School of Computer Science and Software
In 1995 the Monash University Department of
Computer Science implemented a mentoring scheme to support its First Year
students through the transition to University study. This paper describes
the evolving structure of the scheme and suggests further improvements
The transition from secondary to tertiary education is a challenging one for many students. Tinto  identifies seven factors that can adversely affect First Year university students:
The Computer Science Undergraduate Mentor Scheme was set up with the full financial support of the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology. Its aim is to equip students with better personal resources to make the transition to university study quickly and effectively, and thereby assist them to succeed in their course. In particular, the scheme aims to address deficiencies in student attitudes, habits, and knowledge regarding study and learning.
Such a scheme cannot, of course, succeed in isolation. Numerous other supporting changes have been introduced to the Computer Science First Year course prior to or at the same time as the Mentor Scheme, including:
The original structure of the Mentor Scheme (as implemented in the first semester of 1995) employed 16 postgraduate students, who were selected by the Mentor Scheme coordinator on the basis of their experience within the Department and their personal communication skills. The First Year class was divided into 23 groups of approximately 15 students each. These groups were single-sex, so as not to disadvantage female students (who comprise less than 20% of the First Year class).
Mentors met with each group several times during the semester. At these meetings mentors discussed issues related to studying at university. These issues were suggested by the Mentor Scheme coordinator and included:
In addition, mentors were available at a prearranged time each week, so that students could consult them individually regarding urgent problems they might encounter between meetings. Such consultations remained strictly confidential, although students might be strongly encouraged to make their problems known to the relevant member of staff (that is, their lecturer or course coordinator).
Mentors provided a brief email report to the Mentor Scheme coordinator twice each semester, summarizing overall student progress, attitudes and problems. To accomplish this they were required to keep track of their students' academic progress (specifically practical class assessments and class tests) and to advise the relevant course coordinator(s) promptly of students who were encountering problems (before their difficulties became irremediable).
A final responsibility of the mentors was to testify on a student's behalf before the Unsatisfactory Progress Committee. In keeping with the confidential nature of the mentor role, this testimony would only be at the student's specific request.
It should be noted that the mentors were not intended to be personal tutors and were not required or expected to provide any academic assistance to their charges. Neither were they expected (or permitted) to assume the role of crisis counsellor. Their role was specifically to provide informal advice to assist students to cope with the normal pressures and contingencies of university life. Often this advice took the form of referral to a better qualified or more appropriate person (for example, the lecturer, course coordinator, Faculty student advisor, or a university counsellor).
In order to equip mentors for their responsibilities, they participated in a preliminary half-day seminar given jointly by the Head of the University Counselling Service and Mentor Scheme coordinator. This seminar covered issues such as the rationale and goals of the mentor scheme, the mentors' roles and responsibilities, typical problems encountered by First Year students, how to assist students with such problems, issues related to unsatisfactory progress, and techniques for more effective study. A second seminar, entitled "Study Skills Counselling: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach to Helping Students Study" was subsequently presented by another member of the University Counselling Service.
All training sessions were recorded and audio cassettes of them are available from the audio-visual library of the Department of Computer Science.
Observations on the Original Structure
During the course of its first semester of operation, several deficiencies in the structure and execution of the original scheme were identified. These were:
The mentors also indicated that they felt that more than half of the remaining students derived some benefit form of benefit from group meetings, usually by becoming better informed about departmental, faculty or university procedures, or by being made aware of potential problems and traps they might encounter. One interesting benefit that was reported was that the very existence of the Mentor Scheme gave many students (even those who did not participate in the mentoring activities!) a sense that the Department was not a faceless academic unit, but rather that the teaching staff were concerned about them as individuals.
Female students seemed particularly positive towards the scheme. It was generally reported that they approved of the gender-segregation, which gave them a sense that they were not completely alone in a male-dominated subject. They also reported that all-female groups provided them with a forum in which they felt more comfortable discussing the problems they were experiencing, and with the opportunity to compare their performance with other female students.
Revised Structure of the Scheme
As a result of the above observations, the format of the Mentor Scheme was changed in the second semester so as to provide better focussed, more personal, assistance to the students. The significant changes were:
The above changes in the structure of the scheme appear to have been generally very successful. Indeed, feedback from mentors and students was noticeably more positive under the revise format.
