Higher education institutions need every tool they can muster to help students achieve academically. Social and emotional factors can either detract from or form the foundation of student success. While we have seen rising numbers of programs that utilize peer-to-peer mentorship in education settings for decades, during and after the Covid pandemic, the need for socio-academic support is genuinely urgent. Although more research is desirable, the efficacy and availability of this method of support encourages the current trend we see in higher education institutions expanding peer mentoring programs.
Peer Mentoring Extends the Reach of Student Services
Peer mentoring and tutoring programs are one way of extending the reach of thinly stretched student services on campus. Along with the overwhelming needs of students who have been set back academically during the pandemic, the mental health challenges facing college populations are daunting. Promoting student success is a central goal of student services, and adding student-to-student programming is an effective way to assist students.
Struggling students can undoubtedly use mentorship programs, but newer students and those who don’t outwardly exhibit signs of distress can also benefit. Peer programs can address both the social-emotional and learning issues facing mentees and have many of the same benefits for the mentors. With a shortage of counselors and other staff members to serve this avalanche of students experiencing challenges, using peer or near-peer students can benefit both those who volunteer and those who accept help. For tutoring programs, paying student tutors can be another way to address the financial problems facing many students at different stages in their higher education journey.
Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Mentoring
The immediate benefits of peer programming are fostering a sense of belonging, social connection, higher self-esteem, and improvements in academic performance. For students new to college, especially underrepresented groups and women, the guidance of a mentor can help them adjust to the expectations, routines, and challenges of higher education.
The emotional benefits that flow from the social connection of the mentoring relationship include a reduction in anxiety and loneliness for both parties. In addition, mentors can see the physical and mental health benefits that flow from giving to others, including lower blood pressure and stress levels, greater happiness, and lower risk of depression. The social nature of the interaction can improve the mood of both parties, which confers long- and short-term health benefits as well.
Mentoring can improve study habits, motivation, and self-organization. The mentors reinforce their own academic knowledge when they help with schoolwork, plus they gain self-esteem, confidence, and leadership skills.
More extended-term benefits for universities can include better student retention rates, improved academic performance for underrepresented students, and an enhanced sense of community on campus. There can also be cost benefits to fostering peer interaction, reducing the load on severely strained professional counseling staff.
Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Fosters Student Success
Which Students Need Peer Mentoring Programs?
Many programs target minority, first-generation, or female students. In STEM subjects, these students often feel out of place. To increase the number of underrepresented groups studying and working in these fields, programs directed at helping them persist and succeed are valuable. However, mentoring programs can benefit students in all demographic groups, especially in adapting to their role as college students.
Designing a program where students can choose their mentor is advisable, and the benefits gained from mentors who share demographic characteristics are especially valuable. For example, a female student studying computer science may benefit most from being mentored by a more advanced woman in the same field who can share how she overcame the challenges associated with the scarcity of women in tech majors.
Cross-cultural mentoring relationships can work as well. One program paired business majors with international students studying at the same school to improve their global awareness, flexibility, openness, and cultural competency, which aided their readiness for work upon graduation. In other situations, pairing international students with local students can help them adjust to and fit in with the campus environment in an unfamiliar country.
Yet another student population targeted by some programs is those on the autism spectrum. Though studies have been small so far, with rising rates of children diagnosed with ASD, this at-risk population has shown improved well-being, academic success, and retention with peer programming. In addition, students with other disorders like ADHD, diagnosed mental health problems, and chronic illnesses may similarly respond well to peer programs that support their college success.
Distance education students are another group who stand to benefit from peer mentoring. Regardless of the shifts to online classes during the Covid pandemic, online programs are increasingly popular for non-traditional students, and fostering a sense of community and belonging makes the possibility of peer mentoring quite promising.
Implementing Peer Mentoring Programs
Setting up a peer-to-peer mentoring program requires more than just connecting the two sets of students. University staff will need to oversee the program to recruit, train, and supervise mentors. Mentors will need training to understand their role, better coach mentees to be successful learners, and identify campus resources for referrals, among other topics. Mentors in these programs need ongoing support, structure, and guidance. Program activities can bring together participants to attend sporting and cultural events, hold mixers, and offer space for study buddies to meet.
Student Peer Mentoring Program Best Practices
Each program will have unique aims and challenges, but the following considerations can be useful as you develop a peer-to-peer mentoring framework:
- Keep the primary focus on the relationship between mentor and mentee, but provide structure and many planned activities to assist in the relationship-building.
- Remember that growth can happen for both mentor and mentee, and make sure to articulate and assess the positive impacts on mentors.
- Allow students to participate in leadership and design for maximal impact.
- Staff leadership and engagement are crucial to success.
- Recruit a diverse group of mentors—not just high-achieving and thus possibly overscheduled students
- Be cautious about offering course credit or other incentives to mentors, as they may drop out as soon as they receive the incentive.
- Peer mentors need extensive training to take on this essentially adult role.
- Look for transition points or topics where peer intervention can be more effective than adult mentoring.
Adding or expanding peer-to-peer mentoring and tutoring programs can benefit universities and colleges, but it does take thought and work to implement effective programs. While these programs have proven overwhelmingly successful for schools, the involvement and commitment of students are crucial. But strong mentoring programs aimed at at-risk and underrepresented students can be extraordinarily valuable in boosting retention and graduation rates. Moreover, with the multiple issues facing students today, any program that can help students achieve academic success while supporting their mental and social health can ultimately benefit the institution.
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