Final Report

Below you will find a copy of the final report submitted to the Institute of Learning and Teaching who kindly funded this project and associated research.

Final Report

(For projects funded by the Learning and Teaching Enhancement and Innovation Fund 2018-19)

Project title

Exchanging experience: a peer-assisted learning approach to mentoring

Project aims and objectives 

Intended aims and objectives Achieved in full? Comments
Pilot a redesigned approach to peer to peer mentoring on the programme BA Childhood and Youth Yes The redesigned mentoring scheme was piloted across the academic year 18/19. Four peer-assisted learning sessions were facilitated across the year engaging staff from BA Childhood and Youth and Learning Development. Students from courses BA Childhood and Youth and BA Education Studies were engaged in the project as mentors and mentees.
Engage students at levels 4 and 5 in mentoring and peer-assisted learning activities across the academic year 2018-2019 Partially The project engaged 3 students at level 5 as mentors and 4 students at level 4 as mentees. Over 60 level 5 students and 30 level 4 students were informed about the project through marketing activities on NILE. Student engagement was very low with only 6% of the students informed taking part. Further to this 1 of the mentors only attended one meeting before dropping out due to a change in personal circumstance.
Evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot project by gathering stakeholder opinions. Yes-although return rates were low Interviews were completed with all staff involved, 2 of the mentors and 1 of the mentees. Observations were completed of all sessions. Feedback was gathered from participants at each session and a questionnaire was completed by 1 level 4 student who did not attend. The data was thematically collated and analysed.

Project outputs and deliverables 

Intended outputs and deliverables Achieved in full? Comments
A trialled model for an integrated mentor, personal tutor and peer-assisted learning approach to support students in their first year of study in HE Yes The model has been designed and delivered across the academic year 18/19. Lessons have been learnt feeding into development in the year 19/20.
A trialled model offering additional academically supported development opportunities for students in their second year of study Yes Development opportunities have been provided through one to one support from tutors to support students to design and deliver student facilitated study skills and pastoral support sessions. Narratives from the mentors demonstrate that this activity supported their academic and personal development.
Thorough evaluation of the pilot project documenting findings and outcomes Yes Several evaluation activities have occurred:

·       Feedback forms completed by mentees at each session

·       Interviews completed with mentors, mentees and staff involved in the project

·       Observations of mentor facilitated study skills sessions completed

·       Questionnaire completed by level 4 students who did not attend

Completed project blog documenting process and findings Yes Blog is up to date with monthly entries completed across the academic year. The project lead, personal tutor to the first years and research assistant have completed blog posts. The mentors were also asked if they would like to write a post but declined.
Dissemination materials; article and conference presentation; to be shared In progress Activity completed:

·       Poster presentation took place as part of the Learning and Teaching Conference 2019.

·       Project information has been shared with the Midlands Peer Mentoring network.

·       Project evaluation has been shared with colleagues as part of subject group team day.

Activity to be completed:

·       Project evaluation is to be shared with colleagues as part of the weekly bulletin.

·       Project is to be explored as part of discussion at a meeting of the Midlands Peer Mentoring Network.

·       Article to be prepared for publication in internal and external publications.  

Develop a detailed and informative mentor pack. Yes Project lead developed a digital mentor welcome pack which contains essential information related to best practice in the role of mentor to safeguard all student participants. This responds to some of the initial issues identified with the methodology of the existing peer mentor scheme.
Level 5 students design taught sessions which are shared with level 4 participants both face to face and digitally. Yes Level 5 students designed two sessions; ‘A beginners guide to assessment’ and ‘Study buddies: developing relationships and techniques for writing’. These both have relevance to the first-year student experience and can be used as part of the development of the project ongoing.
Online forum is set up for mentors to discuss developing ideas and have asynchronous sessions with project lead to develop teaching materials. Yes A blackboard collaborate space was set up for mentor use however only one mentor visited the space and due to lack of activity did not return. To develop teaching materials the mentors chose to meet with the project lead face to face.

 Project evaluation

A qualitative approach was taken to evaluation with semi structured interviews, observations and questionnaires being utilised to gather stakeholder opinions of the implementation of the model and its impact on student experience. Interviews were completed with staff and students who took part in the project and a questionnaire was shared with level 4 students who did not take part to ascertain what some of the barriers to participation were. Observations were completed for all 4 of the sessions facilitated. Initially focus groups were planned but participation was an issue. One focus group session took place but no students attended. Reflecting on this the research team decided with the low numbers of participants across the project carrying out interviews with all individuals would be possible in gaining detailed insights into stakeholders experiences of the project.

