The Center for Educational Policy Research (2003) concluded that first-year students need to develop habits of mind, or learning and thinking skills. One approach that many institutions have taken to try to encourage these learning skills is to offer Freshman Seminars, Learning Framework Courses or Success Courses. These programs can range from extended orientation or induction workshops to a series of full-year for-credit courses. Induction or orientation support initiatives have fewer contact hours than other programs, often meeting once or twice a week for the first six weeks of the first term, and may carry half-credit weight or be non-credit. Orientation support differs from the Success Course discussed in this paper in that it has a greater emphasis on social integration including outings or events to integrate new students into the campus culture.

First-year programs that emphasise critical thinking, such as Learning to Learn courses, have been shown to improve students’ attitudes towards learning, their performance in later classes and retention (McKeachie, Pintrich & Lin, 1985; Pintrich, McKeachie & Lin, 1987). Learning Framework courses root theory and research in cognitive and behavioural psychology within the core of the course along with the application of learning strategies. These have been shown to result in higher grade point averages, first year retention rates and six-year graduation rates (Hodges, Sellers & Dochen, 2001; Weinstein et al., 1998). Regardless of differences in curriculum, delivery or terminology, these programs share a common goal to effectively integrate new students into their learning environment.

Collecting students in small groups to increase interaction is only the first step. James, Bruch & Jehangir (2006, p. 11) distinguish between the functions of a learning community “working together as a group with a shared mission” and a learning community, where “members help each other learn to join the academic community by supporting each other through listening, disagreeing, and working together, students build academic skills and explore ideas in ways that value individual knowledge.” The peer mentor tutorials of the program described herein are similar to the Supplemental Instruction (SI) or Peer Assisted Study Session (PASS) programs, in that they encourage interactions that focus on building academic success. The tutorials involve on-campus only instruction to emphasise academic preparation and interaction rather than social integration into the wider community. This decision was made to try to engage student populations similar to those in some institutions in Australasia - commuter students, part-time students, those who work more than 20 hours a week or students opting for three year degrees.

The Success Course, called ‘Fundamentals of Inquiry’, uses strategic learning to explicitly teach under-prepared students to monitor their knowledge acquisition and comprehension. The focus of the tutorials is not on the discipline-specific content of the at-risk courses traditionally found in PASS or SI programs. Rather, they are geared to the undecided student who often gravitates to humanities or social science classes. The Success Course and the tutorials themselves are fundamentally interdisciplinary. First year students often have little experience with the distinct models of thinking present in different disciplines, especially with the vast array of arts and humanities disciplines. They have little to no experience with cross-discipline discussions unless they have come from an International Baccalaureate program.

An interdisciplinary theme serves as the organising principle for the program, and is central to the research paper at the conclusion of the course. Students read articles and complete assignments on themes such as self-efficacy, motivation, diversity, relationships, poverty, success, health or resilience. The interdisciplinary subject matter is designed to emphasise skills that transfer broadly across disciplines and form the foundation for subsequent studies. This credit-bearing course counts as an elective towards degree completion, and requires students to complete a ten-page research essay in addition to weekly assignments and midterm exams. As Kuh et al. (2005, p. 301) argue, “set performance standards for students at high but attainable levels consistent with their academic preparation.”

The tutorials form the basis of a peer cooperative learning program that provides a combination of interdependence and self-directed learning through scaffolded instruction. Informal interactions and explicit lesson plans provide an environment that encourages the discussion of affective components of learning. Even conversations with others about common learning experiences can “serve as vehicles to transgress the limits of dualistic thinking” (Aleman, 1994, p. 38). The peer mentors do the socialisation work of integrating first-year students into an academic community by being an accepting audience, facilitating open discussions, and modelling individual responsibility for learning. They are a personal, non-threatening contact that can provide information and answer questions about institutional policies and procedures.

Peer mentoring

Many transition programs make use of senior students as peer leaders or mentors to encourage new students to participate in the activities on campus and feel engaged in their new community. According to a survey by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, the use of peer leaders was linked to higher student perceptions of belonging, campus connections, time management and study strategies. We know from a wide range of research that the more students are involved in shared learning experiences, the more likely they are to be active participants in their own learning (e.g., Kuh et al., 2005; Tinto, 1993, 2000). Students in collaborative or shared learning approaches are more likely to engage in elaboration, comprehension monitoring and critical thinking. As Pascarella & Terenzini (2005, p. 121) write, “peer interactions, particularly those that extend and reinforce what happens in the academic program, appear to influence positively knowledge acquisition and academic skill development during college.”

