Access Foundation Programmes are a widening-participation initiative designed to encourage engagement in higher education among underrepresented groups, including those with socioeconomic and educational disadvantage. In particular, mature students enrolled in these programmes experience greater difficulties making the transition to tertiary education, especially when they opt to study disciplines traditionally considered difficult. Computer programming is perceived as a traditionally difficult subject with typically lower pass rates and progression rates than other subjects.

This paper describes the first of a three-cycle action research study examining the perceived effects of a structured Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) Programme for mature students enrolled in a computer science programming module for an Access Foundation Programme in an Irish University. The focus of this qualitative study was to evaluate the perceived effect of a PAL programme on learning and whether it offered a positive learning support structure.

Findings from our study suggest that PAL programmes have an overall positive effect on subject comprehension as well as enhanced learner confidence for mature Access Foundation students. Furthermore, PAL sessions offered students a support structure that helped with their transition and acculturation to tertiary education. This study also highlights the importance the PAL leader’s role has on the perceived effectiveness of the PAL sessions as well as the impact of the students’ shared history on the near-peer bond. The study concludes that the implementation of PAL programmes for Access Foundation Programmes has the potential to offer mature students a supportive learning environment and to improve their learning experience.