The Recipe for Peer Education Success


Eric Marlowe Garrison, instructor and peer education advisor at William & Mary

May 3, 2017

When asked about this topic, I thought back to my time as a manager at a French restaurant. Lessons I learned in the kitchen can help increase effectiveness for peer education programs. One great recipe is the CDC strategic planning process, plus a few of my secret ingredients thrown in.


Secret ingredient: The Why, How, and What

In French cooking, a mirepoix consists of carrots, celery, and onions. In Cajun cooking, replace the carrots with bell peppers, and – voilà – you have the Holy Trinity. Strategic planning within public health has always had its “Holy Trinity” as well: Why, How, and What – in that specific order.

Onion and greens on cutting board

Before beginning, have the group ponder the “why.” Why are we holding this event? That will start to shape the priorities. The clearer focus can help re-think the event or initiative, potentially saving them money and unnecessary effort as well. Help your peer educators think about the “why,” then the “how,” and then the “what” to optimize their effectiveness, time, and impact.


Secret Ingredient: SWOTS

Before chefs begin cooking, they set out their mise en place, whereby everything is measured and in its logical position. Just think: how many times have you been halfway through your favorite recipe to discover that you didn’t have vanilla. Or baking soda. Or Five Spice Powder. 

Though you need your posters and pens, bandanas and bananas, key chains and condoms, be sure to also include your SWOTs – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Be aware that many of these are intangible. Having a great relationship with your scheduling office is a strength, but you can’t put it in a measuring cup. The Campus Bagpipe Festival moving to the same day as your Take Back the Night event is a tangible threat. As you prepare for your event, be aware of both - the tangible and intangible SWOTs.


Secret ingredient: BACCHUS CPE Training

As you create your plan for your initiative, keep in mind the training your peers received, especially around SMART objectives. To optimize your time, (re)build capacity. I don’t use a verb like “empower,” whereby I have power to give you. I prefer “building your capacity,” which might even include boosting my peers’ confidence or reminding them that they have permission to fail. Look back through the CPE training, and revisit parts if you need to. Let your peer educators’ CPE training shine through, as you help them wear many hats in the creation process.


Secret ingredient: Wunderkind (or other enterprise solutions)

Every major restaurant has a chalkboard or dry-erase board in the service area, so that the back of the house (kitchen) can communicate with the front of the house (service). When an item or dish is sold out, it will be written under the number 86, indicating that it’s gone.

Communicating the plan and initiatives with your peer educators – and vice versa – is vital to a successful program. Some of the best models I’ve seen in my decades of peer education follow a “Knights of the Round Table” approach where the peer educators and advisors meet during the business day. This way messages can be conveyed orally, instead of just via email.

For additional ways to achieve good workflow, use free online software to communicate your plan and to keep projects on track. Examples include Wunderkind and Trello. Build your online team, and let everyone see what was done and what needs to be done to optimize their impact.  


Secret ingredient: Impromptu surveys and RAP (rapid assessment protocols)

One notion of the professional kitchen I have brought into my own is a jar of tasting spoons by my stove. These allow me to do what every great chef does: taste your food as you go. Likewise, with quick surveys, check-ins, and those RAP steps they taught us in grad school, we can execute a formative evaluation to see where we need to add a little of this or that, turn up the heat some, or toss the whole thing out altogether and start over.


Secret ingredient: Concorde fallacy

One of the most important things to be aware of, one that can zap your peer groups’ time, energy, and resources is the acknowledgement of sunk costs, aka recognizing and applying the Concorde fallacy to your peer health advocacy work. In your role as an advisor, help your peers recognize that, even though they have spent half of their Family Fund grant and 27 hours of time on their destined-to-fail hand-washing campaign, they can never recover their lost time or money, nor will that program succeed with more time and money.

It is harder – and cheaper – to drop that half-completed program and start over again. The difficulty with the Concorde fallacy is that, by human nature, we evaluate all that we have done and assume that the previous expenditure warrants more inputs out of honor, e.g., “We’ve lost 100,000 soldiers, so let’s send in more, so the first 100,000 didn’t die in vain”; or faulty logic, “If 27 hours and half the Family Grant didn’t get rid of colds, maybe we need to put in more money and time.”

There is no secret ingredient that can unsalt a soup, and likewise, there is nothing that can turn a failed program into a successful one. You can help your peers harness that energy, re-evaluate their SWOTS, and most importantly remind them of their original Why, the very soil from which this initiative grew – and can grow once more.


Continue the conversation below- what things have you found helpful when starting? Is there an issue on campus you would like to hear more about? Email the BACCHUS Team with your suggestions!

The B-log highlights important peer education advising concepts. These “essentials” articles are featured here periodically, though you can always find them archived on the BACCHUS Homepage.

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