Case Study: Initiating a Peer Mentoring Program in Higher Education

This case study is a critical reflection on the Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). My manager, the Director of the Independent Learning Centre, CUHK, tasked me to scope, research, plan, pilot, evaluate and refine the PMP.

Background to the PMP

The Peer Mentoring Program is a collaborative undertaking between the Independent Learning Centre (ILC), the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) Wellness and Counselling Centre and participating Colleges of CUHK. (To clarify, the College system in CUHK is reminiscent of Oxbridge, i.e. each College is a community with its own hostel and dining facilities, offering pastoral care and extra-curricular learning opportunities.) The pilot PMP ran during the autumn term of CUHK’s 2014-2015 academic year and has continued until the present academic year. The schedule for the most recent run of the PMP is published online at https://www.ilc.cuhk.edu.hk/workshop/pmp/#schedule

In 2014, peer mentoring was nothing new to CUHK. However, the objectives of the pre-existing CUHK Peer Mentorship Program and Shaw College Mentorship Program are more career-oriented; the mentors are alumni of the University and the mentees are senior students. By contrast, the PMP was aimed at supporting first year undergraduates as they adapted from relatively directed secondary education to relatively undirected tertiary education. In other words, the primary purpose of the PMP is to facilitate first year undergraduate students’ successful transition to higher education with an emphasis on learning to learn more independently. Mentoring by senior students is the means by which the transition is supported.

Mentors are prepared for their role by the ILC with support from the OSA regarding the development of student counselling skills; mentors are closely supported throughout the program by an ILC Lecturer. By engaging in the program, it is also hoped that mentors benefit by acquiring or improving a range of skills that are highly relevant to their future working lives.

SO1 : Identified goals for staff and for academic development processes and activities

These were the finalised outcomes of the pilot PMP:

Intended learning outcomes for mentees

  • Development of study skills that are appropriate for higher education
  • Knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities
  • Appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members
  • Awareness of campus activities that encourage student involvement

Intended learning outcomes for mentors

  • Initial development of training and counselling skills
  • Improvement of communication skills
  • Increased empathy through identification with challenges faced by mentees
  • Enhanced capacity for reflection on learning

In addition, for mentors and mentees alike, it is anticipated that the Program contributes to the following:

  • Increased confidence and motivation
  • Stronger sense of belonging to CUHK
  • Heightened intercultural sensitivity
  • Enhanced inter/intrapersonal abilities
  • Improved communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills

These outcomes and aims were synthesized from ILC/OSA strategy, ideas from relevant academic literature (that is cited below) and consultation with participating Colleges, as well as through reflection and discussion between myself and the ILC Director.

My involvement as an ILC lecturer in developing the PMP was in line with the mission statement of the ILC to “collaborate with teachers and units across the Chinese University of Hong Kong to provide resources and activities to support and encourage independent learning.” (https://www.ilc.cuhk.edu.hk/EN/mission.aspx) My Director had a long-standing interest in peer mentorships and gave me a direct instruction to develop the program.

The OSA Wellness and Counselling Centre’s interest in the PMP came from a concern to ensure students’ mental wellbeing (psychosocial integration) in the critical period of the first term of their undergraduate careers. As is stated on their website, the Centre “assists students to overcome adjustment difficulties, derive success and satisfaction from their university experiences as well as achieve personal growth and self-enhancement.”

At the University level, retention of first year students is a serious matter, primarily from the perspective of concern for students’ welfare but also regarding institutional financial health. According to statistics published by CUHK online at https://www.iso.cuhk.edu.hk/english/publications/facts-and-figures/index.aspx?issueid=1661 , tuition fees were 24.5% of total University income in 2014-15. Student numbers and retention are also factors in the calculation of government subventions for publicly-funded higher education institutions which, in 2014-15 accounted for 55.1% of CUHK’s income. So, the University has a vested interest in students progressing successfully from initial to second and final years of study.