Success Courses with peer leaders or mentors can be particularly important for the adjustment of under-represented populations (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges & Hayek, 2006). A report on two-year community colleges in the United States found that those with a Success Course had a higher proportion of students earning a certificate or transferring (O’Gara, Karp & Hughes, 2008). This is noteworthy given these institutions tend to enrol a greater proportion of socially, economically and academically challenged students.

The Canadian context

The tutorials for Brandon University’s Success Course are based on cognitive theory, use a variety of teaching techniques, and integrate classroom and tutorial instruction, as Boylan’s (2002) research suggests. Such elements are central not only to developmental education but also for institutions with more open access policies. Brandon University is a predominantly liberal arts and sciences undergraduate institution located on the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Assiniboine, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. While ten percent of the student population self-declare aboriginal ancestry, anecdotal evidence suggests this is a low approximation. The Indigenous Peoples Centre is an active hub in student life providing a place to socialise, share soup or bannock, talk with Elders and advisors, or work on the bank of computers or on the tables in the study room. The university offers a number of very innovative programs which attract a diverse student population, such as Applied Disaster, Creative Arts, and a Clinical Specialisation stream within Native Studies. Some programs such as nursing, music and education have tight entrance competitions, while the general arts or science degrees have an open admissions policy. Canadian high school graduates with a minimum 60% high school average are admitted with regular status, while those who have not completed high school (or a General Education Development certificate) and are at least 21 years of age are admitted with mature student status.

Many students are non-traditional, with circumstances or backgrounds that would have made them unlikely to attempt or be successful at other institutions. Almost one-third of the student population is over 25 years of age and more students are married than live in residence. In any given year, approximately six percent of undergraduates come from the northern or remote Frontier school division in the province of Manitoba. This is the largest geographical school division in the country, covering over 440,000 square kilometres and operating a formal bus route with snowmobile and sleigh (Derksen, 2014). Some First Nations reserves in northern Manitoba suffer from crowded housing and undrinkable water. While the provincial capital has the highest Indigenous child poverty rate for a city in the country at 42%, the poverty rate for First Nations children living on reserves in Manitoba is a staggering 76% (Macdonald & Wilson, 2016). Stone, Walton, Clark & Ligertwood (2016) found that working with an educational advisor was one of many support initiatives that improve the academic performance of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. It is in this context that the peer mentor tutorials were incorporated into the Success Course to provide additional support and skill-building practice for transitional learners.

Objectives for the peer mentors

The roles and responsibilities for the peer mentors were developed based on Cuseo’s (1992, 2010) extensive work in the area. Senior students are treated as professionals with challenging responsibilities, within a highly structured curriculum (Keup, 2012). As peer mentors, the primary duties of senior students are to be coaches, confidantes and role models. They are tasked with being an accepting audience, and facilitating open discussions in their small group work. They model individual responsibility, self-regulation and the value of inquiry. As academic community interpreters or meaning-makers, they act as referral agents and answer questions about policies and procedures.

Zevallos and Washburn (2014) argue that peer leaders should have a wide range of skills to facilitate small groups and should explicitly model learning and study strategies. Senior students for this project are recruited from graduates of the Fundamentals of Inquiry course as well as previous student leaders. They receive large group, small group and individual training on leading small groups, boundaries and expectations. Training stresses that peer mentors are neither counsellors nor professors, but conduits and advocates (Bonin, 2013). Like other senior students leading PASS programs, training for these peer mentors includes learning and study strategies (Price, Lumpkin, Seeman and Bell, 2012).

Each peer mentor is assigned a small group to lead in weekly exercises and discussions (10-15 students depending upon enrolment). First-year students enrol in the section of tutorial at the same time as they register for the lecture component of the Success Course, similar to a chemistry lab. During training, peer mentors are given the curricula for the semester, and complete each task they are expected to lead. Additionally there is an electronic group for discussion and questions as well as weekly short individual meetings with the instructor. In this way, senior students are supported, issues are identified quickly, and concerns of first-year students are referred to appropriate resources early in the semester.

Mentor voices

Through mentoring, both transitioning students and senior students benefit and grow from interacting with one another. Peer leaders learn skills that may encourage them to pursue future leadership roles including careers in education (Arendale & Hane, 2016). Former peer mentors in the project described in this paper have continued on to such leadership positions as teacher, student union president, nurse, mental health counsellor, educational advisor and university registrar. It is particularly important that minority or marginalised students are visible as leaders on campus.

In semi-structured interviews about their experience, a peer mentor who is older than average said that one of her goals in participating in this project was to help other mature students realise that they have peers on campus (Grills, 2008). She became a peer mentor to try and demonstrate to others that they are not alone in their desire to achieve higher education at a later stage of life than many of the students on campus.

