There is a paradox associated with college student peer mentoring programs
On the one hand, colleges and universities have increasingly turned to peer mentoring programs as part of their efforts to facilitate student success and retention. On the other hand, in many instances programs may lack clear, explicit explanations of how peer mentoring is supposed to bring about the range of positive effects its champions claim it can deliver. Sometimes overly enthusiastic peer mentoring advocates makes claims they cannot deliver.
Peer mentoring is not a magic bullet for solving any and all problems students face as they make transitions in higher education. To be clear, there is no direct causal relationship between students’ participating in a peer mentoring program and mastering specific content material or completing a particular degree program. What peer mentoring can do is directly affect key intervening variables that have been associated with a greater likelihood of college student success and persistence.
It is helpful to think of Peer mentoring as a set of tools for promoting college student success and retention. Different tools in the set can be used in different ways to accomplish different goals. Here are some examples.
Peer mentoring can increase mentee engagement and involvement in learning. (Jacobi, 1991, p. 523)
Astin’s student involvement model proposes that the extent to which a student is engaged and involved in the actual process of his or her education is an excellent predictor of academic success and degree completion. For Astin, involvement refers to “the amount of physical and psychological energy the student puts into his or her academic experiences” (p. 297). Academic experiences can be very general, such as involvement in campus activities, or very specific, such as studying for a specific examination.
Astin also establishes that peer groups can have an impact on the level of student involvement in the learning process; students whose friends are engaged in campus activities are more likely to become involved themselves.. Peer mentoring programs can help students get involved in their educations by connecting them to opportunities to take part in campus activities. Mentors’ modeling of the college student role is a particularly effective tool for helping mentees understand the benefits of being an engaged learner.. It is not so much the specific activities modeled by peer mentors that are important as that these modeled activities encourage student mentees to more actively participate in their own educations. Peer mentoring promotes increases mentee involvement in learning through mentors demonstrating the positive effects of involvement.
Tinto proposes that background characteristics, feelings of connection, and the degree of fit between the student and the institutional environment determine whether a student will drop out of college or persist until graduation. In this model an individual arrives at college with a package of assets including individual attributes, such as intelligence or creativity; pre-college schooling experiences, such as the availability of advanced placement courses in high school; and family background characteristics, such as parents’ educational or income levels. These assets have an impact on two kinds of connection that in turn have an impact on students’ persistence at college. Academic connection refers to students’ desire to complete a college degree, while social connection, which refers to students’ desire to get a degree at a particular institution. In Tinto’s model, academic and social connection are important predictors of whether students decide to persist or drop out of college. With all other factors held constant, the more a student feels academically connected at school, the more that student will be committed to completing a college degree. Similarly, the more socially connected students feel, the more they will commit to completing degrees at their respective colleges.
Peer mentoring impacts student success, in this model, by facilitating mentees’ social connections to their respective colleges and universities. First, peer mentors can make mentees aware of different opportunities to participate in campus activities. In addition, through role modeling and participating in these activities themselves, mentors can help mentees better understand the college culture and the value of active getting involved in campus life. Increased levels of social connection, facilitated by peer mentoring, then is associated with increased chances of mentees completing their college degrees,
Peer mentoring can provide mentees with emotional support and validation.
As noted in an earlier post, mentees consistently report how important their mentors’ emotional support is to them. First-generation and under-represented students who may question whether they really belong in college particularly value this kind of support (Ishiyama, 2007, p. 457).
Mentor support increases mentee success by validating them as legitimate college students. It works like this. As students make transitions in higher education (e.g. high school to college, 2 year to four year), they figure out how well they are enacting the college student role through social feedback. The most effective feedback comes from others who understand and are using the same version of the role the student is using (Collier, 2001). The fact that peer mentors are successful students at the same school the mentees are attending lends weight to the mentors’ feedback. So when the mentor validates a mentee’s effort by acknowledging that the mentee is a legitimate college student, the mentee is more likely to believe that feedback.
The next post will focus on three more important ways that peer mentoring can impact other key variables that directly promote mentee success:
Next: Peer Mentoring is a set of Tools; How You Use them makes a difference part 2