Thus, it appears that the PMP was straightforwardly a top-down, strategic initiative. Although I had been instructed to proceed with the PMP, I still had a responsibility to verify that a mentoring program would be a wise investment of ILC resources and I needed inspiration on how to design such a program. So, bearing in mind ILC/OSA agendas, yet trying to remain unbiased, I turned to academic articles and reports on peer mentorships in higher education. From these sources, I sought to confirm whether, and understand how, peer mentoring could be an effective vehicle to carry forward the aforementioned strategic goals in the environment of CUHK.

Reassuringly, I found compelling evidence that peer mentoring in higher education is advantageous. For example, in 2011 Andrews [not me] & Clark produced a report on funded peer mentoring projects in UK higher education, arguing strongly that mentoring is valuable for student retention and success.

The same report also lent credence to my OSA colleagues’ belief in the timing of the PMP, “The first few days and weeks at university are widely acknowledged as being crucial to student success.” However, the report also promoted a longer relationship between mentor and mentee, so the decision was made to extend the PMP to cover the whole of the autumn academic term.

The ILC’s intention to cultivate self-direction in learning via the PMP seemed to be in line with the conclusions of Andrews & Clark. The transition from secondary to tertiary education can represent a genuine hurdle for some learners and that this is so has been well-documented, for example Smith’s 2004 case study focuses on British contexts but remarks that transition is a global concern because “many of the issues are fundamental to any post-school education system which is aimed at more than a small, socially selected minority of the population.” One viable means to facilitate the process of learning to learn in the new context of higher education is mentoring by students who are in their second or third years of study.

There is a theme running through the body of research that the value of peer mentoring programs is as much for mentors as it is for mentees. Colvin & Ashman (2010) found that the experience of “…mentoring allowed them [mentors] to reapply concepts into their own lives and helped them become even better students themselves.” A Beltman and Schaeben (2010) article highlights that mentors develop personal efficacy and employability skills, and the latter point is reiterated in the Andrews & Clark report. Such evidence supported the belief of my Director and I that we should have, as our secondary aim, the development of mentors’ transferable and employability skills.

By using scholarship, one of Bostock & Baume’s (2016) elements of professionalism, I had verified that the PMP could be a worthwhile project and was better informed about selecting appropriate outcomes and aims.

SO2 : Planned and led academic development processes and activities towards achievement of these goals

Meanwhile, my Director negotiated for the pilot PMP to occur within two Colleges – Morningside College and C.W. Chu College. This was achievable thanks to her infectious enthusiasm, networking skills and status in a strongly hierarchical institution. Without her fulfilling these leadership roles, I would not have been able to make the PMP happen. Also, it was good to start on a small scale, to test out the PMP in a manageable way and later expand it hopefully. It was also decided to leave the recruitment of the mentors and matching with mentees to the Colleges for the pilot run, the reasoning being that College staff knew their students better than the ILC and that a feeling of joint ownership of the Program would be encouraged. One College encouraged mainland Chinese first year students to participate as mentees since there were concerns about their potential isolation in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

For the successful conclusion of the above negotiations, the Colleges and OSA required formal proposals. The readings that I had consulted informed the PMP proposals.

For instance, valuable advice on the specification of learning outcomes for the PMP was gained from Corella (2010). Two of the learning outcomes for mentees, namely ‘knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities’ and ‘appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members’ were derived directly from this study.

A practical suggestion from Beltman & Schaeben (2010) that my Director and I incorporated was to recognise and reward mentors with a Certificate of Completion. From their respective Colleges, mentors also received a modest financial thank you for their service.

Terrion & Leonard’s (2007) meta-survey of peer mentoring journal articles helped to identify positive characteristics of mentors with more certainty. A list of mentor characteristics was useful both to inform the recruitment of new mentors and to identify objectives for further development of mentors’ attributes during the PMP. Examples of mentor characteristics are academic achievement, ability/willingness to commit time, communication skills, flexibility and empathy.

Two handbooks on peer mentoring and four descriptions of established large-scale peer mentorship schemes on other higher education institutions’ websites also influenced the specification and design of the PMP. As an example of such influence, Utah University explains that their mentors are trained, not merely experienced students, which struck a chord with me.  I reflected upon the significance of thorough preparation for mentors and opted to make it a central element of the PMP. (These less formal sources, like Utah’s webpages, are acknowledged in the reference list below.)

