The Design and Implementation of a Mentoring Scheme
for First Year Computer Science Students

Damian Conway

School of Computer Science and Software Engineerinh
Monash University


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 to it.


The transition from secondary to tertiary education is a challenging one for many students. Tinto [1] identifies seven factors that can adversely affect First Year university students:

  • inability to meet the academic standards of the institution,
  • inability to adapt to the new social and academic environment,
  • changes in personal goals and aspirations,
  • lack of clearly defined goals and motivation,
  • priority of other commitments, such as work or family,
  • financial difficulty,
  • incongruence between the institution's orientation and approach and that desired by the individual.
  • A much earlier study by Astin [2] examined 100,000 US tertiary students and identified higher drop-out rates amongst students who: Some of these factors (such as students' financial and personal problems) are clearly beyond the scope of an individual department to deal with, but others more directly related to lack of experience and information, inadequate study habits, and other general academic issues can be addressed.

    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:

    Original structure of the Scheme

    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:

  • good and bad study habits,
  • study planning and techniques,
  • how to make the most of lectures and practical classes,
  • distractions and how to cope with them,
  • what to do when things go wrong,
  • exam preparation.
  • The meetings were also intended to provide the students with a forum for discussing their own experiences and ideas, with a view to fostering networking and mutual support within the class.

    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:

  • Scheduling of meetings. It proved difficult to find timeslots in which all (or even most) students were able or willing to attend mentoring meetings. As a result, most such meetings were held in lunch hours (1pm—2pm) or after normal lecture hours (after 5.15). Furthermore, mentor group meetings were scheduled by individual mentors, and often could not be advertised until a day or two before the actual meeting time. This reduced the opportunity for students to learn of, and schedule themselves for, the meeting. In addition to dissuading some students from participating, this approach produced considerable contention for rooms in which to run the 23 mentoring groups.
  • Out-of-meeting communication with students. Use of the First Year notice board and lectures to communicate with students was unsatisfactory in many instances (since the very students the Mentor Scheme is targeted towards are precisely those who often neglect to read the notice board and may not be attending all lectures). Mentors were encouraged to collect the email addresses of their students, but this proved difficult since many students did not know their user IDs by the first meeting.
  • Poor attendance at some mentor meetings. As mentioned, some students seemed to have difficulty with the timing of mentor meetings. Others felt that they had nothing to gain from the Scheme. In other words, the circumstances and attitudes of these students often precluded their mentor from assisting them, even though those circumstances and attitudes were precisely the ones the Mentor Scheme was supposed to address.
  • Lack of mentor training regarding course requirements. Whilst it is not the mentors' role to provide course advice, some mentors experienced difficulty identifying and dealing with problems related to degree requirements, particularly with respect to discontinuation or course transfer.
  • Difficulty in obtaining student progress indicators. The only student progress indicators available to mentors were the students' practical class results and mid-semester test scores. Because of the introductory nature of early practical classes, the associated marks were insufficiently discriminating at the beginning of the semester. Furthermore, it was difficult for mentors to extract this information for their group from the departmental database because their students were randomly distributed through the 38 weekly practical classes the Department runs. The students' mid-semester test result was a clearer performance indicator, but this was only available late in the semester (just prior to the final meeting).
  • Overall, however, mentors reported that they believed the scheme had been a success. They estimated that between 15-30% of students received significant personal help which they might otherwise not have been able to find. This took the form of private advice on personal and academic concerns (especially study), identification and resolution of enrolment difficulties, and referral to more appropriate assistance (usually the First Year Coordinator, the University Counselling Service, or the Language Learning Unit), or simply providing a receptive ear for the students' complaints and problems.