The unification of mentoring groups and practical classes all but eliminated absenteeism from mentoring activities and ensured that each student's progress was checked at least twice during the semester (both by direct interaction with that student and by examination of their academic progress as indicated by practical class and test performance). The feedback received by the Mentor Scheme coordinator reflected more accurately the students' on-going experience of the course because it was elicited through one-to-one interviews and often relayed as verbatim comments.
Student feedback also indicates that the provision of gender-segregated practical classes and mentor groups continued to be greatly appreciated by the female members of the class and prompted no significant reaction for or against by the male population.
The mentors reported a significant reduction in out-of-hours private consultation, indicating that the scheduled one-to-one meetings appeared to address this need adequately.
Evaluation of the Scheme
Evaluating the impact of a scheme such as this is, at best, extremely difficult. In this particular case that difficulty was exacerbated by the large number of other structural and procedural changes introduced to the course in parallel with the Mentor Scheme.
Some evaluation is possible, however. As part of the scheme, in the middle of each semester mentors were asked to indicate any students they felt were experiencing academic or other difficulties that were likely to result in their failing. This produced a list of "at risk" students (representing approximately 20% of the class), each of whom was sent a letter expressing the department's concern at their progress and encouraging them to seek assistance from their mentors. Subsequent analysis of the behaviour of these students indicates that 90% had contact with their mentor during that semester (although 40% missed at least one meeting). More importantly, only 30% of these "at risk" students ultimately failed the course. Whilst the contribution of the Mentor Scheme to this outcome cannot be reliably gauged, it seems likely that it has been of at least some benefit.
A more general comparison can be made by examining pass rates for the students in 1994 (before the Mentor Scheme) and 1995 (during the Scheme). For the first semester, the Computer Science pass rate (excluding PII students) rose from 75% in 1994 to 82% in 1995. For the second semester, the pass rate rose from 77% in 1994 to 81% in 1995. While the abovementioned structural and procedural changes preclude any firm conclusions regarding the contribution of the Mentor Scheme to these improvements, it is reasonable to conclude that the scheme does not appear to have been detrimental.
A third source of feedback on the scheme comes from the mentors themselves. In response to a questionnaire, circulated at the middle of the year, the mentors ranked various aspects of the scheme as follows:
Although the Mentor Scheme appears to operate well as it is now structured there remain a small number of enhancements that might be integrated in the future.
1. Integrate collection of email addresses into the first mentor meeting.
As the first meeting is held in the students' practical class location, it would be feasible to have them log on and register their user IDs via automatically processed email or a WWW form. This would permit the generation of individual mentor group mailing lists to improve communication between mentors and their students, as well as the creation of a "general notification" mailing list for Mentor Scheme announcements.
This general list would also be of benefit to academics teaching the First Year Computer Science course, providing them with another (and probably more reliable) channel of communication with students.
2. Formalise the referral process between demonstrators and mentors.
The departmental marks database could be enhanced
to enable demonstrators and mentors to record observations regarding the
abilities or problems of individual students. In addition, practical class
demonstrators should be provided with the name of their group's mentor
and encouraged to liaise with that person on a regular basis (in particular
to refer students experiencing non-course related difficulties, which often
manifest as poor practical class performance).
3. Develop additional and alternative resource materials for mentors and students.
Mentors need to be provided with more detailed information on requirements and deadlines for discontinuation and transfer, as this is an area in which many students ask for help. They should be encouraged to use this information to identify potential problems and to refer students more accurately to staff advisers.
It has been suggested that some students might benefit from a different style of information presentation. For example, they might benefit from statistical analyses of Unsatisfactory Progress Committee records, from summaries of research into other indicators of success or failure, or from case studies of students who get into (and out of!) difficulties.
A final suggestion is that students be provided with a self-rating scheme, with which to evaluate their progress and performance. The student would be offered a small number of multiple-choice questions on their study habits, practical class progress, etc. This would produce an accumulated score indicating their conformance with our model of a successful student. A possible format for this material is presented in Appendix C.
There are limits to the degree that any one program can assist students to overcome the very real challenges inherent in the transition to tertiary education. Within those limits, however, a Mentor Scheme of the type described in this paper can offer a wide range of students an important, valued, and otherwise unavailable source of support.
The departmental focus of the current scheme has both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it seems likely that all First Year students in the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology would benefit from a similar support structure, and that economies of scale would apply to a Faculty-wide scheme.