With all the gathered information, I crafted formal proposals to OSA and the two Colleges, which were accepted. A sample proposal is available below as Appendix A. Furthermore, I set about compiling the PMP Handbook, excerpts of which are downloadable below as Appendix B. I reproduce the contents page here for readers’ convenience:

  • Intended Outcomes of the Program
  • Mentors and Mentoring
  • Guidelines for Mentors
  • Guidelines for Mentees
  • Roles of ILC Lecturers
  • Confidentiality Statement
  • Mentor-Mentee meeting form
  • ILC Lecturer-Mentor meeting form
  • Mentor Training sessions
  • Mentee Preparation sessions
  • End-of-Program Mentor review form
  • End-of-Program Mentee review form
  • Mentoring References

The handbook was intended as an introduction to the PMP for all stakeholders, a scaffold of the process for both mentors and mentees, and a handy reference to procedures. Besides the confidentiality agreement in the Handbook, mentors were also asked to sign a research participation agreement in case the ILC decided to publish an article or present findings about the PMP at a conference. The agreement is available below as Appendix C. Promotional posters were made for the Colleges with design and publishing assistance from an ILC colleague. A sample is included below as Appendix D.

With the pilot PMP schedule agreed (Appendix E) and recruitment on track, my colleagues in OSA and I jointly prepared for the face-to-face mentor and mentee preparation sessions.

SO3 : Facilitated and led processes and activities to achieve the agreed goals

The mentors attended four preparations sessions that took the form of interactive explorations of mentoring concepts and skills facilitated by myself, my Director and two professional counsellors from OSA. Separately, I visited Colleges to brief mentees, also in a participative session.

It was important that the mentor preparation sessions were participatory and reflective to give the participants the opportunity to start developing skills and to acquire relevant knowledge. An earlier edition of Petty (2014) was a source of ideas for session activity design. Should ideas and advice on mentoring have been ‘transmitted’ in a traditional lecture format, I would have been less confident that session content had been absorbed or could be applied successfully. The intention was for there to be constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011) between the session outcomes and the training methods. Fortuitously, the OSA counsellors were of a similar mindset, coming as they do from a profession that, like education, recognises the importance of strong connectivity between theory and practice.

Appendix F is the handout for (half of) the fourth preparation session. This part was delivered by me. It focused on the topic of learner motivation. As can be seen from the handout, the session was activity-based. The objectives were for mentors to understand categories of motivation and factors that influence it and to become familiar with reflective strategies that can encourage persistence in studying. In the same session, OSA training followed and their objectives were as follows:

  • Start to develop communication skills essential for interacting successfully with mentees
  • Raise your awareness of possible difficulties for mentees and identify ways to provide support

Although my OSA colleagues are professional counsellors rather than educators, they did a great job of writing appropriate learning outcomes and facilitating their parts of the sessions. I remained present and was there to provide support, although that did not prove to be needed.

To future proof the preparation sessions, in case there were a change of personnel, I designed PowerPoint slides that contained activity instructions so that other ILC lecturers would be able to facilitate them with greater ease. Sample PowerPoint slides for the second session are included below as Appendix G. (In the event, this was fortunate because I left the employment of CUHK in 2015.)

As part of the preparation, participants were introduced to the mentor-mentee meeting form (Appendix B), a straightforward template to focus and record discussions and action points. Example, anonymized notes from a genuine mentor-mentee meeting appear in Appendix H.

Once the preparation phase was completed, the actual mentoring began. During the first term of the academic year, mentors performed their roles and I was available to support the mentors. My role is described in the PMP Handbook (see Appendix B). During October and November, I scheduled weekly meetings with the mentors. At these meetings, the mentors were free to discuss any issues with which they had dealt. However, they were not to disclose any confidential information about their mentees. In advance of meetings, mentors could identify specific areas where they require more knowledge and request direction from me. For example, to help their mentees, mentors may have needed to know more about term paper writing or examination revision strategies. I also responded to requests for additional meetings at reasonable notice. Where a mentor or mentee had a cause for concern that they wished to discuss privately, they could contact me during office hours. OSA staff also provided contact details in case referral to a counsellor was deemed necessary.

