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Evaluation of the School of Psychology Peer Mentoring Program - Semester 1, 2000

Lauren Breen, Neil Drew, Lisbeth Pike, Julie Ann Pooley and Alison Young
School of Psychology
Edith Cowan University


Students often experience disorientation, isolation, and stress as a result of the transition to university and often lead to university withdrawal (Faiers, 1998; Jones, 1998). Universities provide an extensive range of services such as counselling, academic skills advice, and welfare support to help students complete their chosen courses (Drew, Pike, Pooley, Young, & Breen, 2000). These services are often under-utilised because of student reluctance and a lack of knowledge about them (McKavanagh, Connor, & West, 1996). As a consequence, students may withdraw, fail, and not achieve to their fullest potential (Connor & McKavanagh, 1997), indicating a need for the development of supportive academic environments (Drew et al., 2000). One strategy involves using upper undergraduate students as an invaluable source of information and support for new students (Gerdes & Mallinkrodt, 1994; McKavanagh et al., 1996).

The Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) began as a pilot program in the first semester of 1999 (Drew et al., 2000). Commencing internal students enrolled in PSY1101 Introduction to Psychology were asked if they would like to participate in the PMP. As a result, 30 students were matched with a peer mentor (Drew et al., 2000). The mentors were second and third year students majoring in psychology. Mentors aimed to provide support to their mentees via informal meetings (Pooley, Young, Haunold, Pike, & O'Donnell, 2000) in the form of information regarding university services, administration, and contacting lecturing and tutorial staff. Additionally, the mentors were trained in ethical issues, communication skills, coping with stress, and boundary setting (Pooley et al., 2000). Both the process and outcome evaluations of the pilot PMP were deemed postive (Drew et al .2000). Importantly, the attrition rate for students linked to a mentor was 13%, which was significantly less than the attrition rate (21%) for students not linked to a mentor (Drew et al., 2000; Pooley et al., 2000).

The PMP was expanded in 2000 to accommodate external PSY1101 students (Pooley et al., 2000). External students often feel isolated from their lecturers, tutors, fellow students, and the university campus, and their attrition rates are relatively high (Pooley et al. 2000). In an attempt to reduce these effects, a bulletin board for the unit was set up on the ECU homepage. The mentors from the internal program mentored via the bulletin board. Two or three mentors were rostered onto the board during each week of the semester. All external students with access to the Internet were thus able to participate in the PMP. The mentors, mentees, and staff members post messages on the bulletin board throughout the semester.

The current research aimed to investigate whether or not the PMP was successful in reducing the stress experienced by commencing students and its associated attrition.

Method

Participants

The 485 internal PSY1101 students were informed about the PMP at Orientation and in their first lecture. Those interested completed expression of interest forms. The 42 mentees were chosen based on their match with mentors on characteristics such as interests, age, and minor areas of study. The 31 mentors were second and third year psychology majors. There were 176 students enrolled in PSY1101 on an external basis in semester 1, 2000.

Materials

The mentors and internal mentees were surveyed using the Mentor Outcome Evaluation survey and the Mentee Outcome Evaluation survey respectively (see Pooley et al., 2000). Both surveys included questions regarding the benefits of participation, whether or not the PMPs objectives were met, and satisfaction with study and support networks.

Procedure

The mentees and mentors were sent an information letter and the Mentee Outcome Evaluation or the Mentor Outcome Evaluation questionnaire respectively (Pooley et al., 2000; see Appendix) at the end of semester 1, 2000.

The messages on the bulletin board were content analysed in an effort to explicate the major themes and issues the external students raised in relation to studying PSY1101 in the external mode.

Results

Internal mentees

The PMP had somewhat benefited the mentees personally and academically, but had less influence on other aspects of their lives. When asked to elaborate on how and why the PMP benefited them, the mentees described their first semester of university as "overwhelming", and "daunting and confusing", and were thankful for the support offered by the program. Mentors were helpful when it came to the library, books, discussing workloads, units, and providing a friendly face. Mentors also provided emotional support by attending to their mentee's worries, especially around assignment and exam time. One of the mentees felt that he or she did not get enough out of the PMP because of the lack of similar interests with the mentor.

