Vertical Peer Mentoring and Advising: A Structure for Student Involvement in Multi-Level Advising

Alexandra Kurepa, North Carolina A&T State University

Abstract:

This case study describes a recently instituted learning community at North Carolina A&T State University supported by a National Science Foundation grant that has developed varied methods of mentoring and advising. This new multi-level structure and associated procedures improved mentoring and advising satisfaction among students and faculty and improved student achievement. In addition to faculty learning-community leader assistance in mentoring and advising, the students are also actively involved in the process. Their participation helps to build a stronger sense of belonging within the discipline, which in turn provides faculty with more dedicated and informed partners in the advising and mentoring process.

Introduction

Finding sufficient and appropriate time for mentoring and advising remains a critical problem for many faculty members. As Dorothy Burton Nelson (2006) and others point out, “A quick to-do checklist for career advising” could easily include “establish a caring, working relationship;” “encourage thinking about life and career goals;” and “provide rationale for course and curriculum requirements” (¶ 6). For faculty mentors and advisers of declared majors, the mentoring session could easily include a micro-tutoring session to help with a discipline-specific concept, monitoring academic progress, an attempt to clarify the student’s goals, as well as diplomatic and careful guidance in course and section selection. The adviser needs to try to quickly discover and just as quickly match the student’s interests and abilities to appropriate academic and career plans both within the discipline and outside of the selected discipline.

Unfortunately, as Nelson (2006) succinctly notes, “Three out of four students entering the university for the first time have no clear career/occupational goals, and only 8 percent of declared students have an understanding of their majors” (¶ 1). As a result, the need to work through a number of prescriptive tasks often reduces the potential effectiveness of the adviser and the advising sessions. Of the various models of advising (prescriptive, developmental, and integrated) described briefly by Heisserer and Parette, (2002), advisers may find themselves pushed into using a prescriptive model instead of the developmental or integrated models that might be more appropriate for a particular student or group of students.

Nevertheless, some students come to the advising session well prepared, knowledgeable about options open to them, aware of the problems they face, and prepped to ask the right questions. How does this happen? Generally, these ready-for-the-advising-session students are those who are successful and share a particular set of characteristics. Frost (1994) describes these characteristics by saying “… involvement and commitment are two important attributes of successful students, and willingness to take responsibility for the future is a third” (p. 54). It then appears that the problem for advisers and departments is to find ways to create a situation in which all of the students are involved, committed, and willing to take responsibility for their future.

A Structure to Improve Advising

The Mathematics Learning Community at North Carolina A&T State University

The academic structure described below may prove useful in creating environments that aid the mentoring and advising process. Designed to accomplish a number of educational goals, including an improvement in advising satisfaction for both students and advisers, the Mathematics Learning Community has helped to develop in the students the characteristics cited by Frost (1994) as crucial to academic success. While the individual aspects of the program may be neither new nor unique, together they form an unusual and effective resource community at North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T) and could provide ideas for development at other institutions. Although some of the procedures do not seem to touch directly on advising, an awareness of all aspects of the program is important when judging the impact on advising.

In action for three years, the Mathematics Learning Community at NC A&T is a faculty-mentored, student-cohort learning community supported by the National Science Foundation Scholarships in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program. It involves up to thirty students—first-year through graduate level—with approximately five to seven students at each level. The program is only open to mathematics majors and requires the students to participate in research projects and enrichment activities. Problem sessions and study teams are part of the program’s regular activities. The students are required to engage in vertical peer mentoring, tutoring, and advising. Social activities are a regular part of the program. Three faculty members (grant primary investigator and co-primary investigators) serve as advisers to the group. These advisers are available to the students in addition to their regular assigned adviser. There is a physical space available to the students for presentations, meetings, peer tutoring, advising sessions, and “hanging out.” Not all majors in the department are part of the community.

Advising Aspects

In relation to advising, a number of important aspects deserve discussion.