To be frank, there was minimal participation in the weekly meetings and I was not called upon for one-to-one support frequently. I discuss this more in the section below on evaluation.

SO4 : Monitored and evaluated the effectiveness and the acceptability of the development processes and activities

As can be seen in the Handbook (Appendix B), there are two evaluation forms for the PMP, one for mentors and one for mentees. The questions on the forms are designed to gather quantitative feedback on participation rates in the mentoring process and an indication of satisfaction with the quality of preparation and support. They are also intended to prompt students to reflect on the value of their experience of mentoring or being mentored and thus serve a formative function.

To check whether the ILC’s objective of fostering learner independence was being met, mentors were invited to try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS) before and after the PMP. This online questionnaire is a self-reporting instrument that “measures the complex of attitudes, abilities, and characteristics that comprise readiness to engage in self-directed learning”. It was decided that it would be administered following the first mentor preparation session and again after the conclusion of the Program. A set of SDLRs anonymised results for mentors may be seen in Appendix J below.

After the pilot PMP ended in December 2014, I reflected on the evaluation data and the experience of the Program as I interpreted it, and made the following summary:

Promotion and Recruitment

The promotion of PMP to two colleges was handled very well. Everything was well-organized and in place by the commencement of the program.

College X appeared to be more successful in recruiting mentees than College Y. In some cases, mentees may have been “volunteered” without a clear perception that they were in need of a mentor. On the other hand, some mentors were content with the situation because they considered that one mentee was as many as they could manage properly.

Training for Mentors

The mentors participated in four workshops facilitated by ILC staff and OSA professional counsellors. Feedback on the workshops was mostly positive. The content seemed appropriate. The third workshop, which focused on time management skills, may need more development. Alternatively, the ILC training materials could be redistributed between the sessions so that there is more equal content quantity.

One issue with the training was that not all mentors attended all sessions.

Mentoring Phase

As this was the pilot program, participation was deliberately limited to students from C.W. Chu College and Morningside College. According to feedback from mentors, this was advantageous in that mentors and mentees could find each other easily, although some mentors still expressed difficulties in arranging regular face-to-face meetings. I would suggest more structure for this phase with a commitment from the outset of the program for mentors to meet their mentees a minimum number of times and to document all meetings.

It was also intended that mentors would visit the ILC lecturer once a week. For reasons unclear, this did not happen.

The mentoring phase may have been too short. Mentors commented that they spent the first few weeks just getting to know their mentees and building good relationships. It might be better to extend the program into the second semester.

SDLRS

This online inventory was easy to administer, and the results were conveniently reported with some statistical analysis. Unfortunately, there was a security issue with SDLRS which cannot be resolved through further email communications. However, it may be worth risking and trying it again with the mentors. I believe that the use of SDLRS adds weight to the argument to extend PMP into semester two, so that there would be more of a gap between taking SDLRS the first and second times. In this way, the results may become more meaningful.

SO5 : Identified any appropriate follow-up development process or activity

As is mentioned above, there were problems in administering the SDLRS a second time. However, that issue was resolved, and the instrument could be used twice on every run of the PMP, to see whether mentors reported increased self-regulation after experiencing the Program. I was keen to retain the SDLRS because it provided a means to cross-reference with related questions on the mentor evaluation form (Appendix B). Moreover, results from a more objective instrument such as the SDLRS, should they positive, would be helpful in promoting the PMP to additional Colleges.

For logistical reasons, it was decided by senior management that the PMP would continue as an autumn term offering only. ILC lecturers’ attention would be needed elsewhere during the spring and summer terms. Although from my perspective I would have preferred extending the PMP into the spring term at least, I had to bear in mind the operational priorities of the ILC and remind myself not to become frustrated. As one of my peers on the SEDA Supporting & Leading Educational Change course has pointed out, though, a viable way forward would be to make the PMP self-sustaining, and for the ILC to gradually recede as College staff took over. Shifting the responsibility for mentoring the mentors, currently assumed by an ILC lecturer, to the Colleges, may also make it easier to keep in touch with mentors during the actual mentoring phase. CUHK has a large campus on a hill and it may have been an inconvenience for mentors to visit the ILC once a week.

