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    Peer Mentoring in a Higher Education context 

    Mentoring on the BA ‘Joint Honours’ Programme: Some notes by Peter Beven and Gill Naylor

     The mentoring scheme was originally introduced in 2006 for students on the BA Joint Honours programme at Northumbria University. The scheme proved so successful that we have continued to develop it year on year. The programme was granted an ‘Applauding Teaching Award’ in 2008 for its innovative approach to teaching and learning.

    The inspiration for the Mentoring programme arose from teaching staff on the Joint Honours degree, who sought to improve the transition to University life for first year students in a way that made good use of the experience of the second and third year student groups. It was felt that the authentic experience of meeting with students who had “survived” the first year experience would be invaluable.

     What happened?

     Our first mentoring programme was introduced in 2006/07 academic year. Mentoring is planned and delivered by 2nd and 3rd year Guidance and Counselling students for the benefit of all first year Joint Honours students.  Assessment criteria for modules undertaken by mentors were changed to give some credit for a reflection on the experience of mentoring. Similarly first year students were encouraged to reflect on mentoring as part of their ‘Approaches to Learning’ module.

    How mentoring has been integrated into the teaching timetable has changed during the 5 years since its inception. Initially, specific weeks were identified for mentoring and the timetable cleared of other teaching; more recently mentoring has become an integral part of the ‘Joint Honours’ enhancement programme.

    Students new to University are faced with a range of challenges and experiences and as they progress through their first academic year these are likely to change. In an attempt to be responsive to these developing agendas the mentoring programme offers 2 sessions, one in October and the second in February. Initially mentors may be assisting mentees with the process of adjusting to University life or offering support and encouragement in relation to study skills. Further into the year, when mentees have received feedback from their first assignments they might value exploring the feedback received with their mentors.

    Student mentors are very well supported as they prepare to take on their role. Sessions for 2nd year Guidance and Counselling students are an integral part of the ‘The Skilled Helper’ module. Topics covered during sessions include the role of mentoring, how to create the right environment, interpersonal communication skills, boundaries, referral skills and group facilitation. In preparation for their second year as mentors, 3rd year students carry out a detailed reflection on their past experience. They are also encouraged to apply theoretical perspectives they are exploring in the 3rd year syllabus, within their mentoring sessions. Reflection on their experiences as mentors is built into the assessment for both 2nd and 3rd year students. First year mentees are prepared via the first year ‘Approaches to Learning’ module, where some possible issues were evoked via a range of class exercises and the value of the mentoring relationship is explored.

    In the first year of the programme, mentors were given a fairly free hand as to how they grouped themselves. Student mentors largely arranged themselves in friendship groups- this led to some mentor groups that were larger than others, which despite the overall success of the first year, did lead to some difficulties. At least one of the larger groups found it difficult to agree as to how to introduce the mentoring process to the first years. From the first year perspective, where there were smaller groups of mentors it was a much more comfortable experience; a few first year students felt a bit overwhelmed by the size of the groups. However the first week of mentoring was very well attended.

    In 2007 /08 we tried to put into practice lessons learned from the pilot year. We restricted the size of the mentor groups to four students per time slot. Typically about eight first year students attended each mentoring time slot. This addressed the issue of large numbers. Additionally in this second year of the programme, some of the mentors had experience of being mentored the previous year. This gave a really useful starting point to begin their preparation, by looking back at good or bad points of their own experience, and what they would do differently to make the experience better.

    We also gave a much greater emphasis on the role of facilitation skills for mentors. Feedback was again positive, more so than the first year; however from the staff perspective, mentoring was still to some extent being viewed by students as an individual “one off” experience. Some first year students and mentors suggested that it might be better to alter the design of it to create a more ongoing process.

    2008 /09 was the first year that all the mentors had experienced being mentored themselves. To redesign the experience to be more of a continuous process, it was determined to involve the mentors much more in the lead-in to mentor week. Mentors were allocated students to contact in advance of the designated week- this strategy was viewed very positively and is now an integral part of the ‘run up’ to mentoring- mentors now “own” what they are offering much more and far greater dialogue has been initiated between mentors and mentees. Mentors are asked to initiate a total of at least “four points of contact.” These involve an email introduction prior to mentoring, an initial mentoring meeting; follow up emails and further contact to prepare for any activities during the second mentoring meeting.

