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Retention-busting peer mentoring: the Edith Cowan scheme

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

I have heard of a dramatically successful scheme in the psychology department at Edith Cowan university (in Perth, Western Australia), that has a scheme that has reportedly reduced dropout from about 23% to 5%. This page has my rough notes about it.

I heard about it in a talk at PLAT10 (abstract but no paper available): Bronwyn Harman "Building competence in undergraduate students through practicum experience" There seem to have been papers about the early days, but not about the later, mature, more effective and better evidenced stages. The current organiser is Bronwyn Harman.

My notes and comments

  • This is a big scheme in terms of people: about 1,000 year-1 mentees and 100-120 year-3 mentors. An assignment, roughly, of 10 mentees per mentor.
  • This is a small scheme in terms of time: it runs for only 12 weeks (the first weeks of a new student's time); the sessions are only 20 mins long; they run only alternate weeks (though there is an electronic newsletter in the interleaved weeks).
  • It is notable for NOT being voluntary. Mentors do it as a compulsory part of their year 3 course (though the feedback shows clear benefits to them, and enrolment in that course is increasing since the scheme took this form). Mentees do it as a compulsory part of their semester 1 module. [This takes care of the problem of students having to have a story to tell themselves about why they are doing it. Many people will not use a dating service because it makes them feel like shameful failures even to consider using it. Similarly for many student schemes of this kind.]
  • There is a curriculum topic set for each meeting, in the area of "academic skills" e.g. finding material in the library. This gives a structure and an overt reason for the meeting, even though mentors would give priority to questions rasied by mentees regardless of topic.
  • Timetabling a time is done by arranging to have the relevant year-1 and year-3 classes happen at the same time; and organising a 20 min. break in the middle of their 3-hour lecture slots for this.
  • Timetabling a place is done by using a large grassy area outside the lecture theatres (no weather problems in Perth). [Universities with no adequate social space for students may like to calculate the fees saved by the 180 dropouts per year averted by this scheme: probably about a million pounds sterling p.a.]
  • Goals (implicit, indirect) This scheme seems to me to be particularly masterful in its handling of the relationship of implicit, indirect, passive goals, to overt and active ones. This relationship is common in life, but the naive literature on "motivation" completely misses them. Examples are a businessman plays golf in order to "make contacts" and discuss business informally; teenagers listen to music or drink alcohol in order to socialise with their old friends and to search for new lovers.

    The high level (but implicit, indirect) goals of the scheme are:

    The lower level (also implicit, indirect) goals of the scheme are: Announcing these goals in a loud voice doesn't progress them, and may even obstruct them. Creating the situations and interpersonal interactions in which they may be advanced, does.
  • Students need to to feel connected to the university; cared for; known and noticed as members of the university. This scheme does this by a) introducing them to a small group of peers; b) introducing them to a more experienced student willing to talk to them and answer their questions; c) linking them to a staff member.
  • This is advanced by emphasising the hierarchical (pyramid) structure of the scheme: all things the scheme leader wants to communicate to mentees is sent via, as if from, the mentors; the leader meets the mentors regularly; the leader looks into groups regularly, is seen and known by the mentees; is available if they care to drop in to her office.
  • A lot of admin. work is done pre-matching people in the scheme on the basis of some characteristics. For instance it was found that mature female students don't much like young males as mentors. Matching on age, gender, other interests is done. In other contexts, it might be worth matching on region, other subjects being studied, ...
  • This is actually a "blended" scheme: described above is how participants meet face to face, but they also communicate by email. Part of the scheme deals with distance learners who interact only by technology.

    Related educational issues / buzzwords

  • Mentoring
  • Peer assisted learning
  • Study skills / academic skills training
  • Transition (school to university)
  • Retention, dropout.
  • Academic and social integration

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