Although I would have liked to develop the PMP more, the fact is that I left CUHK in January 2015. Fortunately, my colleagues at the ILC have persevered and succeeded in attracting  S.H.Ho College to participate in the Program, too. Another innovation that they have made is to include a final session for mentors during which they can all reflect together on the experience, which should be fruitful. To celebrate mentors’ completion of the PMP, Certificate award ceremonies were photographed and uploaded to College websites. Doing this also served to promote the PMP across the University for the next run in 2015/16.

I now work as an academic developer at the University of Reading (UoR) in the UK. The experience of developing and implementing the PMP at CUHK had convinced me of the value of peer mentorships. As a result, I was delighted that a briefing on peer learning and mentoring is included in the UoR’s Academic Practice Programme (APP), a taught route to Higher Education Academy Associate and full Fellowship. Last year I invited the coordinators of the University’s Student Transitions at Reading (STaR) mentor partnership and Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme to address APP participants, who are mostly probationary lecturers, in order to raise participants’ awareness of the value of peer mentoring. The coordinators’ presentations were also mapped to the Higher Education Academy’s UK Professional Standards Framework. Appendix K evidences the invitation with an email thread.

Currently, I am recommending the extension of UoR’s STaR mentor scheme to students who come from a partner institution in China to spend one or two years of their undergraduate programmes in the UK. Mentoring could act as a catalyst to engage both UK and Chinese students in internationalisation. My promotional activities are also evidenced in the Appendix K email thread.

Reflective commentary

Composing this case study, receiving peer feedback on it and reading chapter two of the set text for this course (Neame & Forsyth, 2016) have been valuable exercises for me to make explicit and to question the roles that I adopted as an academic developer in the development, implementation and review of the Peer Mentoring Program. I identify my Director’s orientation as principally managerial and political-strategic whereas my approaches were a combination of interventionist and democratic. I was given a clear mandate to create and run the PMP and I had most say in the design of mentor/mentee preparation sessions, but I also collaborated with OSA counsellors, crafted an evidenced proposal to persuade collaborators and was flexible about incorporating local environmental considerations.

Given that, I think it is fair to say, the culture of CUHK is such that staff are comfortable when initiatives are led by those in authority. Hong Kong lies somewhere between Western and mainland Chinese higher education institutions in terms of the autocracy of its administration (Postiglione, 2017). It was therefore appropriate for me to fulfil the roles that I did, rather than attempt to assume the roles that my Director had adopted. In another higher education environment, I may have had more leeway to instigate a novel program or project. The lesson learned is that I should pay close attention to the working culture in which I operate when selecting suitable and feasible roles. I am now aware of a range of roles and in future intend to adopt and combine roles in a more informed and explicit manner.

Writing this case study also made me realise that earlier experiences in one’s career as an educational developer can inform later ones. Although I regret that I could not develop peer mentoring further at CUHK, at least I was exposed first hand to its potential. With my awareness raised, the topics of mentoring and peer learning were obvious choices when the opportunities arose at the UoR in the UK to inform the practice of early career academics and to endorse the extension of mentoring to international students.

References

Andrews, J. & Clark, C. (2011). Peer mentoring works! How peer mentoring enhances student success in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/what-works-student-retention/Aston-What_Works_Final_Reports-Dec_11

Beltman, S. & Schaeben, M. (2012). Institution-wide peer mentoring: Benefits for mentors. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 3(2), 33-44.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw-Hill Education and Open University Press.

Bostock, S. and Baume, D. (2016). Professions and professionalism in teaching and development. In: D. Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.32-51.

Corella, A. K. (2010). Identifying college student success: The role of first year success courses and peer mentoring. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 202. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/305183569?accountid=10371

Colvin, J.W. & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks and benefits of peer mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18: 2, 121-134. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13611261003678879#.UzPbnk3NvIU

Neame, C. & Forsyth, R. (2016). Needs and opportunities for development. In: D.Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. New York, Routledge, pp.17-31.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford University Press.