First, the students each gain faculty advisers. The three faculty members who work with the group are considered by the students to be their additional advisers and mentors. These faculty members help coordinate and prepare student class schedules by explaining the links between the courses, the logic of a certain sequence of courses, and the importance of each course in the discipline. The faculty members help to organize tutoring sessions and advise senior students on how to conduct tutoring interventions for students struggling in difficult proof-based mathematics courses. They provide enrichment programs that help introduce students to research or prepare students for professional exams such as actuarial exams or the Graduate Record Examination. Most importantly, they help coordinate student peer mentoring and advising activities that build student self-confidence and a sense of belonging to the discipline and the department. Students who participate in this program are well prepared and have necessary knowledge of their professional options when they meet with their regular assigned adviser and sign up for classes. The use of two faculty advisers—one who serves as a learning-community adviser and the other a regular adviser—provides a more successful academic advising and mentoring process. In addition, as the students move through the program, they change their learning-community adviser and thereby expand their network of advising links to the major, the discipline, and the institution. This can be particularly important because as Heisserer and Parette (2002) note, “… contact with a significant person within an institution of higher education is a crucial factor in a student’s decision to remain in college” (¶ 2).

Second, students are required to participate in mentoring and advising, not only as the recipient, but also as the advising provider. The term “vertical peer mentoring” means that while non-faculty members of the learning community are peers in the sense that they are all students, they are also all able to provide some kind of advising to the other students. This works in a number of ways. Obviously, students in their third or fourth years can provide advice to the first- and second-year students about required courses, their own experiences in taking certain courses concurrently or sequentially, and other similar items. They can explain how the courses underclass students take are relevant to future academic work. The more senior students can discuss the importance and implications of certain concepts and ideas. In addition, if needed, the more senior students can provide help in the form of tutoring sessions or provide a platform for some team research work. A number of students who participate in research activity learn to work in groups and present their joint results at the annual Math Awareness Day conference.

Third, the involvement of students in vertical mentoring/tutoring gives the students a sense of ownership of the project. While students are asked to provide this kind of advising service to each other, they do not look upon it as an onerous task. Instead, they perceive the effort as an extension of their own personal networking. They take pride in the combination of advising, mentoring, and tutoring efforts and display a kind of team mentality toward meeting academic goals.

Fourth, because the project involves both graduate and undergraduate students, the range of advising can be extended. Undergraduates, particularly those who plan to go on to graduate school, gain a different perspective on the experience by interacting in formal and informal ways with the graduate students. One example directly related to advising is that because of the harried schedules of many faculty members, graduate-level students might be aware of or working on faculty projects of which even other faculty would not necessarily be apprised. Consequently, a graduate student might offer advice of the following nature to an undergraduate student: “If you are going to take course X next semester, you might try to get into section Y with professor Z, because her current research is on that topic.” Or “if that topic really interests you, but you can’t take that section, you might ask professor Z if she needs an undergraduate research assistant.” This could be invaluable advice not necessarily available to the student’s adviser.

Fifth, this kind of multi-level advising is helpful with advising students with significant out-of-class time commitments as described by Kotowski and Laird (2010). In the case of mathematics, many students need to take advantage of undergraduate research experiences, which take place at other universities around the country and are formal, typically ten-week or semester-long programs. These experiences could take place during a long semester or during the summer and require considerable advance planning. The availability of multiple advisers has made the task of preparation for such an event much easier.

Advising Research Goals, Questions, and Techniques

Brett McFarlane (2009) addressed the advising community when he stated “As always, the most significant challenge we face is that much of the available research shows that high-quality academic advising has an ‘indirect’ rather than ‘direct’ relationship with student persistence” (¶ 1) Taking a cue from McFarlane, one of the goals of this study is to determine if a different structure for advising can improve retention and student outcomes at the undergraduate level and beyond.

With that idea in mind, it is hoped that this study will help to answer some of the questions McFarlane (2009) asks, paraphrased as follows: How do we determine if academic advising can increase student commitment to educational goals and to the institution? How can we know that academic advising aids students in negotiating the paths of their chosen discipline? And finally, can a connection of all these pieces show a distinct relationship between advising and retention?

