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Staff mentoring at DIT: A review of four programmes

Author - Leslie Shoemaker

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Below is information regarding four programmes which has been obtained from meetings with individuals involved with the identified programmes. The following is a discussion of four courses that are currently implementing staff-mentoring programmes.

Degree in electrical and control systems engineering (FT009)
(intake of first years students = 38 )

At the start of the 2003–4 academic year, Dr Cecilia Chan joined the school of Control Systems and Electrical Engineering. Her newly created role is intended to be divided between mentoring (4 hours/week) and lecturing (12 hours/week) and has incorporated the following:

- provides individual tutorials when necessary to address academic weaknesses;
- monitors attendance as well as marks – she will contact students who have been excessively absent and/or have low marks, in order to assess the difficulties;
- gathers information from students identifying their engineering and computer knowledge as well as their interests and personal information (i.e. email address, residence, mobile number, etc).
- establishes an individual relationship with each student by developing a sense of trust and friendship. As part of this she meets students individually, even if only for a couple of minutes at the end of class. If Dr Chan is unable to provide assistance, she will refer the student to an individual who can.

It seems that this approach has been effective since only three students have formally withdrawn from FT009, and the average reported class attendance is well over 50%. This is a dramatic improvement over the prior year where almost 70% of the first-year students did not proceed into the second year of the course.

Dr Chan explains that she has been conscious to address not only the academic elements but also the ‘human’ components. As she has noted, learning should be fun and this can be achieved by:

- encouraging students to organise and/or participate in social event since this helps them to ‘feel’ a part of something and this develops group cohesion;
- nominating class representatives in each class and allocating responsibilities to them;
- calling on students for answers and creating an environment where students can learn by association (i.e. stories, analogies, and so on);
- creating motivation by creating assignments that include targets and rewards, as well as by exhibiting enthusiasm with students;
- demonstrating tolerance to aid students in moving from a rigid course ethic to a more flexible medium for learning.

Dr Chan maintains that her student-retention programme does not ensure that the 35 students currently registered for exams will progress to second year, but her programme, in her opinion, is at least a pre-emptive and dynamic move to retain student numbers. It is also her belief that this is not a job for one person, and it is of utmost importance that the programme ethos should be adopted at school level by all lecturing staff.

Certificate/diploma in electrical services engineering (DT244)
(intake of first years students = 48)

This four-year-old certificate/diploma programme has been quite innovative in course design and implementation. The primary focus has been holistic in that the ‘whole’ needs of the students are being addressed. This has been achieved by several methods but two specific areas relate to the concept of mentoring.

1. Three staff members have been assigned the role of advising the first-year students, and one further staff member is the first year coordinator. These staff have been selected because they have at least weekly class and/or lab contact with the first-year students. There are also advisers assigned to the second- and third-year student groups.
2. In 2000, this course implemented a new two-year module, academic development and key skills, designed and is managed by a psychologist. This module responds to the need of students as identified from self-reports, survey results and psychological research. Programmes such as this have been established in the UK and US, and research supports the validity of these projects (Gibbs, Graham et. al. , 2000). In addition, a group-advising programme between the first and second year students exists within this module. Both groups of students share a class at least twice a month during the academic year.

Even though the school of Control Systems and Electrical Engineering has been able to establish successfully a student-centred ethos, no formal staff-mentoring programme had been developed. Recently, retention problems have arisen. As part of the solution, a new post of student retention officer (SRO) was created in December 2003. Two hours per week have been allocated to this post and the current responsibilities are as follows:

- initiates contact with students who have been identified as having difficulties (i.e. reports from lecturers or poor marks and/or attendance) and meets with them to review situation and options; will meet with staff and students at their request (these responsibilities are shared with the year coordinator);
- mentors students with identified difficulties such as dyslexia, and liaises with the disabilities officer/staff to provide assistance (this contact continues throughout the student’s time in this course);
- in case of illness leading to absence, DT244 students submit medical certificates to the SRO who notifies and/or liaises with the appropriate staff about the certified absence;
- initiates contact with staff about outstanding attendance and/or marks or specific difficulties with a student;
- attends the course committee meeting each term;
- provides updates to the department head and year coordinator;
- facilitates the selection of student representatives for each year of DT244 and allocates responsibilities to them;
- identifies and prepares students for roles such as demonstrators on information days;
- notifies students of exam registration;
- makes referrals to the appropriate DIT student services, and maintains contact with these services when appropriate;
- In 2004–5, the SRO will be involved with induction and is assisting with the development of a new students intake form. In addition, the SRO and the year coordinator will meet with each student during the first term to review progress, and so on.

It is too early to determine the full impact this role has had with the current first year students but initial feedback from staff and students has been quite positive. Currently there are 27 students registered for exams. Two students have deferred for medical reasons, four have left the course to follow electrician apprenticeships, one student recently left to begin a motor-mechanic apprenticeship, and four have left to pursue other academic courses such as nursing and graphic design. It is unknown why the remaining 10 students departed since they have not responded to correspondence or phone calls about this matter. Obviously this is a situation that will warrant further evaluation over the next couple of years to determine the effectiveness of this role in regards to the transition issues for first-year students and retention, as well as to develop this position to its full potential.

Diploma in applied science (DT 273/1)
(intake of first years students = 86)

This science course rotates the role of staff coordinator for first-year students between the schools of chemistry, biology and physics every couple of years. Recently staff from chemistry have assumed this role and its associated tasks, although this job with be passed on to biology or physics in the coming academic year until the next rotation. The staff coordinator’s tasks have been divided into three areas – induction, student/staff contact and record keeping:


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