Peer-Mentoring: A versatile & scalable approach to undergraduate instruction
Over the past two decades, educational research has described a strong link between students’ sense of belonging and their retention in STEM majors (Brainard and Carlin, 1998; Shapiro and Sax, 2011). These feelings of community are especially important for underrepresented minorities and first generation individuals, student populations at disproportionally high risk of leaving STEM. Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to inculcating feelings of belonging in students is the structure of a traditional introductory STEM course. Large lecture courses often lack instructor-student and peer-to-peer interactions needed to cultivate this sense of community. Here, we present 3 courses in which we have incorporated undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) to facilitate the development of learning communities among first and second year students. Our first-year seminar series introduces students to topics including metacognition, growth mindsets and how to adapt to the academic expectations of university. These topics are delivered by LAs who mentor 4-6 students weekly, and serves 360 students annually. We also utilize LAs as scientist ‘role-models’ for ~20 first-year students in a course-based undergraduate research experience which explores the diversity of biological research on campus. The third course incorporates LAs as discussion-leaders in the tutorial sections of the second-year Introductory Biology course, which typically enrolls 280 students. Over the passed three years, we have assessed the impact of the interventions by tracking student progression through the major and academic achievement. We will present results that demonstrate both improved student academic performance and retention in the major. Many of the participants in these courses recognize the contribution of the peer-mentors and subsequently enroll as LAs upon entry into their upper-division courses. Combined these results suggest that LAs promote student success, but are also a self-sustaining, scalable resource that can be expanded to a diversity of course-structures.