    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:

  • Each student's practical class group was made to coincide with his or her mentor group. As well as providing students with a better opportunity to get to know their peers, this also had the effect of ensuring that the vast majority of female students remained in all-female mentoring groups, as practical classes were also gender segregated in the second semester. Note that it was not intended that the mentor and demonstrator roles should be in any way merged. Indeed, mentors who were also employed as demonstrators were prevented from mentoring their own practical class.
  • All mentor meetings were scheduled during practical classes. Timetable conflicts were thereby eliminated as an excuse for not attending meetings, as practical classes are a compulsory and pre-scheduled activity for every student. The pre-emption of practical classes had minimal impact on students' study, as mentoring activities occupied slightly over one hour of the 39 hours of practical class available to each student.
  • Only the first (introductory) mentor meeting was a group meeting. Mentors had reported little if any student discussion during meetings in the first semester and student feedback indicated that many felt inhibited in the group situation, so this format was used only for the initial meeting, at which a substantial amount of general information was to be conveyed.
  • The other two meetings between students and mentors were on a one-to-one basis, consisting of a confidential five-minute "How's it going?" chat. Mentors were provided with a list of suggested questions and discussion topics and were given broad scope to pursue the specific needs of individual students. It was hoped that a compulsory meeting on an individual basis would provide a better opportunity to track each student's progress. It was also felt that the prospect of an individual discussion might prompt more students to reflect upon their own performance.
  • Mentors were still available for emergency private consultations during the week. (This resource was not altered from first semester.)
  • Summary sheets, which outlined the ideas suggested at each meeting, were made available to all students in the hope that this might reinforce mentors' suggestions and provide students with an aide-mémoire later in the year.
  • Observations

    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:

    A final source of information comes from the unsolicited feedback of students involved in the Mentor Scheme. This feedback was quite bimodal in nature: students were either irritated by the intrusion that the Mentor Scheme represented to them, or else they were very grateful for the assistance they received. Of the latter group, several stated that the various resources provided by the Mentor Scheme had been for them the difference between success and failure.

    Suggested Improvements

    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.


    1. Tinto, V., Educational Communities and Student Success in the First Year of University, Monash University Conference on the Transition from Secondary School to University, Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 1995, Monash University.
    2. Austin, A., Predicting Academic Performance in College, Free Press, NY, 1971.
    3. Conway, D.M., Student Response to Hypermedia In The Lecture Theatre: A Case Study, Proceedings of the 1994 World Conference on Educational Hypermedia and Multimedia (ED-MEDIA'94), pp. 141-146, Vancouver, Canada, July 1994.
    4. Conway, D.M., HyperLecture: A Self-correlating Lecture Presentation and Revision System, in "Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science: Human-Computer Interaction", ed. Bass, Gornostaev & Unger, vol. 753., pp. 334-347, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1993.

    Appendix A

    Introduction to the Mentor Scheme
    (issued to every student)

    Welcome to the Mentor Scheme
    What's it all about?
    Most students find that there's a big difference between secondary education (or whatever they were doing last year) and university life. Unfortunately too many of them only seem to discover this "big difference" at the end of the year, when it's too late.
    The Mentor scheme is designed to help you to make the transition to university study as smoothly and painlessly as possible, so that you can get the most from your studies and do as well in them as possible.
    What will my mentor do for me?
    Your mentor is someone who "knows the ropes" at Monash, who has been through the course themselves, and who has learnt the best ways of coping successfully with its demands. They're there to offer you advice and ideas about studying, to answer your questions about being at uni, and to keep an eye on your academic progress to help you avoid getting into trouble.
    Each semester your mentor will arrange three meetings of the students under his or her care. At these meetings your mentor will discuss issues related to studying at university including good and bad study habits, study planning and techniques, how to make the most of lectures and practical classes, distractions and how to cope with them, what to do when things go wrong, and exam preparation. The meetings will also give you a chance to share your own experiences and ideas.
    Your mentor will also be available at a prearranged time each week, in case you need to consult them individually regarding urgent problems between meetings. These consultations will remain strictly confidential, although your mentor might encourage you to take your problem to the relevant member of staff or to a trained counsellor.
    Keep in mind, however, that your mentor is not a personal tutor and is not required or expected to provide you with academic assistance of any type. Nor are they expected or permitted to assume the role of crisis counsellor. Their role is specifically to provide you with informal non-academic advice to help you cope with the normal pressures and contingencies of university life. Sometimes this advice may be that you should go and see a better qualified or more appropriate person (for example, the lecturer, course coordinator, Faculty student advisor, or a university counsellor).
    Do I have to be involved?
    If you are averaging 75% or better in your practical classes and class tests, you are not required to attend the scheduled meetings (we figure you're handling things pretty well by yourself). Otherwise, you'll be expected to turn up to the meetings and at least listen to what the mentor has to say. If you don't turn up when you're supposed to, the mentor is required to inform the course coordinator of this fact.