The evaluation sought to discover how both the first and second year students experienced the scheme in relation to; the quality and availability of academic and personal support, opportunities for personal and professional development and the impact of partaking in the scheme on their experience of university academically and personally. Data on the level of engagement demonstrated by student participants was also gathered through the keeping of registers. The findings were analysed thematically to determine the success of the pilot scheme and propose future developments.

Key Findings:

  • The PALM project aims to tackle multidimensional problems that students face inside and outside the university, but impacts on their experience at university. There is agreement in relation to the idea that the PALM project as planned could be effective dealing with some of the students’ problems (academic performance, students’ self-confidence and development of other skills).
  • Students recognise a wide range of positive benefits from their being part of the PALM project. Both mentors and mentees reflect that positive aspects of the project include developing new skills which improved their academic performance, developing confidence and communication skills.
  • Students found a safe space to talk about their concerns as students. They said it was quite nice to realize that other people are having the same issues.
  • Participation of students was identified as the most critical aspect of the project. Both mentors and mentees feel a bit disappointed with the lack of engagement with the project. They feel that students do not value a good opportunity to improve academically, although one of the interviewees also recognises that students have many barriers (work, family and parking) which make more difficult participation in the project.
  • Students value support from peers and lectures, as well as the possibility of developing a wide range of skills under a model of teaching which responds to their individual learning requirements.
  • Staff involved recognise a positive impact of the project on the confidence of both first year and second-year students. They also perceive practical benefits for mentors in terms of improving their CV and being able to demonstrate the required skills for employability.
  • Student participants said they are willing to participate in future and want to encourage other students to be part of the project and take advantage of this opportunity.

Project impact

Intended impact and benefit Achieved in full? Comments
This project will improve the learning experience for students involved through enriching personal and academic support offered at the outset of their journey in HE. Yes Participants who took part in the sessions reported gaining new skills and learning strategies alongside developing their confidence levels.
Second year students involved will gain a range of skills applicable to the workplace. Yes The two student mentors who designed and delivered sessions reported developing their confidence levels, communication skills and gaining new skills required to improve their academic performance.
Through evaluation efficacy can be ascertained and considered in the development of the scheme as part of future practice. Yes A thorough evaluation of the project has occurred with a focus on efficacy. Several positive and critical aspects of the project have been identified which feed directly into future development
Findings can be considered on an institutional basis as part of the review of the Integrated Learner Support program and ongoing mentoring activity. Yes The issue of student engagement was the main critical aspect of the project as identified by the staff and students involved.  It is suspected this may align with some of the findings from evaluation of the ILS scheme in the first year of implementation. Findings will be shared with the research team for the ILS program implementation.
The dissemination of findings will share practice with other programmes at the university and across the sector. Yes The research team are working towards a publication. Findings from the project were disseminated at the Learning and Teaching Conference 2019, the subject team day and within the faculty weekly bulletin. Details of the project were shared with the Midlands Peer Network in written form and will be shared through attendance at network events in September 2019.
Extension of the mentors role to develop relevant student managed online forum for mentor and mentee discussion. Partially Findings from the research identify the need for an effective online discussion forum which is student managed where mentors and mentees can discuss relevant issues.  A highly motivated and engaged mentor has been employed as lead mentor to develop this for launch in September/October 2019.
Student mentor engaged in supporting recruitment process in year 19/20. Yes A student mentor has volunteered their services in supporting mentor recruitment in the projects next year of implementation.
Extension of project Yes For next years project the project lead will be working with the staff second year mentor to collaborate in sharing relevant secondary research on the second year student experince and work together to support student mentors.
Relationship development Yes Working relationships between academics and supporting teams have been strengthened through collaborative working on the project.

Strong supportive relationships have also developed between the mentors and mentees involved in the project. Evidence of the mentoring role has been witnessed in activity taking place between students outside of the scheduled activity.

Dissemination activities

Dissemination activities Impact
Project team will seek to share findings at relevant faculty wide events such as the faculty forum. Updates on the project have been shared with colleagues at subject group meetings and the full evaluation of the project was shared at the team day. The evaluation of the project has been shared in the faculty wide weekly news.  
The project in its entirety will be presented as part of the University of Northampton Teaching and Learning Conference in June 2019. A research poster detailing the project evaluation was presented at the ILT conference on 18th June 2019.
The project team will seek to share details of the project with interested parties within and beyond the university through activity such as; publish the research in a peer reviewed journal and share findings through presentation at conference events. Details of the project methodology have been shared with the Midlands Peer Mentoring Network for consideration and feedback. The project will be verbally shared at a MPMN event in September.

