Pairs of mentors bonded with groups of 40 to 50 students over the summer, in some cases visiting their hometowns, and assisted during first-week orientation. Trained in group facilitation, resources and referrals, the mentors lead workshops through the fall on developing academic tools for success.
Adapting to university “is one of the steepest learning curves they [students] will ever have,” says Nona Robinson, assistant vice-president of students at Trent. “It’s often the first major transition [for students] and they might not have worked out what works for them.” At larger universities, mentors are equally as important. This year, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon expanded the roster of volunteer mentors in the flagship undergraduate peer-assisted learning program to more than 100 upper-year students, a five-fold increase from its inception in 2008.
The mentors, selected for their academic ability and leadership skills, coach students enrolled in traditionally difficult first-year courses. The mentors benefit, too, acquiring proficiency in communication and leadership and a certificate for their work.
“From an institutional perspective it helps student engagement on every front,” says Jim Greer, director of Saskatchewan’s university learning centre. “It is a win-win all around.”
This year, the Saskatoon university expanded peer mentoring for graduate students and those studying online at satellite campuses.
At Wilfrid Laurier University, peer assistants are part of a broader strategy to promote learning at the Waterloo, Ont., institution.
For example, peer-assisted skills sessions are embedded in a large first-year class known as global studies, with students earning 10 per cent of their grades for developing a career plan, learning about financial literacy and acquiring learning skills.
Peer assistants, paid $19.40 an hour, are recruited from third- and fourth-year honours students in global studies who received a minimum A-minus on the introductory course, demonstrate leadership and receive 35 hours of training, with more through the semester. As mentors, they teach students to develop “how to learn” strategies during the review of course content.
“We saw a lack of transition skills from our incoming students,” says Michael Lisetto Smith, manager of study skills and supplemental instruction at Laurier. “They were struggling to navigate the university bureaucracy and rules. Some of them don’t have career direction.”
Early results are encouraging.
In 2011-12, the number of students who made an academic plan rose to 48 per cent from 26 per cent after completing the sessions, according to the university, while those who felt they now had a career direction rose to 92 per cent from 72 per cent. Over the next five years, the university will track participants to see if their acquired skills lasted through to graduation.
Elsewhere, mentors are recruited for so-called “killer courses” – large,and growing, first-year classes with a high rate of failure or dropout.
One of them is the University of Guelph’s Biology 1090, an introductory first-year course on cellular and molecular biology and genetics.
Naythrah Thevathasan is one of several mentors for supporting learning groups in the first-year course that she excelled in as a freshman.
As a group leader, she attends all the lectures for Biology 1090 and meets weekly with first-year students for three hours to teach them how to take notes, study and prepare for exams. Questions about course content, however, are directed to teaching assistants and the professor. “We don’t give them the fish; we teach them how to fish,” says Thevathasan, a fourth-year student in biomedical science and a mentor for the past two years. “When they [students] talk to a peer, it is a little bit different than talking to a professor.”
According to Guelph, average final grades for students enrolled in supported learning groups are consistently several points higher than for non-participants.
As a leader, Thevathasan receives an honorarium of $600 per semester for tuition.
A campus and community volunteer who enjoys helping others, Thevathasan says she is a principal beneficiary of the experience.
“I have become a better student, a better learner and a better citizen because I have been part of this program,” she says. “It makes you inspired to do more for yourself, your community and your campus.”
Struggling students often the last to seek help
Researchers examining the value of peer mentoring and other student support services have discovered a troubling pattern: those who most need the help tend not to seek it out.
“You may build it, but they may not come,” says Richard Wiggers, executive director of research and programs at the higher education Quality Council of Ontario, which has commissioned several studies on peer mentoring and services for students. “It’s amazing how little students take advantage of the time faculty do offer in terms of office hours.”