The mentees thought the program's goals of emotional support, the provision of information and advice, campus orientation, and the extension of friendship networks were met.

Personal expectations of academic and library assistance, meeting people and making friends, and the provision of someone to call "just in case" were somewhat met. Overall, the mentees were relatively satisfied with their first semester of study and their social support networks.

The mentees though that the School of Psychology was a supportive community to a moderate degree. The reasons for this belief included providing support with personal problems, being approachable and friendly, acting as a team, all levels of staff being eager to assist new students, and being available to answer 'silly' questions. The reasons for this belief that the School is not a supportive community included the unwillingness of the university to help, and the lack of social events and get togethers that would encourage socialising. Importantly, almost half of the mentees had extended their support to students not involved in the PMP via sharing knowledge about the university, asking questions for others, and sharing materials with others.

Overall, the mentees were somewhat satisfied with the running of the PMP and with its outcomes. The mentees wrote of how much they appreciated being a part of the program. Two respondents expressed concerns with the mentee-mentor matching system. One of these stated that he or she was matched with a mentor of entirely different circumstances. Another stated that he or she had to ask twice to be matched with a mentor. Lastly, one respondent suggested that all first year students be included in the program.

There were 485 students enrolled in PSY1101 in semester 1, 2000. According the university records. 95 students withdrew from the unit, leaving a preliminary attrition rate of 19.5%. Unfortunately, attrition rates of those linked to a mentor compared to those not linked to a mentor are not available at this time.

Internal mentors

The mentors believed that the PMP had benefited them personally and professionally, and had somewhat benefited other aspects of their lives. When asked to elaborate, the mentor stated that the PMP increases their feelings of worth and enabled them to use their communication, interpersonal, and empathy skills. Two believed that participating in the PMP would increase their employment prospects.

The mentors thought that the aims of providing emotional support, an opportunity for commencing students to mix with continuing students, informing mentees of university services, reducing the attrition rate, and minimising feelings of isolation were met.

The mentors' personal and professional rewards of the PMP included becoming more involved with university life, providing encouragement, developing their interpersonal and communication skills, helping others in a professional manner, providing guidance, and gaining a reference.

The mentors thought the PMP training was useful, with a particular emphasis on the revision of interpersonal skills, computer skills, and using the library and university services. They appreciated the information regarding introducing themselves and the program to the mentees, facilitating mentee learning rather than problem solving, and boundary setting in regards to the mentees' needs.

The mentors thought that their involvement with the PMP was useful to both the mentees and the School of Psychology. Regarding the mentees, the reasons for this success included reducing attrition rates, relieving the mentees' anxiety, providing information, and increasing social networks. It was thought the PMP was useful to the School of Psychology by reducing attrition rates, reducing the time spent by academic staff answering administration type questions, taking a more active interest in their students, and complimenting the ethos of the School.

Suggestions for future changes from the mentors included making the program available to all PSY1101 students, incorporating arranged meetings with mentees in the program, extending more support to the external students, and informing more students about the program.

External PMP

There were 290 messages posted on the bulletin board during the semester. The Unit Coordinator posted five messages concerning unit updates, information regarding contacting tutors, and exam information. The Program Manager posted nine messages including a welcome, study tips, and time management advice. A Student Support Officer posted three messages including a welcome, career information, and choosing minor and elective units.

Approximately 20 mentees posted messages on the bulletin board. The mentors provided them encouragement, advice, and practical support. The mentors shared study tips such as writing in the third person, using current sources, reading effectively, writing introductions, referencing style, and exam preparation. The mentors also provided more general advice about time management, motivation, minors and electives, and changing enrolments.

As with the internal PMP, the mentees were able to extend fellow support to fellow mentees via the bulletin board. This was mostly through helping each other with statistics and sharing useful web addresses for accessing journal articles. They shared their concerns regarding transition anxiety, work and family commitments, and their hopes of studying psychology at the postgraduate level. Some mentees planned times to 'chat' in the unit's chat room and to meet each other on campus after the exam.

