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Staff mentoring at DIT: A review of four programmes

Author - Leslie Shoemaker


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Research review

Students entering third-level education arrive from a sheltered educational environment where they are restricted in their choices and learning, and in a sense this reinforces their skills at an adolescent and immature level. Instead, in third-level education, students are invited to learn independently, to communicate and critically evaluate throughout their length of stay. This is a major academic and personal transition within the life of a student (Cottrell, 1999). Additionally, when arriving at third-level education, the individual will for the first time be faced with other demands, such as rent, course fees, living and social expenses, as well as related academic costs. This step into independent living can be frightening and overwhelming for the inexperienced young adult.

It has been recognised that the ‘non-academic’ (i.e. social, personal and psychological) needs of third-level students have often been overlooked and/or unrecognised by the staff with whom have direct contact (Irish Independent, 21 April 2002, 6 January 2003). Yet it is these issues that can have a significant impact on the learner’s academic success, completion of a course as well as a successful transition to the workforce (Gibbs, Graham et al. 2000). During 2001–2, Frank Costello, DIT’s Retention Officer, implemented a survey to first-year students which focused on their experiences up to that point. He evaluated the responses of 1,356 students across 43 courses, which represented all six faculties throughout DIT. His research identifies four types of students in first year:

- the at-risk student;
- the struggler;
- the average student, and
- the confident student.

The needs identified for the first two types of student relate to many personal-identity issues such as confidence, career choice, and course choice. Academic issues pertaining to study skills relate to the first three categories of DIT students.

Based on the results of Mr. Costello’s survey, further psychological research was reviewed with the intention of addressing the variety of issues, both personal and developmental, that are presented by the student population having reached third-level education (Malin & Birch, 1998). The general age of full-time students at DIT is between 18 and 22 years of age. This age group corresponds with Erikson’s adolescent and young adult stages in his theory of psychological development. From this theory, two distinct target areas of psychological, personal and social needs are highlighted, focusing on the development of individual identity and relationships to others.

Using Erikson’s theory, supported by the results of the Costello survey, a clearer picture of the needs of DIT students has emerged. Students entering third-level education are in the midst of the adolescent stage, which is characterised by identity versus role-confusion conflict. At this stage in any individual’s development, the person is searching and struggling for his/her identity in regards to self, occupation, sex role, politics as well as religion. This can be a very challenging experience for the student, now faced with the prospect of forging new relationships, negotiating a new academic and possible living environment. In addition, they are further faced with the prospect of presenting their independent self to the world without not necessarily knowing who they are, what they believe, what they think, and what they want/need. This can feel very confusing and threatening to a newborn adult. This sense of concern about the new arrivals has been identified also in the Costello survey, most prominently with the struggler and at risk students.

In creating a formal staff-mentoring programme, the aim is for it to become a seamless part of the college, departmental and course networks that support new students as well as for the other ’established’ student groups. This provision would be extended through the many transitions that the students, in particular the first years and other newcomers, are currently facing, thus assisting the at-risk and struggling students into becoming the average or confident students. The programme is meant to provide appropriate individual and ‘hands-on’ attention, as well as guidance and/or referrals to other agencies within DIT that this transition may require. The successful completion of this stage will affect course satisfaction, healthy relationships, psychological well being and social involvement which is linked to a positive outcome of the student in terms of commitment and endurance.

Another phase of development is young adulthood, characterised by the conflict of intimacy versus isolation in which the young adult must develop intimate relationships with others in order to proceed successfully in the next life stage. Once again, stepping out as an independent adult is the challenge of this particular age group. The individual on his/her own may not have the skills to make this transitional step. This may be observed in incidences of bullying, scape-goating, social isolation, difficulty in performing any activities whether social or academic when the spotlight is on them, further illustrated by Costello’s research. The successful completion of this stage will affect psychological well being, relationships within the college, communication needs, responsibility for self and social activity. All of this will prepare the individual for entering the workplace. Another psychological concept that applies to a staff-mentoring programme is based upon the theoretical model of modelling. Modelling is otherwise known as observational (social) learning, and the basis of this theory is that learning can occur through the process of observing someone else’s activity; therefore the application of consequences is not necessary for learning to take place (Huitt and Hummel, 1997). This type of teaching technique has been formally and successfully applied to many educational situations in Ireland and abroad (Ehly and Topping, 1998, p. 27; Adelgais, King and Staffieri, 1998, p. 134). In Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University and DIT the concept of peers helping peers has been translated into peer-counselling and peer-mentoring programmes (Keane and Kennedy, 2002). The commerce department at University College Dublin, and the faculty of engineering at DIT have successfully imbedded peer-assisted learning into the curriculum with positive results, as reported by both staff and students at both institutions (Costello and Russell, 2003).

The concept also naturally applies to student- and staff-mentoring programmes where students would be able to learn appropriate behaviour/skills through the observation of the appointed staff mentor(s). In a sense, this relationship loosely parallels a parent–child one. I believe this is especially true since first-year students are entering a new environment that as a whole does not offer much ‘safety’ since it is unfamiliar and requires moving from a restrictive educational model to one that is characterised by independent learning. This, as has already been mentioned, can be quite overwhelming for an adolescent. If a relationship with a staff member can be facilitated, then safety of some degree can be created thus providing a student with an important ‘safe base’ during the first few months of a difficult transition period. This safe base can be further enhanced by providing a forum for first year students to regularly meet second, third and fourth year students, as has been done with the group-adviser programme that has been imbedded in the academic development and key skills module in DIT’s electricial services engineering course for technicians (DT244) as well as with Frank Costello’s pilot mentoring project in the faculty of engineering.


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