I hope to be teaching high school eventually, so being able to instruct and help direct is invaluable. It’s all about helping the individual and working with other mentors that are doing the same. Every time I help somebody, I learn something else from that person, or I learn another skill. It’s all based on learning … for everyone. It’s really, really wonderful.

Another mentor started as a stellar high school student with great expectations. When she struggled in her first attempt at university, it produced a great deal of self-criticism and conflict at home. She returned to university on probation into Fundamentals of Inquiry, was successful, and the following year became an excellent role model for the struggling and perfectionist students in the class.

One interesting thing I came to value and observe is the benefits of having students ‘work’ for knowledge. What I mean by this is that I was always just so tempted to explain everything to them, because I wanted them to be able to see the whole picture. But what I came to realise and respect is that professors make you work for that understanding and for good reason. In the tutorials where I clearly spelled it out for them, they often lacked that ‘aha’ moment, whereas when I gave them the clues and let them put the pieces together themselves – I found those tutorials exceptionally effective!

What problem are the tutorials trying to solve?

The journal New Directions for Teaching and Learning devoted an issue to a model for integrating critical thinking across disciplines called “decoding the disciplines”. The issue addresses the question of how to overcome obstacles to learning for specific disciplines and provides insight into what can be wrong with the first-year experience. As Middendorf & Pace (2004, p. 3) write, “the mental operations required for undergraduates … are rarely presented to students explicitly, [and] students generally lack an opportunity to practise and receive feedback on particular skills in isolation from others.”

If educators agree that this is a problem, then they can try to address it by being explicit about what is meant by ‘critical thinking’, and what is expected in tertiary studies in terms of information processing. They can demonstrate how an expert performs the art and science of thinking by exposing first-year students to lecturers who are open to exploring their own metacognition and how they were able to move from novice to expert. They can have peers explicitly model their own learning skills and they can also utilise scaffolded instruction by both lecturers and peer mentors. Therefore, the tutorials were organised around a central question: what are potential (or known) bottlenecks to learning? Which specific problem is this week’s lesson attempting to address? The topics and problems vary by year and theme but include:

  • Learning and Intelligence

    • Thinking that ‘learning’ is an either/or switch common to everyone

    • Equating learning with intelligence

  • Time Management

    • Thinking that most of the work necessary will happen in the classroom

    • Procrastination

    • Weak digital literacy skills

  • Motivation

    • Inaccurate expectations of the difficulties common to the first-year experience

    • Difficulty persevering after an initial poor performance

    • Not taking personal responsibility for own learning

    • Expecting failure or expecting that others will ‘fix’ things

  • Reading and Studying

    • Thinking that reading texts passively is sufficient for studying

    • Not being able to identify what is important in text

  • Taking Notes and Memory

    • Thinking that remembering is rote memorisation rather than understanding

    • Not making the connections between reading, taking notes and memory

  • Doing Research: Finding Appropriate Materials

    • Relying on description rather than inquiry in term papers

    • Weak research skills

    • Not knowing how to start a research paper or how to narrow down a topic

  • Writing

    • Weak technical writing skills

    • Poor formatting and referencing skills

    • Inaccurate knowledge of plagiarism resulting in either copying or over-quoting

  • Oral Presentations

    • High anxiety about public speaking

Tutorial activities and rationale

Each of these bottlenecks to learning is addressed in tutorials through a range of activities for the peer mentors to work through in their weekly small group meeting. A set of these exercises has been collated elsewhere (Grills, 2011) but the general work and rationale are described briefly below.

The objectives for the peer mentors in the first week of tutorials include explaining the expectations of weekly sessions, building a sense of togetherness through an icebreaker exercise and leading the first group discussion. The group also works through basic university expectations using handouts on Student Rights and Responsibilities and an exercise on analytic, creative and practical thinking from Carter, Bishop, Lyman Kravits & Maurin (2010). By this time in the semester, classroom discussions have included theories of intelligence, bias in IQ testing, and concepts of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. A classroom visit during this unit has often included an Elder or Counsellor to discuss incorporating the medicine wheel from Indigenous cultures into tertiary learning. To emphasise that learning is a process, an early assignment requires students to identify and describe a Learning Artefact or item that can motivate them throughout the upcoming term. Past Learning Artefacts have included pictures of loved ones or home communities, diplomas or certificates from the students’ own past or from family members, and art work. At the conclusion of the term, students do an oral presentation to the tutorial group describing their Learning Artefact and often invite family and community members to join in this celebratory tutorial.