The research team are working on writing a piece for publication.

Project blog will be maintained throughout project and shared with Faculty of Education and Humanities staff. Project blog has been maintained and shared within and beyond the university. The project blog was seen by the Peer Support Manager from Loughborough University who has set up a Midlands Peer Mentoring Network which the PALM project is now part of.

The blog and evaluation of the project are due to be shared as part of Faculty Forum activities.

 Final reflections

Reflecting on PALM there were many positive aspects to the project and participants generally considered it to be a good opportunity for both level 4 and level 5 students. However the critical issue of student engagement features strongly in the findings and has to some degree overshadowed the positive aspects of the project. There are steps which can be taken to strengthen recruitment and participation opportunities for the project but the factors underpinning student engagement are far reaching and beyond the sphere of activity of this project. Although it could be argued that the PALM project could be considered a protective tool to encourage student engagement through; developing students confidence in their academic abilities and sense of belonging at university (Currant and Keenan, 2009; Bryson et al., 2010; Trowler, 2010; Wimpenny and Savin-Baden, 2011), offering opportunities to work closely and develop relationships with peers (Bryson et al. 2012) and engaging students as partners in the co-creation of learning materials and approaches (Kay et al., 2010).

Lessons Learned:

  • PALM sessions need to be timetabled to encourage students to attend.
  • The benefits of participation need to be clearly outlined to students to support engagement.
  • Online forums are the best means of connecting mentors and mentees.

Future Developments:

  • Offer opportunities for mentors to team teach in scheduled taught sessions on first year modules.
  • Offer opportunities for mentors to run drop in sessions for mentees without staff in attendance.
  • Set up a mentor managed online forum for mentees to pose questions to and gain support from the mentors.
  • Project led to work with the Education studies second year mentor to consider additional support for mentors within the programme.

In summary despite being an even smaller project and piece of research than originally planned research has identified positive aspects to the PALM project confirming the research teams feeling that it would offer a positive opportunity to enhance student experience. With this in mind the project lead moves into the second year of implementation with developments in mind which have come direct from the stakeholders and will hopefully help to enhance student engagement in activity which will support their academic and personal development.

References

Bryson, C., Cooper, G. and Hardy, C. (2010), “Reaching a common understanding of the meaning of student engagement”, paper presented at The Society for Research in Higher Education Conference, Celtic Manor, Wales, 14-16 December.

Bryson, C., Humphris, D, James, E. and J. Wintrup (2012) “Emotional work: students, realising, negotiating and overcoming barriers”, Journal of applied research in higher education, Vol 4:2, pp. 170-185

Currant, B. and C. Keenan (2009), ‘Evaluating systematic transition to higher education’, The Brookes Ejournal of Learning and Teaching, 2(4): 191-201

Kay, J., Dunne, E. and Hutchinson, J. (2010), Rethinking The Values For Higher Education – Students As Change Agents?, The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Bristol, available at: www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/ StudentsChangeAgents.pdf

Trowler, V. (2010), Student Engagement Literature Review, The HEA, York, available at: www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/studentengagement/StudentEngagementLiterature Review.pdf [Accessed on: 16 May 2019]

Wimpenny, K. and M. Savin-Baden (2011) ‘Alienation, agency and authenticity: a synthesis of practice and effects in student engagement’, Target journal: Teaching in Higher Education, Available at: http://eprints.worc.ac.uk/3527/1/engagement-qrs-paper-preprint.pdf, [Accessed on 16 May 2019]

Authors: Lisa Shepherd, Dr Kay Calver and Andrea Lizama Loyola

Approaching the PALM project as a researcher

In my role of Research Assistant I had the opportunity of being part of the PALM project. I did attend a couple of mentoring sessions and I did interview those who participated either as organisers, collaborators or participants. We had an in-depth conversation about the project and each one of the interviewees expressed their personal views in relation to the project. As follows I will show some reflections after conducing fieldwork for the evaluation of the PALM project.