    Mentoring has gone from strength to strength and during academic year 2011/12 the programme will run for its 6th consecutive year. Mentoring days are planned for Tuesday 18th October 2011 and Tuesday 28th February 2012.


    Mentor and Mentee Feedback

    Some example of comments from first years and mentors can be seen below, illustrating the value of the programme for both mentors and mentees:

    Mentee Quotes: Year One Mentees

    “I thought mentoring week was really good, it was helpful and it put my mind at rest about a few things. i also thought it was good how it was done my students because it meant you could get opinions and tips from them who were in a similar position to us”.

    I would like to give some feedback on the mentoring week. I found it very interesting. The mentor students were very competent in their knowledge of what is expected within the course, and they praised your tutoring very highly. I was made to feel at ease and all questions asked were given beneficial answers. well done to them” (first year mature student)

    I thought mentorship week was great! It was nice to know that there were people in your shoes last year asking the same questions about when to start assignments and how much reading i should be doing. I have been struggling getting to grips with the referencing; they really helped me to do that and also brought along some help sheets from the library.

    Going to mentorship week, helped me make a start on the study skills assignment. I just needed someone like that to help me set in out! I’m eventually half way through which is a big relief.

    I am looking forward to going along to the next session”

    “I went to the mentoring session on Thursday 6th November with ……... I thought that the whole session was brilliant, the group of 3rd years tried really hard to make sure that everyone felt comfortable and happy. I know that for me this was really good because I did then feel able to go and speak to them about certain things that had been playing on my mind regarding assignments and lectures. Since the session i have received and e-mail from …..saying thank you for coming and she let our group know that she would keep in touch regarding the next mentoring session next year. Overall for me they did a fantastic job!

    I thought that mentoring week was useful and gave me peace of mind about some of the things I'd been worrying about. They gave some helpful information about subjects such as referencing and the study skills lectures and tasks, also one of the mentors is doing both part routes that I am doing so gave me her email address so that I can contact her if I have any problems regarding assignments etc which was not only kind but has made me feel a lot less anxious about upcoming essays and assignments. I think the next mentoring session will be more helpful still because I will have been here longer so will have more experience at university and therefore more to talk about.

    Mentor Quotes: Year Two Mentors

    I found the mentoring to be really beneficial both for myself and hopefully the first years. The main issues that were raised were about assignments, as in how to write assignments, when to start reading and how to structure them. Most of the group mentioned something about assignments; we gave our best advice and recommended study skills sessions in the library. It also highlighted for me that I may need to improve my assignment writing skills and I am going to look into how to do that.”

    “The main issues from within our session tended to be around assignments and the hand in dates all being close together. Study Skills came up quite a lot too. There were also issues around balancing the subjects and some needed an explanation of the different modules and things like that. On the plus side everyone thought that the lecturers were friendly “

    “During the session I found myself wondering whether this was helping me more or them. There was so much brought up that made me think. I think it was beneficial all round”.

    Mentor Quotes: Year Three Mentors (quotes from assignments)

    Impact on learning:

    “Being involved in this pilot Mentorship programme was definitely a learning experience for me. It was not until this point that I realised just how far I had grown, not just academically but personally. Prior to attending the first meeting I was nervous about not having any worthwhile experience to pass on; taking part in this mentorship has really highlighted how experienced I am as a student and as a potential employee. Through passing on my experience to Year One students I really learned about myself.”

    “Although a mentoring relationship is usually focused on developing the mentee, I also discovered there are many benefits for the mentor including: development of my own skills and increased satisfaction from reflecting on my own role and experiences, as well as being accessible and knowledgeable about the issues of the mentee.”

    “It was also very beneficial for those involved from a mentoring perspective as many of us were unaware as to how much progress we had made on our own professional development while at university outside of our academic assessments” (my emphasis)…

    …“ Crites (in Arthur et al 1996) explain mentoring can be beneficial for both sides of participants, which definitely seemed to be the case in our mentor group. It was an ideal opportunity to reflect on the past year and evaluate our own development, our communication and academic skills, our personal experiences and work experiences as a result. We all were somewhat surprised at the changes which had become apparent through the mentoring project.”