Using mentoring to support transition into and out of higher education

Entry students can be under-informed about the degree they are starting and what higher education is really like. In this post Alana James (Lecturer, Royal Holloway, University of London Alana.James@rhul.ac.uk) discusses how cross-age mentoring, between undergraduates who have successfully transitioned and A-level pupils at school, can be used as a way of supporting transition into university. Alana suggests that peer mentoring can harness undergraduates’ personal transition experiences to prepare future entry students before they start their degrees. She discusses a project, which started as an initiative funded by an HEA Individual Teaching Development grant, where psychology undergraduates mentor A-level psychology pupils, highlighting the value of mentoring for also supporting students’ transition out of higher education into employment.

 

If you could go back in time to just before you started university, what advice would you give your first-year self? I would tell myself to actually read the prospectus! When I look back I am surprised by how under-prepared and uninformed I was about the degree I was about to commence. I studied at a Scottish institution but had no idea that in Scotland you study three subjects for the first two years of your degree. I knew I wanted a career within psychology, yet did not realise that this was a science subject and I would have to study statistics. Despite bursting into tears the first time I met my academic advisor, I did survive my degree. However, my transition into higher education would have gone a lot more smoothly had I taken off my blinkers before arriving at university.

Supporting transistions into higher education

Providing opportunities for school pupils to speak with current university students, who have experienced the transition, is one way of fostering realistic expectations of higher education. The idea of being able to give yourself advice at the start of your degree is an exercise I use each year with psychology undergraduate students who take part in a cross-age mentoring project. These students spend a term acting as mentors to A-level psychology pupils in a couple of local schools. A key aim is for the students to use their personal experiences of making the transition into university to help their mentees understand what higher education, and particularly a psychology degree, is really like. The advice they would like to give to their first-year selves tends to be both academic and social; be prepared to organise your studying independently, learn to make a couple of cheap, easy meals at the start, get involved in societies in your first year as you’ll never have that much free time again, and realise that nobody else knows what they are doing either!

There are sound pedagogic reasons for using such peer mentoring to support transition into higher education. Withdrawal from university study, or withdrawal consideration, can arise due to a mis-match between new students’ expectations of higher education and the reality (Briggs, Clark & Hall, 2012). For psychology degrees, there are a number of common misconceptions held by entry students (Reddy & Lantz, 2010) – including the one held by my own first-year self that psychology is not a science. It makes sense to harness the experiences of students who have successfully made the transition to dispel such misconceptions before new students enter university. Furthermore, peer mentoring has been shown to have measurable positive effects for both the mentors, including in communication skills, and mentees, such as enhanced self-esteem and academic self-efficacy (see e.g. Hill & Reddy, 2007, and Budge, 2006 for summaries).

Supporting transitions into employment

Such cross-age mentoring also supports university students’ transition out of higher education into employment, by providing an opportunity to gain hands-on experience of working with people. Acting as a mentor involves listening well and adapting your communication style to others’ needs, being reliable and being able to organise mentoring work around other commitments - skills which are very valuable to future employers. In this project the mentors work in small groups to plan each mentoring session, meaning that they have to develop good team-working skills and take responsibility for preparing content to best support the young people in the schools.

Some degree of supervision is essential, to ensure that the mentors feel supported and can raise any difficulties. It can be hard to stay hands-off as co-ordinator! Especially because I know it can sometimes be challenging for the mentors to liaise with the schools and decide on the session content. However, it is partly through dealing with challenges and taking the initiative that the experience can be rewarding for mentors. This is something I have previously seen in peer mentoring within schools .

Resources

This project is within the context of a psychology department, but peer mentoring initiatives are used across academic disciplines – though often involving undergraduates receiving support from other undergraduates once they have started their degree. The skills which mentors gain are useful for a range of careers and types of employers, and each discipline will no doubt have its own common misconceptions held by entry students. I am keen to hear from other academics using peer support systems, or considering developing one, and some of the resources from this project are available online. An article providing a fuller description and evaluation of the first phase of the project is also available .

This mentoring project started as an initiative funded by an HEA Individual Teaching Development Grant. My research background is largely connected to formal peer support systems where people are able to receive support from others who are similar to them in some way. This has included research on peer support systems in schools where young people are trained to support other pupils in their school with academic or personal issues. During my PhD I also acted as a mentor within the government’s AimHigher Associates Scheme, where university students worked with pupils in schools to promote educational aspirations. More information about that cross-age mentoring scheme can be found here. The HEA grant enabled me to use my research interests to provide an opportunity for students in my department.

Running the mentoring project has been personally very rewarding, largely through working closely with small groups of students and seeing them flourish in the mentoring role. It has also kept fresh in my mind the challenges that entry students can experience and prompted me to reflect upon my own transition experience.

Discussion

What advice would you give your first-year self at the start of your university experience?

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