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
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.