Procrastination and time management are the focus of the second unit in the semester. Peer mentors demonstrate how to use technology on campus and ensure that each student is properly registered and accessing the on-line supports for each of their courses. Monthly reading and task schedules for all classes are assigned, while weekly study schedules are completed in tutorials. Peer leaders demonstrate how digital schedules save time and keep them on track when used rather than simply completed as an assignment.

First-year students, particularly under-prepared or non-sequential learners, often have difficulty with expectations at university and motivation. They may be passive, expecting others to ‘fix’ errors or problems, or they may be hyper-sensitive expecting failure but not knowing how to proceed when faced with the first set-back. Attribution theory, self-efficacy and motivation have been introduced into the curricula to explicitly address these more affective barriers to first-year success. Motivation is first discussed in class during the time management unit. Students are instructed that scheduling and being organised help “to capture the planned, concentrated and goal-directed energy use that is necessary to get and keep the learning and studying process on track” (Olaussen and Bråten, 1998, p. 91). Peer mentors later lead their tutorial group in a “Booster Exercise” adapted from Martin’s motivation scale (2001). Students are asked to identify boosters or factors in their life that can increase resilience and motivation, and guzzlers or factors that may be self-sabotaging or less adaptive to success. Discussions in tutorials help students more accurately perceive the difficulties common to the first-year experience. Weekly journaling assignments throughout the term also encourage students to monitor their self-regulation while receiving regular feedback on informal writing.

For the Reading and Studying unit, students practise underlining text, summarising content, and making notes from reading. The goal of this unit is to assist students in learning how to accurately identify important parts of text (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Content includes active reading and study questions, and a Reading Game based on small groups compiling jeopardy-style questions. Peer mentors lead their tutorial group in summarising passages into alternative formats to practise distinguishing main ideas from details and to get experience with a variety of organisation methods (e.g., timeline, mind map, chart, and process diagram). In pairs, they then teach the content of the passage to a partner using only their alternative format summary. The class is also assigned an excerpt of a journal article about the interdisciplinary theme and asked to summarise each paragraph into a sentence without using words from the text. This task leads to discussions of adequate paraphrasing and plagiarism in anticipation of the major research paper for the course later in the term.

Peer mentors lead students in a note-taking exercise based on Bransford and Johnson’s (1972) work on the importance of contextual knowledge in understanding prose passages. Adequate note-taking is more than recording or scribing, but should involve interpretation. Students are given an ambiguous passage and asked to take notes as if the reading were from a textbook. Half of the group is given one set of directions concerning how to interpret the passage while the other half is given a contradictory set of interpreting directions. If the directions suggest the passage is about doing laundry, the interpretation of the passage is quite different from the one given if the directions suggest the text is about making pizza. The tutorial leader then discusses the cues that are used to determine what is important when taking notes, and the recommendation to preview learning objectives for a unit prior to reading the text in order to identify concepts that are judged to be important by the professor. Later in class, students are asked to recall their notes from this exercise, and usually recall details consistent with the interpretation as directed by their original set of directions. This leads to a productive discussion of the role of prior knowledge in both interpreting text and enhancing memory.

While lectures examine information processing theory, tutorials give students the opportunity to experience shallow and deep processing in an activity adapted from Craik and Lockhart (1972). Students are given a list of words and phrases and given instructions which encourage a shallow processing of the seemingly disjointed words, such as counting the vowels. After a brief superficial study time, students are asked to recall the words, and are usually unable to do so effectively. They are then given access to the words again, but this time the group is tasked with finding a pattern or theme in the list. Peer mentors give hints if necessary until the group can identify a sequence or pattern, and they are then asked for recall again. By focusing on the meaning of the words, a deeper level of processing is encouraged, and memory is enhanced. The tutorial leaders stress that the group is no “smarter” after identifying the pattern in the words; the improved recall the second time is not a function of intelligence, but of processing the information on a deeper level. As Lonka, Olkinuora, & Mäkinen (2004, p. 303) argue, it is important to differentiate a surface approach to studying as “aiming at investing minimal time and effort to meet the requirements, in contrast to the deep approach that is seen as an intention to maximise understanding”. Peer leaders are well placed to point out that surface studying may have been sufficient for high school but will be inadequate for conceptual questions at the university level.

