Peer Mentoring Key to Engineering Student Success in Remote Learning
Jennifer Seaton posted on September 07, 2020 |
Remote learning creates challenges, and students may feel isolated or lonely in online environments.
(Image Courtesy of Florida State University.)
(Image Courtesy of Florida State University.)

Many post secondary institutions have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by offering online options to students, but this change to online education can create challenges. Students can often feel isolated and lonely when participating in all-online learning environments, which may hinder their academic success.

One way to combat the feeling of isolation is for institutions and departments is to offer peer mentorship programs to students. Peer mentors play an important role in introducing students to the supports and resources a university offers, and they play a bigger role in helping new students establish a social network. As colleges and universities move away from classroom learning, finding ways to facilitate online peer mentoring have become increasingly important.

The Benefits of Peer Mentorship

Student engagement is a critical factor in student success, and a key component of engagement is the student’s activity in the university community, both academically and socially. In fact, much of the success of a first-year student is attributed to both the student’s determination to succeed in their courses, and the student’s sense of connection to their university community. The research of Vincent Tinto points to the importance of peer groups in creating this sense of connection to the university.

Pairing first-year students to peer mentors helps new students engage in campus life. Many new students, both on and off campus, undervalue how critical peer support is to their academic success. In online learning environments, offering peer support can become particularly important. Feelings of isolation can be amplified online because students lack the physical presence of other students on a day-to-day basis.

Although technology exists to help students connect online, students have to choose to invest in learning and using these technologies. Generally speaking, students in mentor programs are already highly engaged in the campus. Peer mentors can use this experience to explain the benefits of participating in campus activities or using campus services to new students.

Peer mentoring also has a positive impact on learning. One of the hardest transitions for new university students is the expectation that they shift their mindset from receivers of knowledge to transmitters of knowledge. Giving students the opportunity to learn from other students, as opposed to retaining information from an instructor or lecture, allows these students to practice co-constructing knowledge with their peers.

The benefits of peer mentorship are not just one-way. Student mentors are more likely to complete their degree program and have higher grade point averages. In part, this is because mentors have more contact with faculty and receive more information about campus resources through the mentorship program. Mentorship programs also build the social network of the participating mentors by pairing them with new incoming students.

Florida State University Online Mentoring Program

In June, Florida State University (FSU) rolled out Nole2Nole, a new online mentoring program. The program was designed to support the approximately 2,200 students who started taking their first college courses at FSU during the summer semester. Due to COVID-19, all 2020 summer semester courses were online, so the goal of the peer mentoring program was to help these new students feel like they were joining the FSU community—even if they were not on campus.

FSU’s new Nole2Nole Peer Mentor Program is a peer mentorship opportunity created to help new students feel like a part of the FSU community during this unprecedented period of remote learning. (Image Courtesy of Florida State University.)
FSU’s new Nole2Nole Peer Mentor Program is a peer mentorship opportunity created to help new students feel like a part of the FSU community during this unprecedented period of remote learning. (Image Courtesy of Florida State University.)

FSU’s new Nole2Nole Peer Mentor Program is a peer mentorship opportunity created to help new students feel like a part of the FSU community during this unprecedented period of remote learning. (Image Courtesy of Florida State University.)

FSU believes that an important component of the university experience is connecting with peers, which can be more difficult in online learning environments.

“We recognize that connecting with FSU peers may be more difficult than normal right now. We want to ensure our newest students have access to their fellow students who have experience learning in the remote environment,” said Joe O’Shea, assistant provost and dean of Undergraduate Studies. The Nole2Nole program gave students this opportunity to connect.

The program matched the first-year students to 150 upperclassmen, who served as peer guides. The first-year students were grouped into cohorts of 10-12 students based on their interests, which were determined through a survey and used to assign a cohort to a peer guide.

One of the peer guides’ roles was to introduce the first-year students to the resources that FSU offers online to ease the transition from high school to university. The resources even included virtual events “on campus.” Most importantly, the peer guides facilitated peer-to-peer outreach.

Tessa Lochetto, one of the summer’s Nole2Nole guides, explains, “Being an out-of-state student, I know how it felt to arrive at Florida State knowing absolutely no one. My goal is to make the students feel both supported and excited about the new chapter in their life, even though it is remote.”

Online Peer Mentoring for Engineering Students

Engineering students can face additional challenges in online learning environments. The theoretical principles that students learn in engineering courses often need to be tied to concrete activities, which require hands-on experience. Traditionally, lab requirements fulfilled this role, but as courses move online, labs have also needed to become completed remotely, which offers its own set of challenges.

The primary purpose of labs is to establish the relevance of theoretical concepts in a concrete way. Demonstrating the connection between abstract and physical principles requires many visuals, demonstrations, instruments and equipment. Although lab work has traditionally been completed in physical laboratory environments, much of this work can be moved online and simulated.

Another key role of engineering lab work is to promote active learning, in which peer mentorship can also play an important role. Students benefit from learning from other student’s successes and challenges. Asking and answering questions about each others’ projects also helps students create knowledge together. Evaluating peer projects promotes critical thinking skills by confronting students with different ways to approach an assignment, and students can explore both different processes and solutions by their peers.

Shifting focus to the process of creating knowledge encourages independent learning and incorporates problem solving into the learning process. For these reasons, peer mentoring creates a richer, more engaging learning environment than just listening to and retaining information from an instructor.

It can be difficult to translate the collaborative nature of engineering lab work to an online environment. One way for students to share projects and connect to peers during the pandemic is by joining a virtual makerspace. Virtual makerspaces are collaborative platforms that allow users to share projects and learn from the projects of others. A combination of text, images and videos are used to share projects. These online makerspaces can be incorporated into both informal and formal learning environments. The Make: Projects platform, for example, is designed to support both individuals and institutions to engage in peer mentoring [Full disclosure: Make: Projects, mentioned in this article, is a joint venture of and Make:Community. –Ed.]

At the institutional level, instructors can begin a class, assignment, task, or lesson, either at a scheduled time or asynchronously, exclusively for invited students. Hosting a lab project on the Make: Projects platform will allow the students to share their progress using images, articles and videos. Students can also ask each other questions, brainstorm or give each other feedback in real-time.

Make: Projects prides itself in creating a nurturing environment that fosters ingenuity and innovation. The platform also gives students a space to showcase their projects to the public, if they choose to do so, which supports on-going student engagement. Beyond the classroom, students will have access to a community of users, contests, and awards all designed to enhance the passion and excitement of would-be engineers.

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