributing to a ‘real life’ research project which can help them apply learning from their degrees, they may be seeking practical experience as a preparation for doing a dissertation or they may be interested in a career in research. Students often also appreciate working closely with volunteering staff members and academics on such a project.

Training and ongoing support

Regular meetings and structured training for the whole peer research group are important. Ideally training should include a general overview of social research and ethical considerations in research as well as specific training in planning, fieldwork and analysis for the selected research methods, such as focus groups. Guidance in specific methods may be provided by academic staff with relevant research expertise. Students appreciate regular meetings that they can plan into their week and this frequent contact helps build relationships between the peer researchers, which is important in sustaining interest to the end of the project.

  “I’m excited about the amount of responsibility and the work/analysis we are involved in.” Peer researcher

It is important to provide students with a clear brief, so they fully understand their role and what is expected of them. It is useful if this does contain some flexibility as students often welcome the opportunity to shape the research process and will be more engaged if they are allowed to be involved in all stages of the research, from planning through to analysis of results. For example peer researchers are often eager to discuss the practicalities of conducting qualitative research, such as incentives, how to recruit participants and recording methods. They also value understanding the motivations behind conducting the research and how it will be used.

Challenges with peer research

There are a number of challenges with the peer-research model. For example, some peer researchers will be more committed to the project than others, but commitment can be sustained by the right level of support from staff as well as good planning to ensure that the research timetable does not clash with vacations, exams and end of term. This is important because drop-outs from the peer research team means greater pressure is placed on the existing peer researchers leading to resentment among students.

Students will also display varying levels of independence and ability to work on their own initiative without staff interventions. Some peer research teams will need staff to organise and chair meetings, set agendas and keep track of tasks. This can be consuming for staff at already busy times. It can be best avoided by ensuring a mixed peer research team – including some postgraduate students who may be more used to meeting independently and may have access to meeting space.  

It is important to remember that whatever their academic expertise and personal qualities, most peer researchers will not have much practical experience of conducting research. Some peer researchers are naturally more confident in facilitating discussion and encouraging participants to engage.

The analysis and write-up stage is likely to be particularly challenging. The importance of making good notes, recording all interviews and focus groups and writing up notes immediately after a session cannot be underestimated. The level of analysis will depend on the quality of the notes and transcriptions of fieldwork. Although analysis can be problematic, peer researcher will bring fresh perspectives to the analysis that can be very valuable.

Top tips

  • Encourage students from a range of academic disciplines and backgrounds to take part in the research; they bring different experiences and perspectives that will benefit the study
  • Plan the timing of your study carefully to avoid vacations and exam times when students will be busy or away from the university. A project that commences at the start of the academic year may work best. Ensure peer researchers are aware of the time-scale of the research so they can commit to a project
  • Do provide support and training through out the project. Although students can bring specialist knowledge and expertise they are often lacking in practical experience of conducting research and may need help with confidence in facilitating focus groups or discussions
  • Don’t assume peer researchers will meet independently. Students value the support of staff in facilitating meetings and keeping the work on target.
  • Do draw on the physical and human resources of your university – students may have access to meeting rooms, digital recorders, transcription services, training courses. A friendly academic can provide important training, guidance and support
  • Do provide recognition for peer-researcher involvement at the dissemination stage, such as including names in any reports or presentations. Consider launching the research at a volunteering awards event

Further reading

  • Atweh, B. and Leone, B. (1995) ‘Students as Researchers: Rationale and critique’, British Educational Research Journal 21, no. 5, 561-575.
  • Burns, S., Schubotz, D. (2009) ‘Demonstrating the Merits of the Peer Research Process: A Northern Ireland case study’, Field Methods 21, no. 3, (August) 309-326.
  • Checkoway, B. and Richards-Schuster, K. (2003) ‘Youth Participation in Community Evaluation Research’, American Journal of Evaluation 24, no.1, 21-33.
  • Kilpatrick, R., McCartan, C., McAlister, S., and McKeown, P. (2007) ‘”If I am brutally honest, research has never appealed to me…”The problems and successes of a peer research project’, Educational Action Research 15, no. 3, 351-369.
  • London, J., Zimmerman, K., and Erbstein, N. (2003) ‘Youth-Led Research and Evaluation: Tools for youth, organisational and community development’. New Directions for Evaluation 98, 33-45.