Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across The Cathedrals Group
A Compendium of Case Studies has been produced as part of the joint Higher Education Academy / The Cathedrals Group / Leeds Trinity University project ‘Learning from Best Practice in Peer Learning and Mentoring across the Cathedrals Group’. It is intended to showcase and illuminate the rich range of practice within the group.
You can download the compendium on this page.
Each institutional participant within the project was invited to select one of the schemes / programmes in current operation that best illustrates their current practice. Although several institutions operate more than one scheme, only one case study per institution was permitted. This is one such case study.
Nature and focus of scheme
The peer-mentoring pilot is an opt-out programme targeting both social and academic transition for Business Management undergraduate students. Mentors are second or third year Business Management students, each responsible for a group of five mentees of first year single or joint honours students. The programme is managed by two members of the Learning Development Team (LDT). The pilot began in September 2016 and runs until the end of the first semester, January 2017.
To tailor the peer-mentoring pilot to the specific needs of first year students, the LDT conducted questionnaire and focus group research in 2015. The participants were first year Business Management students. Our findings supported the literature in highlighting two main areas students saw as challenging during transition: developing friendships and academic issues (managing workload and academic literacies). Participants also highlighted the need for mentors’ time commitments to be kept to a minimum, emphasising the many obligations (work and family) they had in addition to their studies. A key finding identified was the significance of the intra-mentee group relationship: all the focus group participants identified this relationship as being of greater importance than that of the mentor-mentee relationship highlighted in the literature.
Our 2016-17 intervention is modelled on these findings. The pilot cohort comprises 110 first year mentees and 22 second and third year mentors in a voluntary role. The mentoring timeframe is from pre-entry in early September (to provide new entrants the opportunity to get to know fellow mentees prior to arrival, and to have their mentor as a friendly point of contact to deal with any concerns) to the end of the first semester in January (to support the mentees in adapting to the university culture and meeting the academic expectations of their new learning environment). Mentee group sizes of five were chosen to facilitate friendship-forming among mentees rather than between mentor and mentees. To limit the time commitment required from mentors, only two meetings are mandatory, the first occurring at the start of term and the second in early October to give mentees sufficient time to plan effectively to meet their Business Management assignment deadlines. Outside these two meetings contact is left to individual mentors’ preferences: face to face or email.
Key resource implications
The LDT was established in 2012 under St Mary’s Access Agreement. The role of the Learning Development Lecturer is to enhance learning and teaching to enable students from widening participation backgrounds to achieve their potential. To achieve this aim the LDT offers a range of services and resources, including embedded learning development work with individual programmes (curriculum planning and teaching sessions) and one-to-one tutorials. Piloting a peer-mentoring programme was one of the LDT’s new projects in 2015 and, as such, its costs are covered by allocating time and resources from alternative initiatives and activities. As data analysis will not occur till the pilot scheme finishes at the end of January 2017, it is not possible at this stage to evaluate whether the time allocated to co-ordinating a peer-mentoring programme is an efficient and sustainable use of the LDT service.
Additional expenses incurred were catering costs for buffet lunches supplied on the two training days and on the networking day. Guests at the networking event were offered payment at the hourly rate for visiting lecturers.
Training and development of mentors/mentees
The LDT devised two mentor-training days. The focus of the first session was pre-entry contact. This was a three-hour interactive workshop in which the LDT were joined by Students Services and Careers in presenting guidance to mentors and co-ordinating problem-based scenarios designed to encourage mentors to reflect on their responsibilities. Key topics explored were: boundary setting, confidentiality, communication skills, well-being, University services (to signpost mentees to other sources of support), record-keeping, and networking. Each mentor was given a mentoring handbook, created by the LDT, with details of the points covered, a timeline of mentors’ responsibilities and guidance and suggestions including discussion topics and exemplars for email contact and face-to-face meetings. A condensed version of the session was repeated by the LDT at a later date for absent mentors.
