Analysis: statistical analysis has revealed that students who take part in a mentoring programme are less likely to dropout

By Aiden Carthy and Katharine SlatteryInstitute of Technology Blanchardstown

Although college life can be fun and exciting, many first year students are overwhelmed by the challenges that transitioning to college can cause and ultimately drop out. Previous research has confirmed that many capable and academically engaged students drop out of college as a result of emotional issues, in particular loneliness and social anxiety. 

A recent report published by the Higher Education Authority states that over 6,000 first year students dropped out during the 2014-2015 college year. Although the average dropout rate was 14 percent, dropout rates of over 25 percent were reported in some instances. 

Helping students to make friends and building a sense of community to tackle this issue would be of immense benefit both to students and colleges. One particularly effective way to do so is to offer peer mentoring to first year students. This approach has been in use for a number of years at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown (ITB) and has proven incredibly successful

Many capable students drop out of college as a result of emotional issues, in particular loneliness and social anxiety

In 2014, the college began working with Peer Mentoring Resources to develop a custom-made mentoring programme for all incoming first year students. Now in its fifth year, the programme has transformed the first year experience at the college. At ITB, we recognise that induction needs to be a process rather than an event, so the mentoring programme spans both semesters one and two of first year and the feedback from students has been incredibly positive. 

Students are placed into small groups of six to eight people and assigned a mentor who will be a senior student within their discipline. Mentors are trained in the skills required and are supported in their role by the mentor trainer and programme co-ordinator. Students then meet once per week for a lunchtime session and each session is given a theme such as Settling In, Who Can Help Me? or Wellness and How to Deal With Stress. 

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The mentoring sessions are deliberately scheduled at lunchtime so that students will not have timetabled classes and will always be free to attend. The sessions are informal and involve games, activities, quizzes and importantly pizza! Guest speakers are also invited to present to students and information pertaining to support services in the college are provided. Students can chat and ask their mentors for help or advice and lecturers and support staff are also present during these sessions so there is a real sense of community.

In fact, it is precisely this rounded 360 degree approach that makes the programme so successful and helps students feel part of a supportive environment. Mentoring provides that extra arm of support for someone during what can be a challenging period of his or her life. The mentoring relationship provides a safe environment to ask questions and express concerns to someone who has "been there, done that". Supports such as a Facebook group are also provided for students outside the group meetings. This year’s mentors were also asked what they believe the most important piece of advice they could give a first year student would be and their tips were compiled in a short video for incoming students.

Mentoring provides that extra arm of support for someone during what can be a challenging period of his or her life

As well as the clear benefits for new students, peer mentoring provides experienced students with a more fully rounded college experience. In taking on this role, they gain the personal satisfaction of helping others, as well as a fantastic opportunity to develop their skills in the areas of communication, leadership and problem solving. "I have so much more confidence!" is one piece of feedback consistently received from the student mentors.

In addition to the social benefits for students who have taken part in the mentoring programme, statistical analysis has revealed that students who take part are statistically less likely to dropout. In some courses, participation has also been linked to increases in students’ grade point averages.

Dr Larry McNutt, Registrar at ITB has stated that "initiatives such as peer mentoring are designed to resource our students to support each other - providing a foundation and a scaffold that will grow with them as they embrace the transformative opportunity afforded by higher education." The real success of the programme can be easily demonstrated by one of last year’s participants who simply stated that "it was fun and made people not worry so much about college". 

Dr Aiden Carthy is Director of the National Research Centre for Psychology, Education and Emotional Intelligence at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown. Katharine Slattery is director of Peer Mentoring Resources 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