Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Have you considered being a mentor? (Ana Garcia)

Image by Dan Carlson | unsplash.com
I am lucky to have a job that is closely related to my PhD research topic: peer mentoring.

I coordinate a program that places university students as online mentors for high school science students. Being able to connect research and practice is definitely helpful and it keeps me motivated to complete my studies.

It also means that since I spend so much time thinking about my topic, it can be difficult to explain what I’m working on to other people.

A few days ago, for example, a friend of mine asked me what mentors actually do when they work with students. ‘Are they supposed to be teachers?’, she asked.

I realised I had been talking about the benefits of having a mentor and the importance of mentoring, but failed to explain what a mentor is!

Mentoring has become a widespread educational strategy in many professional fields, including academia and higher education. In essence, a mentor is someone who guides the development of an individual or group of individuals (mentees) to achieve learning and/or career goals. Mentors draw on their experiences and knowledge to help their mentees develop specific skills, and clarify or establish career objectives.

I am interested in a particular type of mentoring that employs peers (that is, fellow students) as mentors. In peer mentoring, mentors are not experts in any particular field but rather learning partners who also benefit from participating in mentoring. It was the mutuality of benefits for mentors and mentees that sparked my interest in peer mentoring. In fact, I have experienced such learning benefits myself as I have been an academic mentor in the past.

I knew nothing about peer mentoring until I joined the Peer Learning Advisers (PLA) program. Coming from a traditional higher education system, an academic support program that employed fellow students as advisers was something completely new to me.

At first, I wasn’t sure of whether I’d be able to help other students. Most students were in their first year and needed help with their assignments. They needed to know things like making sure they were responding to the essay question; checking academic writing requirements; paragraph structure; and referencing. Most queries were quite complex and involved subject topics I hadn’t studied before. I quickly noticed that my own academic skills were improving over time and I was able to offer practical advice and strategies that helped students improve their academic work. I became better at understanding students’ academic difficulties and I was able to offer helpful advice, regardless of what they were studying. More importantly, students who kept attending the PLA program also noticed an improvement in their academic and study skills. One of the most rewarding experiences was to see students gradually developing their confidence, self-esteem, and motivation to learn.

After having worked as a PLA for some time, I became interested in researching why and how peer mentoring works. My original PhD topic was completely unrelated to mentoring, but I quickly realised that peer mentoring best suited my research and personal interests.

Given my background in Psychology, I was particularly interested in uncovering the psychological and cognitive processes that enable effective peer mentoring relationships. I also realised that most of the literature focused on benefits of mentoring (as I did when explaining my work placing university mentors to my friend), but lacked a unified theoretical framework to account for the variety of outcomes that mentors and mentees experience when they participate in peer mentoring programs. A central component of my conceptual framework is the congruence that exists among students, and how this affects mentoring relationship dynamics. For example, a good mentor can understand students’ learning difficulties because they have experienced similar learning situations. Thus, they can provide explanations that resonate with students’ current developmental needs.

I am now working on an online peer mentoring project so that university students can mentor high school students in science and mathematics. Mentors and mentees connect through a customised online mentoring platform that allows them to discuss science topics, explore science and maths career opportunities, and talk about life at university. This is a great opportunity to investigate the development of mentoring relationships between peers from different institutions and levels, and to assess the effectiveness of online approaches to peer mentoring.

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Ana Garcia is the In2science eMentoring coordinator, a program funded and supported by the Department of Education and Training through the Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Programme. The eMentoring program places university students as online mentors for science high school students.

Ana has previously worked as senior Peer Learning Adviser within the PLA program at La Trobe University. Her PhD thesis focuses on peer mentoring relationships, the effects of congruence among peers, and motivation factors that enable or constrain effective peer mentoring.

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