Key Training Components
When developing the course curriculum, several key training components emerged. This section will elaborate on each of these components and their importance to the training success. Included are excerpts and reflections captured from both the peer researchers and the facilitators from two focus groups that were held with all participants following the completion of the training.
Creating a Safe and Engaging Online Space
One of the first considerations when designing the course was ensuring that peer researchers with varying backgrounds, skill levels, and experience with research felt safe in the learning environment and supported to succeed. To accomplish this, facilitators and peer researchers contributed to the development of “ground rules” that made expectations clear around creating a supportive environment that was encouraging of questions, and varying opinions and experiences (see Appendix A for ground rules).
A “Slack Learning Hub” was created to extend the positive learning environment outside of the classroom. Slack is a communication platform where teams can create “channels” organized by topic, engage in discussions, and share ideas and resources (www.slack.com). Using Slack as a central space to post lecture materials and updates, ask questions (both to the group and privately using direct messaging), and have group discussions was an invaluable organizational tool for running the course. One peer researcher added: “It was useful to know that we would always be able to find something we needed in the appropriate channel, rather than having to search through our emails.”
Slack was also used to organize “office hours” where peer researchers could sign up for times to meet with the facilitators to discuss any outstanding questions from the previous session(s) and get additional support with completing the homework assignments. One peer researcher reflected on enjoying the opportunity to collaborate with facilitators one-on-one without having to worry that they were taking time away from other participants in a group setting. He commented, “This component of the training empowered me to fully understand the findings of my research question, which led to a greater confidence in presenting them to others. It also improved my relationship with the facilitators and helped create a greater sense of team support.”
Providing Constructive Feedback
Many homework assignments involved having the peer researchers develop and deliver various parts of a research presentation. To extract the most benefit from these homework presentations, the peer researchers provided and received constructive feedback on their presentations from their peers and the facilitators. It was important to create a judgment-free environment and provide a template for giving feedback during the first class. As a group, we discussed the distinction between criticism and feedback, how to take a positive and respectful approach when offering constructive feedback (the “Sandwich Method”), and how to react and respond to feedback respectfully (see Appendix B for constructive feedback handout). The peer researchers improved greatly at giving and receiving constructive feedback and they agreed that it was a difficult skill to learn, yet so important. One peer researcher explained:
We are often uncomfortable with criticizing someone else, but it’s the more critical or challenging feedback that allows people to change and to realize what needs improvement. Learning how to give more critical feedback in a way that doesn’t hurt or anger people but allows them to see where they might improve was a valuable part of the training.
Giving constructive feedback also encouraged a greater level of active listening during homework presentations and hearing participants offer feedback on each other’s presentations in a group setting allowed for further opportunities to learn and integrate course material and concepts. Establishing this continuous feedback structure also encouraged further self-reflection and growth:
Every now and then someone would give me a nugget of something that really helped me think about how I could improve, which is valuable for someone who has been working in research for a long time. I found that with all the different presentations that we did throughout the training, we got a lot of honest feedback that changed my perspectives on things.
Building Quantitative Data Skills
Given the time constraints of a single course, designing the curriculum for participants with varying experience in quantitative skills was challenging. Focus was put on developing skills that would be directly applicable to the peer researchers’ work with knowledge translation and engaging community members and research participants with research findings. It was important to leave time for questions and discussion while acknowledging that this course could only cover high-level concepts that gave the peer researchers the foundational knowledge required to talk about the data.
While there were inevitably gaps in their understanding, the peer researchers felt that their knowledge and understanding of quantitative data concepts had grown significantly. One peer researcher explained, “Broadening my understanding of data was so important because I realized that before the training when I attended conferences or meetings and data was being presented, to me it was just jargon because I never really understood what it was.” Another PRA added: “Now I have a more in-depth understanding of how to interpret data and figures. If I have an opportunity to be at a conference and someone is presenting data, I will now be able to understand much better than I would have before.” Many of the training participants agreed that understanding the results and having the confidence to explain them to others will be beneficial when promoting studies to community partners and when discussing study results with study participants.
Another major aspect of the training was data storytelling, which involved the peer researchers using their lived experience to add context to the data and form a coherent narrative, allowing it to be better translated to researchers, policy makers, and community members [30–32]. Using data storytelling makes research findings more compelling, facilitates understanding, leaves a bigger impression, and most importantly, moves people to action . This is an important skill for peer researchers since they play a critical role in the HIV response, especially through storytelling, to encourage governments, policy makers, and other stakeholders to act.
Many peer researchers felt the training improved their ability to share information, especially data:
Telling my story, or the story of others living with HIV whom I interviewed, allowed me to make the data relatable using terms that everyone could understand and bring it to life. I had already been incorporating storytelling into my research presentations, but the training really helped me hone that and think about how lived experience could convey our message in a more meaningful way.
Another peer researcher explained:
It was critical to talk about stories and things that we’ve learned from participants because the data that we’re presenting are their stories. It’s important that the audience knows this isn’t just a graph—these are stories about people’s lives and their stories need to be heard and respected.
Homework and Self-Learning
The course instructors relied heavily on homework to reinforce the lessons learned and to practice working with new knowledge and concepts. Most of the homework assignments involved the peer researchers working with a concept taught in the previous lesson and applying it to research findings or their data storytelling approach. Then at the following lesson, the peer researchers would give a short presentation demonstrating their completed homework assignment. While the time commitment was significant, the peer researchers felt that the homework helped to increase their knowledge and reinforce their understanding of the course materials:
The homework helped to motivate me to get prepared and learn the course materials. It was also a good opportunity to make connections outside of the training. I was able to work with a partner to pull something together and being able to talk to someone else who was also going through the training about how to present the data was helpful.
In cases where the homework assignments were challenging and/or the homework expectations were unclear, the peer researchers were encouraged to attend weekly scheduled office hours to seek additional one-on-one support from the training facilitators:
There were times when the turnaround for the homework was difficult, especially if we were working on data slides, but the level of homework support was great. The practice and help received during office hours helped me to learn how to make the presentation more understandable and incorporate storytelling to make it more interesting to people.
Overall, using homework assignments that encouraged the application of concepts learned in training sessions created the opportunity for self-learning and the greater integration of knowledge, while providing the additional support necessary to respond to the challenges with completing the homework in a timely manner.
After the course concluded, an online survey was given to the peer researchers to evaluate the components of the training and reflect upon their experience. The evaluation included 34 questions (28 7-point Likert scales and 6 open-ended) and examined the peer researchers’ overall satisfaction with the course, self-assessed knowledge and understanding of key concepts before and after the course, and suggestions for future improvement.
Peer researchers (n = 8) were satisfied with the course structure, content, and the facilitation of the curriculum. They were also satisfied with the support available, the length of the training, and the impact the training had on their work in CBR. Figure 1 shows the peer researchers’ self-assessed knowledge and understanding of key training components before and after the training. Overall, the peer researchers’ self-assessments improved on all items assessed by a consistent margin of approximately one rating point. Wilcoxon ranked-sign tests conducted to compare rating scores before and after the training showed that these improvements were statistically significant for all training components (p < 0.05). These findings suggest the training is beneficial to peer researchers’ comfort, while highlighting that there is still room for increasing knowledge and understanding in these areas, possibly with subsequent training opportunities. The results from the qualitative questions were used to inform the challenges section below.