Student Engagement through Mentoring
Introduction: Why We Started a Peer Mentoring Group
With the changing profile of students and the university, my colleagues and I had noticed that the design community culture and relationships between our students was diminishing within our school and our discipline of Industrial Design. Technologically adept students, with very busy study, work and social lives, had reduced the duration of time spent on campus, especially outside of scheduled classes. Bigger university communal spaces were sometimes viewed as daunting, and there was no guarantee anyone from their design discipline would be there, never mind someone from their classes that they recognised. Where once lecturers might have seen students helping one another in their cohorts or mixed-year groups, chatting and supporting one another with sketching, physical or computer modelling, design projects or just having general design discussions - now these spaces are filled with scheduled classes and, only rarely, students working on group projects outside of class. First-year students in particular struggle to find their place within large cohorts of students.
For these reasons, in 2015,1 began a Students as Partners (SaP) peer mentoring group. I wanted to include students in the process of engaging their colleagues to build a supportive design community culture that builds peer (and industry) relationships, fostering their knowledge and passion for design, through educational and social activities - both virtually and on campus. We define SaP as students and staff working together to ensure positive outcomes, by sharing perspectives and jointly making decisions with regard to learning, assessment and engagement (Shaw, Rueckert, Smith, Tredinnick and Lee, 2017). For the Industrial Design peer mentoring group, I focussed on the engagement and learning that happens outside of scheduled classes, with this chapter reflecting on how SaP positively transformed our design community culture.
Forming the Peer Mentoring Group in Industrial Design
As Meth, Thomson and Brough (2021) discuss earlier, our university runs a formal “Students as Partners” (SaP) initiative. I drew extensively on this knowledge of best practice when it came to starting, running, evaluating and evolving our peer mentoring group - which we called ID Pilots. I started a recruitment drive via email and our design Facebook group, and also personally encouraged students I knew to volunteer as peer mentors; volunteer students who help other students via an institutionally endorsed program. We started with just over 15 volunteers, which has increased to over 35 active members. We worked together to define the purpose of the group with these peer mentors. The university’s Peer Leader Support has provided valuable training to build the students’ leadership skills, including online modules about peer learning facilitation, collaborative learning, cultural awareness and occupational health and safety. A face-to-face leadership training event (LeaderCon) happens twice a year, including modules such as “listening deeply,” “peer mentoring facilitation” and “I’ve done some cool stuff. How do I talk about it?” as well as keynote speakers. These courses also provides the mentors with formal university certificates for their participation, recording both leadership skill development and volunteered hours.
The mentors and I organised a variety of learning and social activities for Industrial Design students, which the group facilitated throughout each semester. As well as information sessions, specialist skills training and assistance, social gatherings with design-related themes and one-on-one mentoring, the mentors provided design and academic skills advice, and referrals to university and design resources to their peers. The majority of the students that are helped by the peer mentors are first-year students, but students at any stage of the course and from other design disciplines have been welcomed and supported too. Industrial Design alumni have been involved in the program as mentors and mentees as they enjoyed the sense of community - as shown in Figure 15.1.
Our Strategic Focus and How a Peer Mentoring Group Benefits the Community Culture
This ID Pilots peer mentoring group benefited the entire Industrial Design discipline, including staff and alumni, as it fostered a close community culture. Having student mentors to turn to for support has been enormously beneficial to students who are struggling, but also to those students who are just looking to do better or forge networks. More broadly, our group benefits the School of Design as it serves as a model for other peer mentoring groups and helps reduce attrition.
As part of our initial development process, student volunteers brainstormed what they wanted the group to be, and what they wanted to call themselves. The name “ID Pilots” is a reflection of their goal to “guide” or “navigate” fellow students through the Industrial Design undergraduate degree. The strategic focus that we wrote together in early 2016 was as follows:
The program facilitates learner connectedness and fosters a community of confident and resilient Industrial Designers, in line with QUT’s 2020 vision. It will support the ID Pilot peer leaders in developing their professional profiles, networks and employ- ability through training and participation. ID Pilots will demonstrate key graduate capabilities such as collaboration, communication and leadership. The volunteer peer mentors will be engaged in producing visionary, adaptive, responsible and
FIGURE 15.1 Contextual Analysis of Participants in the ID Pilots
valued contributions to the discipline and its community as a whole, which is part of
the Industrial Design discipline’s strategic plan.
The program’s purpose statement, aim and objectives were originally to provide a variety of extracurricular peer-to-peer activities that our Industrial Design students have identified as being beneficial in their studies and the building of a distinct Industrial Design culture, with the aim of developing a responsive program that supports students through peer to peer mentoring. Key objectives ranged from helping peer mentors develop graduate skills (such as leadership, communication, organisation and negotiation) and social responsibility by contributing to a community of practice, to building a sense of community within the ID discipline, better engaging students with the course and helping reduce their stress and anxiety.