Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Subgroup on Mentoring in ANTH 143

David Burns, Tyler Cain, Jake Hendee, Joe Matuch

December 14, 2009

CHP 395: Designing for Effective Change

Proposal for a Peer-Mentoring Program

The Problem

Student disengagement is a serious problem facing post-secondary education (and education of any level, in fact.) Defined as a student’s lack of full involvement or attention in a course, disengagement poses a threat to the continuing quality of education.

A common symptom of student disengagement is the admission to doing “only what’s necessary to pass” courses or degree requirements. No interest in his or her studies is apparent. A disengaged student will not get involved in anything that demands “extra work” beyond that which is absolutely required.

Student disengagement is a danger to the future of post-secondary education. Besides its negative effects on a student’s grade point average and chances for success, disengagement causes damage to the educational institution. Graduating students who were routinely disengaged throughout their college career will have considerably less knowledge and fewer skills than if they had been completely engaged. These students enter the next phase of life (be it the job force, graduate school, etc.) with a relatively lower level of competency, resulting in a diminished reputation of the educational institution. As disengagement spreads further, the value of a bachelor’s degree decreases as fewer graduates achieve a high level of competency.

Additionally, individual courses within an educational institution are damaged by student disengagement. Student participation, particularly in making known the areas of a course that need improvement, fits into the category of “extra work” that a disengaged student is most likely to skip. This is a deadly cycle: the problems which may have disengaged the student in the first place are never fixed due to the disengaged student’s failure to point out these problems.

The problems associated with disengagement are not only practical. Student disengagement also presents the ethical dilemma of student and instructor responsibility. Gretchen Winter, the Executive Director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society at the College of Business in the University of Illinois, describes “responsibility” as having three levels: compliance – what one must do, ethics – what one should do, and values – what one aspires to do. These ranks accurately model a student’s involvement in a course. A disengaged student achieves only compliance. To increase the effectiveness of learning in a course, the student must reach the ethics level. This responsibility lies not only on the student but also on the instructor, who has a commitment to the quality of the University and post-secondary education in general.

Disengagement may be caused by a number of factors. A course’s material may be overly difficult or overly easy for the student, or the professor may be presenting the information in an inefficient or dull manner. Both of these problems are only able to be solved to an extent, the first by working to place students more accurately within their skill level, and the latter by showing the professor better teaching techniques. A much more solvable problem, and one that may spawn the majority of disengagement, is a very low teacher to student ratio. In exceptionally large classes, it is easier for students to get “lost” in the sizeable student body. Without any real contact with the instructor, or anyone who is familiar with the course material, a student has a greater potential to get confused, behind, and eventually disengaged.

Anthropology 143: Biology of Human Behavior, with around 700 enrolled students, is a course large enough for this effect to manifest itself. In an attempt to begin breaking this tendency, a “blended” section of the course has recently been introduced to students. This smaller section puts the students in less “large lecture” time and gives them additional work with an online version of the course, stationed on Moodle. The goal of the blended section is to give students a “smaller class” version of the larger course, containing the same information but presented in a way to help stem disengagement.

The Solution

The problem described above certainly calls for a solution of which we feel we have the beginnings. A peer-mentoring program offers low-cost benefits to students, professors, and the University alike.

There are some programs already in place that resemble peer mentoring. Courses like LAS 101 or Business 101 provide students with unique opportunities to learn more about campus life and their academic field, but they stand-alone. The model for these courses cannot be uniformly applied to other courses. The structure is specific to that course, and it would be difficult (if not impossible) to take it and try to squeeze another course into it. To lessen the difficulty of applying peer mentoring across a variety of curricula, our team has a proposal for a different sort of program that can be tested first with ANTH 143, and then applied to other courses should it find success.

The basis of our proposal is that students are most able to engage fellow students. We come to this conclusion based upon our own experience, that of our colleagues in CHP 395 (Designing for Effective Change), and that of our friends outside of class. Outside of class, mentoring relationships arise out of the need for guidance, academic assistance, and friendship. We want to take the idea of these relationships and, with ANTH 143 to start, establish them from the beginning of the semester in a way that guarantees that students will have at least guidance and academic assistance provided for them. To explain how we envision this taking place, we use ANTH 143 as our example for the remainder of our proposal.

Students who have previously taken ANTH 143 are vital to the success of this model. We need students with significant interest in being peer mentors and who have excellent performance in the class. A survey, given to students at the end of the semester (see attached example), is our means of finding students who are interested. A simple grade check is our means of determining who among those interested are most qualified. It is our feeling that interested mentors would most likely be anthropology, molecular and cellular biology, or integrative biology majors, but students from any major may express interest. About 15 to 20 peer mentors would be ideal for the program.