    Appendix B

    Sample meeting summary — start of second semester
    (issued to every student)

    Meeting Summary and Tips

  • Think about how you went last semester, and what you can learn from the experience.
  • In the long run it's much easier if you keep ahead in lectures, practical classes and discussion groups rather than falling behind and having to catch up.
  • The key to keeping ahead is proper preparation for the lectures and practical classes.
  • You can identify you own problem areas by revising the material in the same week as you had the lecture. Having identified an area of uncertainty, you can ask your demonstrator, discussion group leader, an assistant lecturer, or the lecturer about it.
  • Studying with a friend or in a small group can be very advantageous. You can ask each other questions, explain things to one another, swap small tests you've made up, etc.
  • Above all you need to get organized — now! You need to analyse how you worked last semester, then try and make improvements. In particular, you might like to draw up a schedule for study, setting aside specific time each day or evening to review and prepare for a specific subject.


    Appendix C

    Suggested discussion material
    (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 of semester).


    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.

    Study Groups

    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.

    Catching Up

    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.

    Swot Vac

    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.

    Revision planning

    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).

    Revision environment

    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.


    Appendix D

    Guidelines for the first mentor meeting — second semester
    (issued to mentors)

    1. Attend the appropriate practical classes at the beginning of the second hour of the practical class (That is, arrive at 10am if it's a 9am practical class.)
    2. Introduce yourself and explain that you are going to take about 30-45 minutes of their time.
    3. Hand out the introduction sheet and outline the format and features of the Mentor Scheme.
    4. Ask them how they went last semester, and what they learned from the experience. The kinds of things we'd like them to have learned include:
      • It's easier if you keep ahead in lectures, tutorials and practical classes, rather than falling behind and having to catch up.
      • Preparation for the lectures and practical classes is vital.
      • They can identify their own problem areas by revising the material in the same week as they had the lecture.
      • Having identified a problem, they can ask their demonstrators, tutors, an assistant lecturer, or the lecturer.
      • Studying in a small group can be very advantageous. They can ask each other questions, explain things to one another, etc.
      • Above all they need to get organized immediately. They need to analyse how they worked last semester and try and make improvements. For example, they might like to draw up a schedule for study, setting aside specific time each day/night to review and prepare for a specific subject.

    Appendix E

    Guidelines for the one-to-one mentor meetings
    (issued to mentors)

    1. At the end of the first hour of your mentor group's practical class timeslot, start inviting individual students to step out of their class for 5 minutes, for a brief mentor meeting.
    2. Find a relatively quiet place (this can be challenging, so plan ahead!) and briefly find out how each student is going.
    3. Ask each student:
      • Are they coping with the material?
      • Are they coping with the practical classes?
      • Are they coping with the overall workload?
      • Are they having any specific problems?
      • Were they happy with their interim test results?
      • How would they rate their overall performance to date ?
    4. After they've gone, note their name (print out a class list beforehand) and any important feedback that you feel the Mentor Scheme coordinator should know about. Also note down your own assessment of how well they are coping (based upon their answers to the above questions) on a 0 to 10 scale (where 0 indicates "complete inability to cope with the course", 5 indicates "struggling, but successfully", and 10 indicates "cruising through the work").
    5. After the interviews are concluded, email the Mentor Scheme coordinator a brief report, consisting of each student's ID number and name, your numerical assessment of each student's level of coping, and any relevant comments from (or about) each student.