The second training day, focusing on academic issues, was run by the LDT and held at the start of term in September. In the three-hour session, problem-based scenarios were used to help mentors develop an understanding of the academic support they could offer. The St Mary’s pilot is not a tutoring model; mentors do not teach or offer content-based academic support. Rather, they draw on their first year experience to advise their mentees on study issues and provide practical support, for example, effective use of module guides.
Mentors receive ongoing support from the LDT via the virtual learning environment (VLE), email and phone calls.
The mentors were rewarded with a networking event. The LDT worked with St Mary’s Centre for Workplace Learning to contact local employers and entrepreneurs and host a ‘speed-dating’ networking afternoon.
Mentees received no training. They were informed about the scheme prior to entry via information in welcome packs and online. The LDT gave further details of the programme in an introductory talk in the first week of term.
How the scheme engages and supports students
The pilot model was designed to meet the distinct needs of both mentees and mentors. For mentees, the intervention aimed to create an opportunity for the cohort to form friendships, socialise and be supported in their studies. The LDT had limited contact with mentees, only sending group messages via email and the VLE to promote the programme to any student who might not be engaging with their mentor. Anecdotal evidence from mentors concerning communication indicates, mentee contact varying between good, including meetings, to no mentee engagement. Mentees completed questionnaires prior to arrival to determine their expectations of the scheme and any concerns about transitioning to university life. Mentees will complete a second questionnaire at the end of January 2017 and participate in a focus group interview in February 2017. Until this process is completed, it is not possible to comment meaningfully on the effectiveness of the pilot in supporting mentees.
For mentors, it was important that the scheme should offer tangible benefits in recognition of their willingness to take on a voluntary role in spite of the additional time commitment involved. Anecdotal evidence from the mentors’ networking day is positive. Every student gave only positive feedback, one mentor stating that the event had helped her decide her future career. Of the 22 students originally recruited as mentors, four withdrew over the summer months and one mid-term. All five expressed the view that the perceived time commitment was too burdensome. Of the remaining 17 students, it will not be possible to comment on benefits until the completed scheme is evaluated in February 2017. The mentors also completed a questionnaire at the start of term to determine their expectations. They too will complete a second questionnaire in January and be invited to participate in a focus group interview in early February.
Evidence of value, effectiveness and impact
In addition to questionnaire and focus group data, attrition and attainment data may be used to compare mentee retention and grades to those of the previous year’s cohort. However, it is acknowledged that it will not be possible to isolate the effects of the pilot from other aspects affecting student engagement and success. Advice from colleagues on this matter will be sought.
The greatest challenge faced by the LDT was implementing pre-entry tasks that had been designed to place students into well-matched mentee groups. Although the team were aware that Business Management was a programme that recruited a significant number of students via clearing the impact of frequently changing student numbers during the early weeks of term had been underestimated. Only 73 of a projected cohort size of 110 students had confirmed their place at St Mary’s by the start of September. Of these, 60 had completed an online mentoring enrolment form stating their mentee group preferences. To reach this this number, the LDT had to devote significant time phoning students prompting them to complete the form. Within the first two weeks of term student numbers changed several times, with names withdrawn and new additions made, with the result that only two thirds of the final cohort of 107 students were placed into groups based on their preferences. Data analysis in February will indicate whether this attempt to match mentees according to their preferences had an impact of significance to outweigh the substantial time required to co-ordinate it.
Another challenge was the difficulty in promoting recruitment of mentors within the Business Management programme. The LDT had originally planned to follow a rigorous selection process but due to low applicant numbers had to accept all who applied to meet the threshold to run the pilot. In future, programmes wishing to adopt peer mentoring should own and promote the recruitment process. Finally, mentor-mentee communication appears to have been hindered by difficulties finding mutually convenient meeting times. Embedding the scheme within programmes, either within the personal tutoring framework or by devoting lecture or seminar periods to contact time for the two mentor–mentee meetings, could help overcome this.