Postiglione, G.A. (2017). Education, ethnicity, society and global change in Asia: The selected works of Gerard A. Postiglione. Routledge, p.153.

Smith, K. (2004). School to university: an investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British Universities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3, 1, 81-93.

Terrion, J.L. & Leonard, D. (2007). A taxonomy of the characteristics of student peer mentors in higher education: Findings from a literature review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 15:2, 149-164. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cmet20

Mentoring programs

Ottawa University, Canada http://www.sass.uottawa.ca/mentoring/undergraduate/study-skills.php

Utah University, USA http://orientation.utah.edu/first-year/mentors/

Curtin University, Australia  http://mentoring.curtin.edu.au/

Aston University, UK http://www.aston.ac.uk/current-students/get-involved/mentoring-at-aston-university/peer-mentoring/

Mentoring handbooks

Fletcher, S. & Mullen, C. (Eds.). (2012). The SAGE handbook of mentoring and coaching in education. London : SAGE.

Sanft, M., Jensen, M. & McMurray, E. (2008). Peer Mentor Companion. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Appendices

Appendix A – Proposal

Appendix B – Handbook Excerpts

Appendix C – Research Participation Agreement

Appendix D – Promotional Poster

Appendix E – Schedule

Appendix F – Preparation Session Handout

Appendix G – Session Notes on PowerPoint

Appendix H – Mentor-Mentee Meeting Notes

Appendix J – SDLRS Results

Appendix K – StaR Mentoring and PAL Email Thread

Word count

Introduction 311

SO1 871; SO2 667; SO3 631; SO4 608; SO5 567

Reflective commentary 350

Total 4004

 

Flexible design of self-access learning centres for longevity

This article is not a discussion about the efficacy of self-access learning centres. (In recent years, some universities have backed away from physical centres, switching to online resources instead.) Instead, my assumption is that there is value in making available spaces for independent learning equipped with suitable resources. Moreover, my focus is on the secondary/high school level of education rather than on tertiary.

My concern is how relatively small educational institutions can maintain and develop quite costly self-access learning centres in the long-term. Initially, when an institution establishes such a learning facility, its novelty value stimulates student participation. However, this enthusiasm tends to peter out. Therefore, I suggest a way to keep such facilities well-utilised and worth the investment.

That way is flexible room design.

Some physical learning centres are beautifully designed, with sculpted furniture, carpets, etc. and work well as inviting environments. Here is an example:

picture-7

On the down side, rooms like this usually have fixed furniture and are space-inefficient, in other words there are relatively few seats and computers. (With the increased use of tablets and other mobile devices, however, a low number of networked PCs is becoming less of a concern.)

Another common room design is almost indistinguishable from a traditional computer lab; desktop computers are arranged in rows or in clusters, like this:

picture-6

The room can accommodate many learners but is not that enticing and restricts interactions. Yet the main problem, to my mind, is both designs’ static nature. Compare this learning centre:

picture-1

picture-2

The computers are around the edge of a large space. The furniture is movable and can be flexibly arranged. At the front of the room is an interactive whiteboard. So, this room can easily double as a classroom that is ideal for, e.g., project classes, enquiry-based learning or academic writing lessons.

Such versatility means that more use can be made of these expensive facilities. The room still operates as a self-access centre during lunchtimes and after school.

Here is an alternative design that is also flexible:

picture-3

In this room, the desks and wheeled-chairs can be moved easily and there are power sockets in the floor for laptops and tablets. Some paper-resources and a few desktops are present on the edge of the room. Again, there is an interactive whiteboard and other AV aids at the front.

Finally, here is a smaller space that is very versatile:

picture-4picture-5

This room is intended for small group work, consultations, meetings and club activities as well as individual self-access learning.

In sum, flexible room design is one measure to  make it more likely that the facilities will continue to be genuinely useful for learners and schools.

Loop input: A valuable training strategy

First off, I want to thank Tessa Woodward for the idea of loop input. She introduced the concept in a 1986 article in The Teacher Trainer journal and articulated it again in her 1991 book, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies.