In order to begin documenting the results of the Mathematics Learning Community as an advising structure, a survey tool was created. It was administered to students in the learning community and to those students outside the learning community (the control group) who participated in the standard advising system. The anonymous survey consists of standard questions about experience level (first-year student, second-year student, graduate student, etc.); their membership in student organizations, particularly math organizations; their participation in undergraduate research experiences; and other rather straightforward, census-type data that are nevertheless useful and revealing. In addition, the students respond to some questions that deal with their thoughts or feelings, their sense of belonging, their belief that they know what they want to study in graduate school, and their confidence, among other things.

Results

With the caveat that the program has not been in place for an extended period of time, it is possible to say that the Mathematics Learning Community at NC A&T has, so far, produced a number of important results. Some results are directly or closely related to advising. In terms of students’ attachment to the department/major/institution, 87.5 percent of the students in the program report a “strong sense of belonging” when they think of the Mathematics Department. By comparison, only 50 percent of the mathematics majors who are not part of the program report a “strong sense of belonging.” Of those majors who are in the program and plan on attending graduate school, 75 percent report that they know what they want to study in graduate school. By comparison, only 33 percent of the mathematics majors who are not part of the learning community and plan on attending graduate school report that they know what they want to study in graduate school. While 50 percent of those in the program rate themselves as “very confident” when tutoring/mentoring other students, none (0 percent) of the majors not part of the learning community are “very confident” when tutoring/mentoring other students. In addition, 70 percent of the students in the program are members of the student chapter of the national professional organization, in this case, the Mathematics Association of America, while only 20 percent of the majors not in the program are members. Finally, 32 percent of the undergraduate members of the learning community have taken part in an undergraduate research experience, while only 14 percent of those majors not in the program have been able to enroll in an undergraduate research experience.

Impacts on Advising

The impacts of this study on advising mirror the characteristics delineated by Frost (1994): involvement, commitment, and a willingness to take responsibility for the future. The students are more involved with their major, more committed to their field, and display a clearer understanding of their own responsibility for their future careers. Anecdotal evidence indicates that students are more satisfied with their advising experiences. Having multiple advisers available to them with different viewpoints appears to encourage them to seek out the resources they need. Being called upon to advise others gives the students a better sense of the questions they need to ask when receiving advice. Meanwhile, faculty member advisers report greater satisfaction with advising when assisting students in the learning community. They note that the students in the learning community display a better understanding of the culture of the discipline. Since these students have a better knowledge of their opportunities and possible career paths, the advising sessions become more of a discussion rather than a rushed lecture on what it means to be a professional—in this case, mathematician. The fact that 87.5 percent of the students in the program report a strong sense of belonging in the Mathematics Department makes advising easier and bodes well for retention and graduation rates.

Conclusion

The Mathematics Learning Community at NC A&T has produced a noticeable improvement in the advising environment for both the students and faculty. The program requires substantial initial and some continuing effort on the part of the faculty advisers, but early evidence suggests the results in terms of student academic success are significant. As the program continues and more longitudinal data become available, further reviews will be conducted in order to quantify and confirm the advances in advising and its relation to academic success.

Acknowledgment

This work is supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation grant: DUE 0728410.

References:

Burton Nelson, D. (2006). Career advisors: A new breed. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/search.htm

Frost, S. H. (1994). Advising alliances: Sharing responsibility for student success. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 54–58.

Heisserer, D., & Parette, P. (2002). Advising at-risk students in college and university settings. College Student Journal, 36(1), 69­–83.

Kotowski, N. J., & Laird, C. (2010). Advising students in majors requiring significant out-of-class time commitment. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 11(3). Retrieved from http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor.

McFarlane, B. (2009). Advising & student persistence: The pressure rises …. Academic Advising Today, 32(1). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/AAT/index.htm.

About the Author(s)

Alexandra Kurepa, North Carolina A&T State University

Alexandra Kurepa, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and director of the graduate program in applied mathematics at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. She can be reached at kurepa@ncat.edu.

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