Fifty-five (31%) of the 176 students enrolled in PSY1101 on an external basis in semester 1, 2000 withdrew from the unit. This figure also includes students that deferred, so the actual attrition rate is likely o be somewhat lower, and compares favourably with rates of 50% and 44.2% in 1997 and 1998.

Discussion and recommendations

On the whole, the mentees were only moderately satisfied with the PMP because their expectations regarding academic and library assistance were not met. Perhaps the mentors could accompany their mentees on a library tour at the beginning on the mentees' first semester. This could be achieved via a formal tour conducted by library staff.

Many commencing internal students did not request a mentor and many external students did not (or could not) take advantage of the bulletin board. It has been argued that those commencing students that select into the PMP do so because they already have good coping skills and those that do not volunteer to participate may be the most in need (Pooley et al., 2000). This problem can be overcome by assigning every commencing student to a mentor, regardless of internal/ external status. Regarding the external PMP, those mentees without Internet access many still be mentored via written correspondence. There is also a need for group mentoring, particularly as there are significantly more commencing students than available mentors (Pooley et al., 2000). This would allow all PSY1101 students to be involved in the PMP and minimise the problems associated with the mentor-mentee matching system.

Overall, the reported outcomes were more positive for the mentors than mentees. Whilst the PMP aims for postive outcomes for the mentors, the main goal of mentoring programs is to aid the commencing students. It is thus necessary to increase the positive outcomes for the mentees by creating a more supportive university environment where PMPs are the norm. This may be achieved through the development of a university wide transition program incorporating orientation, online chat and support, social events, the development of learning communities, and links between students and staff (Pargetter, 2000; Peel, 2000; Stewart, 1998).

References

Connor, J., & McKavanagh, M. (1997). Distance mentoring for tertiary students: An action learning approach. Unpublished manuscript, Central Queensland University, Queensland.

Drew, N. M., Pike, L. T., Pooley, J. A., Young, A. H. C., & Breen, L. (2000, July). School of Psychology Peer Mentoring Pilot Programme. Paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference - First Year in Higher Education, Brisbane, Australia. [verified 11 Dec 2000] http://www.qut.edu.au/daa/asdu/fye/abstracts/PooleyAbstract.htm
http://www.qut.edu.au/daa/asdu/fye/papers/PooleyPaper.doc

Faiers, S. (1998). Risk factors, mental health, and the transition to university: Recognising the extent of the problem. Paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference - First Year in Higher Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Gerdes, H., & Mallinkrodt, B. (1994). Emotional, social, and academic adjustment of college students: A longitudinal study of retention. Journal of Counselling and Development, 72, 281-288.

Jones, B. (1998). The transition from secondary school to university: Who needs help coping and when? Paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference - First Year in Higher Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

McKavanagh, M., Connor, J., & West, (1996). It's moments like these you need mentors. Paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference - First Year in Higher Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Pargetter, R. (2000). Transition: From a school perspective. Journal of Institutional Research, 9, 14-21.

Peel, M. (2000). 'Nobody cares': The challenge of isolation in school to university transition. Journal of Institutional Research, 9, 22-34. http://aw99.aw.flinders.edu.au/aair/jira20001_peel.htm [abstract only, verified 14 Feb 2001]

Pooley, J. A., Young, A., Haunold, S., Pike, L. & O'Donnell, J. (2000). Peer Mentoring Programme manual: 10 steps to helping students successfully adjust to university. Perth, Australia: Edith Cowan University.

Stewart, J. (1998, July). Assisting the transition for first years: Victoria University's Inaugural First Year Orientation - an integrated approach to meeting the needs of first year students. Paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference - First Year in Higher Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Please cite as: Breen, L., Drew, N., Pike, L., Pooley, J. A. and Young, A. (2001). Evaluation of the School of Psychology Peer Mentoring Program - Semester 1, 2000. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/breen.html


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