Peer mentors would enroll in a class on leadership while they fulfill their responsibilities to students currently taking ANTH 143. The leadership class, in general, would teach mentors skills that they could apply to their field, whether medicine, research, or anything else. Specific to ANTH 143, mentors would learn how to assist students with both academic material and online aspects of the course. The latter of these is especially important because a “blended learning” approach to the course is being piloted this semester and may be fully implemented in fall 2010. Having students who have “been there” fulfill a mentoring role would likely help students as they try to navigate the online technology. To make sure that mentors are available to help at a variety of times, each mentor would have scheduled office hours where any student could come in for assistance.

We believe that a system of increasing incentives will be fair compensation and attract peer mentors. Since students can take ANTH 143 during their first semester on campus, they may choose to be peer mentors for each of the following three fall semesters. During their first semester as a mentor, students might receive course credit as their compensation, which is fair because much of their learning will be concurrent with their acting as mentors. Students who wish to return as mentors would receive hourly pay. We feel that monetary compensation for second or third time mentors is fair because their responsibility would increase to mentoring students in the class as well as helping teach other mentors. Mentors would be encouraged to return as many times as they wish because experienced mentors are a vital asset to any mentoring program. An interdepartmental drive toward peer mentoring might allow students from different disciplines to be tutors within courses offered by departments other than their own. We think mentors would return because each semester would offer them a different experience, compensation would increase as they remain with the program, and this unique opportunity would augment any resume.

One might wonder if such a program is feasible given the current economic condition of our state and the decrease of fiscal resources, but there are several reasons why the program will work. First of all, it is possible that the program will require no extra resources during its first semester. No mentors will be paid during their first semester. Only if mentors were to return for a second fall semester would they receive any sort of financial benefits. Second, the use of mentors may be more efficient than using graduate student teacher’s assistants. Mentors can grade assignments as part of their duties, and they already are taking on some of the responsibilities of graduate students by assisting with explaining material to undergraduates. Furthermore, the current model of ANTH 143, and we would hypothesize other courses, requires a lot of teaching and preparation time from professors who are hired to do research. Professor Kate Clancy, instructor for ANTH 143, has higher productivity under this model, and we think students still learn more. It is difficult for Professor Clancy to do research in the fall while preparing an honors, blended, and regular section of the course. Therefore, we believe introducing a single, blended section with peer mentoring would be a more efficient model for ANTH 143, and for other courses.

ANTH 143

In the past, ANTH 143 has been very responsive to innovation. The professor incorporates iClickers into lecture as a way to conduct formative assessment. In addition, the course has a Moodle site, a classroom management system and virtual learning environment. The Moodle site has allowed the anthropology department to take the next step in molding the course to better fit students’ needs and test the capabilities of new technology. The aforementioned “blended” section of ANTH 143 depends on Moodle for organizing outside activities, talking with the professor and teacher’s assistant, and general classroom management. The next step, we believe, to making ANTH 143 a course that meets students’ needs, beyond even one semester, is to apply a peer-mentoring model to the blended section.

Our group received access to the ANTH 143 Moodle page near the end of the fall semester. On first glance, there are a few differences that immediately jump out. First, there are “virtual office hours.” Students may talk with the instructor online at certain times throughout the week. In addition, there are opportunities for traditional in person office hours. Furthermore, some activities in the blended course require “Wimba Voice Tools,” which “allow you to record and listen to audio,” according to the Moodle site. None of us, as seniors, have ever had to use such technology during our academic careers here at the U of I; this is new to us, and it seems like it might take some time for students to become familiar with using it for assignments. With new technology and online learning, it seems like there could be potential for challenges using it and initial reservations on the part of students. From the student perspective, having someone who has had similar experience available to answer questions is a significant help.

The general structure of the blended section has students complete weekly readings, activities, and assignments. Readings come from one of two texts, which students may purchase in hard copy or online form. Activities are, for the most part, online discussions, videos to watch, or something in that same realm of learning. Assignments include online quizzes or group project submissions on a wiki. Though lecture and some group work require in-person interaction, the majority of the course takes place independently from wherever a student’s computer resides.

Peer mentors who have taken ANTH 143, especially those who have experience using the online technology associated with the blended section, could have a very positive impact on students’ learning experiences. They could hold their own in-person and online office hours to help students figure out the technology and coursework. It is likely that a former student will have previously encountered any sort of technological gaffe encountered by a student in the blended section. Peer mentoring makes communication among these students easier. When students begin working on their unit projects in groups of five, there begins a series of “checks” to make sure the group is progressing toward its common goal. A peer mentor could be assigned to their group to check in with them on their progress. If there is a topic in the course that is confusing, students may contact a former student may be able to address it before the instructor needs to be involved.

Peer mentors will, as previously mentioned, take a course that instructs them in best practice and leadership. They will learn how to take what they already know from having taken ANTH 143 and help their fellow students. These are skills that everyone should have. One truly understands something when one is able to clearly explain it to a peer and have them in turn understand it. After having taken this seminar course, mentors will have the skills required to do their best. They will, under the guidance of the professor or an experienced peer mentor, aid students currently enrolled in ANTH 143.