On the other hand, students in the various disciplines of the Faculty come from a wide range of backgrounds and, as a result, encounter very different problems in their first year of study. For this reason it may be more appropriate to envisage a set of coordinated but independent Mentor Schemes, sharing existing resources where appropriate and developing new and tailored approaches where necessary.
The author wishes to thank Professor Cliff Bellamy, Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology, whose support was instrumental in initiating and maintaining the Mentor Scheme, and Mrs Anne McMillan, Associate Dean (Teaching), for her ongoing interest, enthusiasm and advice.
Introduction to the Mentor
(issued to every student)
Sample meeting summary start
of second semester
(issued to every student)
Meeting Summary and Tips
(issued to mentors)
|The Juggling Act
Students need to learn to balance the time they devote each week to
working, relaxing, sleeping and partying. Balancing these things implies
(gasp!) planning. They also need to balance their workload across the semester
(which implies working harder now, so they don't have to cram at the end
Part of balancing the semester load is to start revising material now (mid-semester), rather than right at the end. Students should take advantage of the mid-semester break to look back over their lecture notes, re-read the appropriate sections of the textbooks, and see if, in the light of experience, the material now makes sense.
One good technique for revision is to write a single summary page for each topic (or maybe each lecture), in their own words.
As they revise they should be taking note (in their log books) of anything
they still don't understand. They should then take the resulting questions
to their next practical class, or to the tutors or to their lecturer.
Another good way to revise is to find a small number (maybe 3-5) of like-minded people and study in a group. Students can ask each other questions from the material already covered, and argue about the correct answers. They can discuss the material, comparing their understandings (and misunderstandings).
Study groups work well because the act of teaching something (that is,
organizing one's thoughts and understandings on a topic in an intelligible
manner) is often the best way of learning it.
The mid-semester break represents the last real opportunity to catch up on material that has been let slide. Students may want to consult tutors during the break or spend a day on the PCs doing exercises that they have missed.
The material gets harder as the semester progresses, so they will want
to be sure that they understand the fundamentals that we have already taught,
since it is upon these basic concepts that the new material will build.
Getting The Most From Tutors (and Lecturers and Demonstrators)
Preparation is the key. Students need to know what it is they need to
know, in order to ask the right questions. They need to know at least something
about the background to their problem, in order to understand the answer
they get. If they go and see someone they should take a list of written
questions that they want to ask, and a pen and paper (preferably their
log book) so they can write down the answer. If their group all want the
same question answered they should all endeavour to go and see the person
together (certainly not one at a time!), so that they can get the answers
they need first-hand, rather than relying on dubious transcriptions or
(worse still) the memory of their fellow students.
Revision needs to be planned. They should get a big sheet of paper,
rule it up into weeks, write in their exam times (also helps avoid missing
the exam!), and then plan out revision accordingly.
One effective approach is to work in half-day blocks. That is, study one subject in the morning and another in the afternoon. Perhaps it is also appropriate concentrate on a single subject the day before its exam. Students should try and split up the available time so that each subject gets a fair share (prior to its exam, of course!)
They also need to budget (a small amount of) time for recreation, exercise,
etc. However, they should expect to put their social life on hold during
the exam period (except maybe one night a week).
Students should try and find a quiet place where they won't be disturbed
or distracted. If home is not suitable, they can go to one of the libraries.
Studying in the library will mean reference material is handy, but has
the disadvantage that many of their colleagues may also be around to distract
them. One solution is to study in the Biomedical library or even the Main
library. These locations are just as quiet and there are fewer familiar
faces to distract them.
At the beginning of the swot vac students should prepare summaries of the course from their lecture notes. This is in itself a valuable form of revision, but also produces useful revision materials. If possible they should aim to eventually memorize the summaries.
They should locate past papers (where available and relevant) or sample exams and do them under exam conditions, without referring to their notes and in the prescribed time available.
They can also try constructing their own sample exam questions (this itself helps understanding), and then sitting them some time later (the following week, for example).
It can be useful for students to get together which (studious!) friends to swap exam questions, quiz each other, and discuss topics that they find difficult. However, this technique requires discipline to avoid the gathering becoming a social occasion.
Students should also bear in mind that Assistant Lecturers and Lecturers still have consultation hours during swot vac. They should identify one or two problem areas, with specific questions they need answered. They need to be prepared to wait (that is, they should bring something to study!), as there may be a queue.
Guidelines for the first mentor
meeting second semester
(issued to mentors)
Guidelines for the one-to-one
(issued to mentors)