First of all, I can say that the PALM project is a well-planned initiative which aims to tackle some of the most important problems that students face during the first year at university: academic performance and integration to university. According to data collected at interviews, it is evident that organisers of this project have a clear idea of students’ needs. There were some previous experiences of tutorials which grounded the design of the PALM project. Students, staff members and all those involved in this project worked hard and made a great effort in planning and implementing this pilot version. There was collaboration from external staff members who did provide methodological advice and material for being used in mentoring sessions. However, as usually happen in almost every project, what is was planned does not work as was expected during the implementation.

In the case of the PALM project, there is strong agreement among interviewees that the low attendance and lack of students’ engagement with the project was the most critical point. There were only a few second-year students motivated with the opportunity of being tutors and no more than four first-year students attended (as mentee) the mentoring sessions. It seems difficult to understand why although it is recognisable that students need to gain study skills which will improve their academic results as well as their experience at university overall, they did not show greater interest for the PALM project. In the case of mentors, of course they are helping on enhancing other students’ skills, but the PALM project is also an opportunity for them, in terms of developing networks with peers and academic staff, gaining more confidence and developing soft skills which are valuable when you start looking for a job.

However, I prefer to focus the attention on those highly motivated students who were part of the PALM project either as mentors or mentees. There was a diverse group of students – in terms of age, gender and life situation – participated in the project. Many of them work outside university; some of them are parents and therefore have family commitments. However, they still have enough motivation and make an additional effort in order to participate in this project. Motivation and self-commitment seem key forces behind those students. They are firstly motivated with their course and university. They are strongly aware that studying at university has been a huge opportunity for them, so they enjoy it as much as they can do it: ‘It’s just something that I have wanted to do always. I never thought I’d do. So I appreciate every second that I’m sitting there, I love learning. I love writing an essay. I just love it’ (Second-year student. Mentor PALM Project). Apart from being motivated, students who participated in the PALM project are aware of the areas that need to improve in order to be better students and have greater opportunities in future. Improvement as students is a priority for them.

By observing both mentors and mentees, we can say that the PALM project was effective on improving skills as students. Their abilities to communicate ideas were noticeable. Mentors planned and delivered sessions (of course with support from staff members) in a competent and engaging manner. Probably they taught topics that they just finished understanding while were preparing a session, but they showed confidence and security on what they were doing. Otherwise, students who participated as mentees gained new skills and learning strategies which help to do better at developing arguments or writing essays. But I also could observe students with confidence to ask questions and share their concerns with others during mentoring sessions. I also could observe how both mentees and mentors took mentoring sessions as an opportunity of approaching their lectures and tutors and ask them about issues discussed in mentoring sessions, but also more general questions related to their course.

From this point of view, I understand that the PALM project was planned as an initiative for every first-year student and therefore it is disappointing that students did not manifest interest in the project. But I want to address that even though just a few students engage with this initiative it has a positive impact on them. In my view, initiatives as the PALM project have a value in order to tackle problems such as social inequality and exclusion within higher education system by enhancing learning strategies, but also cultural capital, social capital and a sense of identity as students (Crozier, Rea, Clayton, & Grinstead, 2008). Additionally, in a context of credential devaluation, undergraduate degrees are not enough. Students’ soft skills and engagement with extra curricula activities are pivotal for getting a graduate job (Tomlinson, 2008) and the PALM project has been successful on enhancing those abilities on students. Of course, several changes are needed in order to make the project more suitable to different students’ needs and requirements. I would suggest paying attention to those more structural and intersectional barriers such as class, race and gender that affect students’ experience at University (Reay, Crozier, & Clayton, 2010). It is not responsibility of the project to tackle those barriers, but they need to be considered as external factors that have an impact on the PALM project. For example, as was said, most of students works and have other sort of commitments, so it would be recommendable to privilege methodologies based on individual (mentor and mentees) tutorials. Finally, it would be also recommendable to develop a virtual space of meeting between mentors and mentees which they could access while they are not at university which might bring participation of more first-year and second year students.

 

Andrea Lizama Loyola, research assistant PALM project.

PhD in Sociology. The University of Manchester

 

Works Cited

Crozier, Rea, Clayton, & Grinstead, C. a. (2008). Different strokes for different folks: diverse students in diverse institutions–experiences of higher education. Research papers in education, 167-177.

Reay, D., Crozier, G., & Clayton, J. (2010). ‘Fitting in’or ‘standing out’: Working‐class students in UK higher education. British educational research journal, 36(1), 107-124.

Tomlinson, M. (2008). ‘The degree is not enough’: students’ perceptions of the role of higher education credentials for graduate work and employability. British journal of sociology of education, 49-61.