Exercises to address bottlenecks of writing and doing research form approximately a third of the tutorials. First-year learners often rely on description rather than inquiry in essays, and may need instruction in how to start a research paper, how to find and identify peer-reviewed journal articles, how to decide on or narrow down a topic and how to develop a thesis statement. A tutorial early in the term is devoted to a library scavenger hunt. Each student is tasked with using the library database search engine to find a specific book, a journal article by a specific author, and a journal article in a specific journal. Library staff have been invaluable to the success of this exercise. Another week is devoted to grammar exercises developed by writing specialists in the Academic Skills Centre, who also instruct the class in proper formatting and sourcing requirements. Additionally, peer mentors lead a brainstorming session on ‘asking questions’ adapted from Hudspith and Jenkins (2001). This session gives students specific instruction and practice on narrowing down a broad topic into a researchable central question that can be answered by analysing evidence.

In order to give students more practice with the concept of peer review and adjust to receiving constructive feedback, peer review exercises are used in multiple tutorials. A journal critique assignment adapted from Paul and Elder’s (2006) Template for Analyzing the Logic of an Article is distributed to the tutorial group for peer feedback. Students are tasked with using a rubric to provide specific feedback about their colleagues’ journal article critique. Another assignment requires students to submit their introductory paragraph for the research paper for peer review in the tutorial. Using questions adapted from Hazard and Nadeau (2009), students are asked to identify gaps in logic, errors in spelling or sentence structure and to explain how the writer’s approach to the common research paper assignment differs from their own. An inaccurate knowledge of plagiarism is also addressed in tutorials through the wonderful resources of York’s Student Papers and Academic Research Kit ( The plagiarism policy on campus is discussed in class by an academic administrator, and students know that there will be a question about the policy on the first midterm examination.

Veenman & Spaans (2005) distinguish between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive skills. They argue that metacognitive knowledge is declarative knowledge focusing on self-awareness and knowledge of the task and the learning situation, which is the usual foundation for transition to university courses. Metacognitive skills are more procedural knowledge about the actions required for self-regulation such as task analysis, planning, monitoring, checking and reflection. The goal with incorporating more procedural knowledge through tutorials and assignments is to produce more self-regulatory learners who “establish goals and an action plan for how they will prepare for exams, carefully monitor their understanding of the material when studying, use a variety of learning strategies and ask for help when needed, take breaks to renew their concentration, and change their learning environment if it is distracting” (Dembo & Seli, 2004, p. 3).

Impact and concluding thoughts

In the first and last week of Fundamentals of Inquiry, all students complete the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory or LASSI (Weinstein, Palmer & Shute, 2002). This inventory provides standardised scores and norms for a 10-scale assessment of students’ awareness about and reported use of learning and study strategies: freedom from anxiety, attitude, concentration, information processing, motivation, self-testing, selecting main ideas, use of study aids, time management and test taking. According to Weinstein, Zimmerman and Palmer (1988), higher scores on each scale of the LASSI are related to success in post-secondary educational settings. In a Research Board approved study examining 172 students completing this Success Course, there was no statistically significant change in the attitude scale, which explores the relationship between academic and life goals and asks whether school is an integral part of the student’s future. However, the students significantly improved in each of the other nine scales.

Table 1. Paired sample t-test comparison of first and last week of term mean LASSI scales
Scale First week Last Week t (171)
Freedom from anxiety 21.30 23.65 3.94**
Attitude 31.91 32.37 2.57
Concentration 24.76 26.79 4.92**
Information processing 26.56 28.98 6.26**
Motivation 29.06 30.55 3.22**
Self-testing 22.82 24.44 3.21**
Selecting main ideas 23.91 27.90 8.27**
Use of support aids 25.09 26.45 3.08*
Time management 23.65 24.84 2.32*
Test taking 25.66 27.95 5.11**

Note: * p <0.01, ** p <0.001.

The tutorials described in this paper are embedded into a one-semester credit-bearing Success Course designed to support diverse learners. The class is divided into small groups which meet once a week to complete skill-building exercises and discuss the challenges and expectations in joining a community of scholars. Peer mentors lead the first-year students in tutorials which share some similarities with PASS and SI programs as well as extended orientation or induction services. However the tutorials and the Success Course specifically embed active learning practise into an interdisciplinary combination of learning strategy instruction, critical thinking, and cognitive psychology.

Peer mentors model resilience, and serve as advocates and conduits to campus resources. It is especially important that peer leaders are visible in under-represented populations as active, successful participants in the academic community. A future goal would be to have a leadership course or program available for peer mentors to enable expanded training and more fully credit senior students for their dedication of time and talent. The Success Course combines high academic standards with frequent feedback through a series of cumulative opportunities for success. Each tutorial explicitly addresses a problem or bottleneck of learning, and tutorial activities provide the time and support for first-year learners to practise metacognitive skills and increase their awareness and use of self-regulatory learning.

The author may be contacted:
Sheilagh Grills


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