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
This scheme is pastoral, rather than an academic. All students who are new to Newman University are offered a peer mentor to help with their transition into university, though the scheme has traditionally been aimed at first year undergraduate students. The peer mentors are generally second year students (though some continue in their third year) who have completed their first year and have recent memory of what it was like to be new to the institution. Students who have previously been peer mentors can apply to be a peer mentor co-ordinator to help with matching mentees and collation of data.
The second year volunteers are called peer mentors. When advertising, we also refer to them as buddies, to clarify their role. The students who request a peer mentor are referred to as mentees. The Peer Mentor Coordinator helps with the matching of new mentees to mentors and responds to queries, they also send an evaluation of the service each semester and meet with the Academic Development Tutor in order to ensure the service is continually improving.
The scheme aims to ensure the transition into university life is less daunting. Having the support of a fellow (second year) student can help new students settle in and make the most of their time here. Typically, the support may include:
- practical advice on how to get involved in the student societies;
- help to find services on campus;
- tips on shopping and budgeting;
- help in finding things to do and places of interest;
- advice on how to get a good life–study balance;
- exam or essay tips.
The peer mentor scheme is flexible, students may have face-to-face contact with or purely email based communication. Meetings can take place at mentor and mentee’s convenience around the university campus. The relationship between the mentor and mentee generally lasts for up to a year, but the key times for contact are at the beginning of each semester. Often the relationships begin as face-to-face ones and move to online ones. If distance students request peer mentors, these are purely email relationships.
The peer mentors and the Peer Mentor Coordinator roles are acknowledged in the HEAR process and receive a certificate of appreciation. In addition, the Academic Development Tutor will supply references for the Peer Mentors and Coordinators, if requested.
Key resource implications
As the peer mentors and the Peer Mentor Coordinator are voluntary roles, there are no costs associated with the recruitment and retention of the team. The staff member involved spends approximately 30-40 hours training mentors at the beginning of each semester, which involves emailing, responding to enquiries and collating information. This equates to approximately 80 hours of staff time. At an estimated rate of £15 an hour, this would equate to £1,200. Following this busy time, responding to ongoing emails (5 hours per week) as the scheme settles down, and re-advertising the scheme as required equates to similar costs of £1,200 again across the semester. However, these costs are not additional and are absorbed into an established role.
The Academic Development Tutor and the Peer Mentor Coordinator advertise the scheme with a stand in a busy area of the university twice a year, the Student Union also advertise the scheme in the same way. Leaflets for mentors and mentees, mentor guides and posters have small costs involved. All costs are absorbed by the Student Support Services Department. The only staffing issue revolves around the fact that the Academic Development Tutor is not currently expanding the scheme due to time constraints. However, there are opportunities though the University Student as Academic Partners Projects to obtain small pots of money to work on particular projects around peer mentoring. The institution looks upon these projects favourably. Two such projects are currently being undertaken.
If a budget were allocated, more opportunities for the mentors to meet to discuss their experiences would be useful. A reward would also be considered (a trip perhaps).
Training and development of mentors/mentees
The Academic Development Tutor has overall responsibility for the training. However, the Peer Mentor Coordinators are asked to review the training each year, as part of their duties. This ensures the training remains appropriate to the students, is up to date and that the language and tone are appealing. Ideally the Peer Mentor Coodinators would also lead the training but as we currently recruit in July and train in September and early October, that is not possible as the Coordinators are not necessarily back at university in time. Ideally, it would be a student-led scheme.
The format for the training is face to face and takes approximately 1.5 hours. Small groups of peer mentors attend and previous mentors are involved to offer advice based on their experiences. The same training session is offered approximately 25 times across the year, both as scheduled and ad hoc sessions. The training includes example scenarios and a peer mentor guide, which was produced by previous peer mentors. Informal feedback suggests that the most important aspects of the training are speaking to a previous peer mentor and having the opportunity to discuss the scenarios.
Ongoing support is offered by the Peer Mentor Coordinator, who regularly emails the peer mentors to ask how they are getting on and whether they would like to offer feedback.
At the beginning of the third year, peer mentors are asked if they would like to remain peer mentors in their third year, apply for the position of Peer Mentor Coordinator, or stop mentoring. If they choose to remain, they are offered top-up training, but very few students request this. These students are then matched early in the new academic year as they are already trained.