Since reading about this training strategy, I have experimented and found it to have the distinct advantage of making the content of professional development workshops highly memorable.

So what is it? In short, with loop input the message of the training and its means of delivery coincide. This is best understood through examples, and in this post I would like to present a couple that I have developed. This has been done before, for example in this entry on John Hughes excellent blog elteachertrainer. However, the additional contribution I would like to make is to provide examples beyond the language teaching profession. Below are two examples of loop input for trainers of all disciplines.

Example 1: An opening activity to introduce the topic of thinking skills

I was tasked by a secondary school to provide a staff development session on the topic of developing students’ thinking skills. When I was writing the materials for this session, I decided that I needed a dynamic, interactive opening activity that would also serve to introduce the topic. My goals for this activity were mainly to engage the participants, but following its completion I wanted to be able to provoke initial reflections on different ways of thinking. This would then lead into more detailed consideration of the ways of thinking that are needed for success in different school subjects, e.g. history or mathematics.

As I was searching for inspiration, I recalled an entertaining language activity in Jill Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games that I had used many times in ESOL lessons and had always proved a winner. It is called Detective Work and is a card game designed originally to practise reporting past events. Students work in small groups, turn up one card at a time from a pile, and discuss the clues to the murder that are on the cards. In the process, they should use several verb forms.

I adapted Detective Work in two ways. Firstly, I changed the context of the murder to the school in which I was leading the professional development session. Seeking approval beforehand, I made one of the vice-principals the victim and one of the teachers the perpetrator. This was the cause of some hilarity in the session. Secondly, after the task was completed and the groups had all solved the murder mystery, in plenary I posed the question, “How did you solve the crime?”. This led to a discussion of the distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Having just directly experienced deductive reasoning themselves, teachers appeared not to confuse it with inductive reasoning, as could easily happen. Moreover, sometime later teachers from this school remarked upon that task to me. Their recall was partly due to how much they had enjoyed playing the role of detective and competing with other groups to solve the murder. My hope is that they also recalled the message of the activity.

Example 2: A complete development session on the topic of learner autonomy / self-directed learning

My overall goal for this whole-day staff development session with 70+ teachers at a secondary school was to help teachers grasp the importance of scaffolding the process by which students become more independent. I also hoped that the outcomes of this session would dovetail with earlier professional development at this school on the topic of differentiating instruction.

So, instead of leading a conventional training session, which typically would include input on research findings from me followed by discussion work on how to apply those findings in the school’s distinct learning environments, I opted to give the participants more freedom of choice.

At the outset, I helped teachers to synthesize a plausible working definition of “learner autonomy” from several that had been sourced from the literature. Then, I provided eight possible learning objectives for the session and invited teachers to select two or three that were most relevant to their individual needs. They also selected the sequence in which they would try activities designed to bring them closer to their chosen learning goals. These activities had been designed as self-access materials with accompanying instructions. The teachers were aware of a prescribed, overall time limit and managed their time accordingly.

At the end of the time limit, teachers came together and reflected on whether they had chosen learning objectives wisely, what they had actually learned, and whether they had managed their learning appropriately. Participation in this process led participants naturally to the apparently paradoxical conclusion that independent learning still needs to be guided by teachers, at least until students’ metacognitive awareness has developed sufficiently.

Conclusion

I have found loop input to be a useful addition to my training strategies repertoire. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes combining the message and the process is potent and memorable.

Hadfield, J. (1990). Intermediate communication games. Nelson.

Woodward, T. (1986). Loop input – a process idea. The Teacher Trainer, 1:6-7. Pilgrims.

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and metaphors in language teacher training: Loop input and other strategies. Cambridge University Press.

Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.

IStudyPlan

istudiez-pro-review

 

My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)

study_blue

quizlet_logo_large

gflash

Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.

dictionary

merriam

wordweb

Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)

Freemind_logo

Mindjet

iMindMap

Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)

easybibvectorlogo

zotero

Mendeley

Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)

evernote

one-note-logo

GoodReader_Logo

Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)

Genius-Scan-icon

evernote

CamScanner

I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…