It may seem like this proposal takes students away from the professor, who is seen as an “expert,” and requires them to spend more time with fellow students, who might be considered more of “amateurs.” In reality, this strategy is meant to put students into contact with the most talented people who became experienced with and succeeded using the online technology of a blended course. A single instructor for a course of 750 students is not the solution, and using all available resources, including former students, is the solution. To demonstrate this, we have the following quote from an announcement posted to the ANTH 143 Moodle site on August 24, 2009:

“This class is large, with an enrollment of 750 students. This means that I [Professor Clancy] won’t get to know as many of you as I would like. Please take advantage of every opportunity you can to meet me, such as a quick hello or question after class, or visiting my office hours. Because of the volume of email for a class this size I ask that you not email me and instead email the TA – should the email involve me they will forward it along. Don’t misunderstand this sanity-saving strategy as my not wanting to get to know you. I hope you will get as interested and invested in this material as I am, and I hope we will get to engage with it outside of class time or in other ANTH courses that you may take with me.”

What we have in ANTH 143 is a professor who truly wishes to know students and interact with them and 750 students who are interested in learning. There is a gap present that can be filled if we are willing to try an approach that has been successful at smaller scales.

With ANTH 143, we have both a course that has shown itself to be able to be adapted to new resources and ideas in instruction. Applying the peer-mentoring model we have proposed is the next step for this course and possibly for others on campus. It will teach students leadership skills; provide current ANTH 143 students with help from experienced students; increase student engagement; free the University from requiring so many teachers’ assistants; and free Professor Clancy to do more of the research she has been hired to do. Overall, we believe this model will work well for all parties involved and should be considered.


  1. Part 1

    Throughout the semester we have used the term engagement to refer to the mode of student behavior we'd like to see on campus. There are other terms that might be useful to bring out here that are similar but have somewhat different connotations. Recently, there has been much discussion among eLearning folks like me of immersive learning environments (think of gaming or reading a really good book) where the learner gets so into it that he or she entirely loses self-awareness. Personally, I want students to be intense about their learning. This feeling of passion and intensity is noticeable to others and perhaps is contagious.

    The proposal at present views students as learners in Anth 143 as possibly impeded - by the technology, by how to work effectively in groups, and by their own phobias, particularly regarding science. Peer mentoring is then conceived as a way to remove impediments. Under this view, when individuals and groups are not so impeded, they don't really have need of the peer mentors. Certainly, eliminating the impediments is a necessary first step.

    However, in my conception of peer mentoring prior to teaching our class, there would be more. Peer mentoring would be a way to instill intensity in the students, to get them to go the extra mile in their studies. Consider what we've learned in our own class via the portfolio reflections of your classmates.

    Angelica "discovered" after producing several reflections that were less than satisfactory that she could do better by producing an initial draft and then writing her post only after that. Reworking her initial draft she could integrate the writing more and make the ideas flow in a coherent manner. Xuan likewise discovered the need to read material that was not assigned in order to have something richer to react to when writing her reflections. Dave L reports that he constantly monitors his efforts and asks himself - am I learning? - and when the answer is know he goes through some auto correction process to ensure that he is indeed learning.

    If the students in Anth 143 are to be intense about their own learning they need to find some way, like the above or still something different but that works for them, to produce very good work. If peer mentoring is to help with that then it needs to do at least two things. One is to create an expectation that good work will be produced. That expectation must be stern yet reasonable. The students then would go beyond their normal performance to a higher plane. The other thing is to help students find that outside device the lets them deliver on that expectation. It won't be immediate what that device should be. The students will likely struggle to find it. That mentor has to help in the struggle. The mentor can't do it for the student. But the mentor can provide support.

    This idea is not in the proposal as it is written above. If we see a revised version of this proposal (obviously that would be beyond our own course, because we're nearing the end of final exam week) it would be good to incorporate some sense of it into the revision.

  2. Part 2

    Doing that, one might then question what the right student to mentor ratio should be to realistically expect that outcome. The recommendation at present is for 15 to 20 mentors, implying a student to mentor ratio of 35 to 1 or higher. My belief is that the ratio needs to be much lower, say 10 to 1, which would require about 70 mentors. Professor Clancy can't manage that many mentors directly, which means you can't get to this outcome immediately. But if senior mentors manage junior mentors then perhaps it is feasible. The steady state wouldn't be achieved in fall 2010. There would have to be continued changes to the course for several years before the full approach could attain.

    There is then the question of whether if the mentoring took this more intensive form would mentors still be learning lots of new things the second time they mentored and, if so, could they receive course credit for it that second time. Here is one possible way for that to happen. Junior mentors could focus more on the impediments to learning in the course. Senior mentors could focus on developing the intensity. I don't know if that division of labor makes sense in practice.

    I offer it here more as food for thought about what the plan might be for 2011 and beyond. There are limits to what can be accomplished in the next offering. Don't let block the view of what might be possible long term.