How the scheme engages and supports students
As widely recognised, peer mentoring supports mentors as well as mentees. In many cases mentors have reported that they have had to learn or review something in order to pass the knowledge on or clarify something for a mentee. Typically, mentors cite referencing, using the library and accessing online resources as areas they develop to support their students, as well as aspects of essay planning and structure. While the scheme is pastoral, rather than academic in design and matches are not made according to subject area, mentors report that many of the enquiries from mentees are related to their academic work. There is a blurred divide in that it seems to be just as important to give tips about lectures and using Moodle as what to include in an essay introduction.
Much of the training for the mentors focuses on how to signpost mentees, rather than give answers to questions outside of their comfort zone but often mentors respond proactively. From feedback over the past few years, many positive comments are received from mature, part-time students who go on to become peer mentors themselves. Feedback also highlights that the students who apply for a peer mentor do not feel that they are struggling but want to take advantage of the scheme to be even more successful. 75% of comments relate to help with organisation and having a friendly face around campus. 50% of positive comments relate to increased confidence and getting information about their course/studying at university.
Evidence of value, effectiveness and impact
The intended outcomes for the scheme are multiple:
- that mentees are welcomed into the university community;
- that mentees who have concerns, academically or socially, can obtain informal support;
- that mentors have the opportunity to volunteer and have their skills recognised;
- that mentors have a useful experience to discuss in interviews and to add to their CVs;
- that Peer Mentor Coordinators experience the formal process of application, interview and being awarded a position. Additionally, their CV contains a promotion in a post.
The following comments are representative of feedback regarding why mentees requested mentors:
just to find support from in the early days as it happens we never actually met but it was reassuring to have somebody responsive to contact by email
Just to get more confidence and to adjust to the workload
Being able to speak to someone who has had similar issues, and how to 'iron' them out”
“having somebody to contact that was familiar with the uni
An example of a recent mentor/mentee relationship is from this academic year: a mentor and mentee met face-to-face five times. The mentor also emailed the student outside of these meetings, sending exemplars of sections of essays. She dealt with some of the mentee queries by signposting to the librarians, Academic Development Tutor, and her lecturers. She also offered Newman online resources about report writing. Her mentee has asked to meet in the second semester, which the mentor feels indicates that the mentee is pleased with the support being offered. Feedback from the mentor is that she feels relieved that the mentee is not on the same course as her as she would not have been so comfortable sharing sections of assignments.
Regarding value, effectiveness and impact, the following comments are representative of student feedback:
a friendly face around the uni that I could talk to, who was a year above me so could give me advice. She was very approachable and easy to talk to
Level of understanding and empathy
speaking to someone who understands
Tips from someone who has recent experience – and frequently mentees mention the ease of understanding of these tips, too
tips on organising time and especially on extra place to find research information
the help and support when I needed it
Peers drawing upon own experiences.
It was useful to talk to someone who had been through the same experience as I was going through
Peer academic experience
I found that the students' academic relationship was helpful. For example, my peer mentor reminded me about my decision to use the 'Sconul access' of the University of Birmingham
Offering prioritising tips
Pointing me in the right direction when I was side tracked by an assignment
One challenge relates to gender. Newman University has a significantly larger female cohort than male and this is reflected in the peer-mentoring scheme. The Academic Development Tutor targeted male students with peer mentor information last year. Therefore, this year the number of male peer mentors has increased, which means that we can match students according to gender, if a preference is shown.
A second challenge has been matching mentee expectation to the aims of the scheme. Each mentor and mentee receives a flyer that identifies what each person can expect of the scheme. Within the institution we have IT and writing mentors who the peer mentors signpost their students to as experts in that particular area.
When matching mentors to mentees, we try to take preferences into account. The most common request relates to age so if a mentor or mentee requests a mature student, we try to accommodate that. The mentors have a formal opportunity to identify their preferences but the mentees do not so the scheme might be improved if the mentees have this opportunity, too. Related to this, some mentees request a mentor in their subject area and we do not match according to subject. We are a small institution and could not guarantee the ability to match in this way as it is dependent upon which students volunteer.
Advice to those starting such a scheme would be to involve students as much as possible. They respond well to the responsibility. They are particularly interested in the HEAR recognition and appear to be appreciative of the certificate of appreciation. It would be useful to have identified funding for things like trips or cake and coffee mornings but if this is not forthcoming, the scheme should not be stalled, students are keen to volunteer to enhance their CVs.
The peer mentoring scheme has inspired or contributed to other schemes at Newman. We are currently involved with projects where peer mentors are establishing contacts with specific groups of students, such as those who are not achieving as well as expected within specific subject areas, in order to ensure they know how to access the support systems that we have in place. We are also starting a project for international students to be matched to peer mentors before they arrive at Newman. These projects will be evaluated to ascertain whether peer contact is more useful at different times of transition.