‘Fly, Students, Fly’: Stories from the Studio – an Examination of the Student Experience of Peer-tutoring on an Accredited Programme
Karen Arrand, Coventry UniversityPeer-tutoring schemes frequently appeal to educators in Higher Education and there is much literature examining implementation and assessment. Using narrative research methods, this inquiry set out to understand the lesser-considered student experience, in particular, that of media production students acting as peer tutors on an accredited programme. Results give a picture of the complex, mul...
Keywords: peer-tutoring, student mentors, narrative inquiry, student experience, media production
Peer-tutoring schemes frequently appeal to educators in Higher Education and there is much literature examining implementation and assessment. Using narrative research methods, this inquiry set out to understand the lesser-considered student experience, in particular, that of media production students acting as peer tutors on an accredited programme. Results give a picture of the complex, multi-faceted interpersonal relationship that comes into play in peer-tutoring and the problems faced by those in the role. This study stresses the importance of training and support throughout a peer-mentoring scheme as a way to improve such schemes.
Students have an image of a perfect mentor but they don’t always act like one…
The increasing popularity of peer-tutoring in Higher Education has produced much comment on theoretical approaches, implementation and assessment; (Boud, 2001; Falchikov, 2001; Klasen and Clutterback, 2002; Parsloe, 2001). There is much less literature on the nature of peer-tutoring relationships and classroom interactions (Colvin, 2007). Last summer I conducted a narrative inquiry to better understand the student experience of my own peer-tutoring scheme, (see end for details) and to look for ways to improve it. Media Production students were asked to write a story (fiction or factual) to be based on an event that particularly stuck in their minds following their experience on an accredited Level 3 Peer Tutoring programme. 11 stories (written by six female / five male students) were submitted and these were analysed using coding and interpretative methodology (Carter, 2005; Butler-Kisber, 2010).
It was surprising to find that some authors used the exercise to ‘confess’ to mistakes that had been made, usually by them. Overall, a great sense of honesty, and even scrutiny of their failings, came through the narratives. These stories gave me a much deeper understanding of students’ experience than the self-evaluative questionnaires they also completed.
The coding identified six overarching themes to the narratives that begin to give some definition and detail to the student experience of mentoring:
- Characteristics of the ‘The Perfect Mentor’
- Personal Development
‘The Perfect Mentor’Many of the students’ stories talked about the ideal characteristics required to be a good mentor where student mentors are presented as always knowing the right answers and the right way to behave. These revealed a detailed picture of their motivation and ambition.
She was calm and friendly and made sure that the other girl learning felt relaxed and unpressured. She said things like, don’t worry if anything goes wrong and I’m not expecting you to be perfect first time. (Story 8)
Here the mentor is represented as a perfect example – calm, supportive and caring. The mentor does nothing wrong, she is confident and able.
The mentor stayed with the girl as she practiced using it, helping and guiding her through each step. The girl was eventually able to use the equipment confidently, and thanked the mentor for her help. The mentor congratulated the girl and looked pleased with herself. (Story 8)
These ‘perfect mentors’ have time and patience to work one-to-one until the mentee has mastered the skill being taught. The teaching environment is assiduous and polite. Constructive feedback is insinuated and the session is concluded positively. Both mentee and mentor feel pride and achievement in their efforts.
One of the students was struggling with a role and asked me to take over, I suggested she carried on trying while I helped. I told her different ways in which she could approach the role, by either taking notes, practicing the role more will help basically organise yourself for the role the best way you can. (Story 10)
Here a ‘perfect’ mentor is dealing with an unexpected problem and she attempts to give the right advice and various solutions to enable the mentee to overcome her lack of confidence and fear of failure.
4 mentors gathered in the tv studio. Their names were Laura*, Jason*, Tim* and Amy*. They had prepared a whole session for their mentees as then turned up the week before, they had high hopes. (Story 3)
Whilst here the story reveals how a ‘perfect mentor’ needs to prepare for the mentoring sessions and have a good, positive attitude.
These narratives are really useful; they produce a clear picture of the aims, ambitions and high expectations held by student mentors. They also demonstrate their understanding of the commitment and effort required to do well in this role.
Nearly half the stories explored or tested the boundary of the student - mentee relationship and its perceived or real jurisdiction. When to intervene? When to be a friend? Is it ok to lie? These honest, confessional accounts highlight the necessity of supporting students throughout a mentoring programme.
One of the students was struggling with a role and asked me to take over….As a mentor I didn’t feel I should be the one to force a role up on someone. (Story 10)
Telling the truth:
A student asked me something and I didn’t know the answer so I lied I felt so bad lol but I was lucky cuz I got help from a friend who even put things right. I learnt that is not bad to lie to students sometimes cuz a lil (sic) lie can push them to work harder and be all they can be. (Story 7)
The authors’ confessions here may be striking for their stark honesty but they reveal the vulnerability felt by mentors under pressure. Implementors of mentoring schemes need to be aware of the importance of addressing personal values / ethics / judgments at the training stage. Students will need good guidelines, even a code of conduct, to furnish them with a clear understanding of the mentoring role and the issues they may face.
The literature tells us much about the positive outcomes of mentoring but less about the mistakes and worries that are often encountered by inexperienced mentors. Here the narratives tell us how bad things can really get:
I, the mentor with my crippling anxiety and sense of inferiority was approached by what seemed an obstacle of difficulty. How will I mentor a student? Why would they listen to me? (Story 6)
The evocative writing expresses the concerns and even fear about the first contact with mentees. Indeed, the language of the narratives is often far more emotive when the recall is about a negative experience. Here two narratives give a sense of the despair that can be felt:
They had all been put into roles and the director of one of the groups was talking over everybody jobs he would not go into the gallery he kept flipping back and forth. He was lining up the cameras, he was telling the presenter how to present any problem he would just barge into the studio rather than telling the floor manager then at the end of the session he speeled (sic) off this really negative list of what people had done wrong when he was counting things in which is the PA jobs and he just wouldn’t listen, he was quite happy to point out what other people where doing wrong but refused to listen. (Story 1)
9/3/11- 9AM. ONE PERSON in the studio. Lucy the Bulgarian being the only one. Total Fail! Session abandoned. Huge fail! This is the morning I hated mentoring. Why is there no one here? After half an hour I retreated back to the site, in the doldrums, like a dead donkey. EPIC fail! The whole day, a MASSIVE FAIL! (Story 9)
The point of interest here is how both authors use a writing style that dissociates themselves from the ‘bad behaviour’. In Story 1, by writing a detailed and descriptive list of “errors” made by a mentee, the author is effectively absolving himself from any wrongdoing – none of this scenario is his fault and he feels no compulsion to change the mentee’s behaviour. Whilst in Story 9, the author writes subjectively using a much more sparse but intense writing style. The description is extreme; there is little sense of perspective. Again the author is adamant the fault lies with the mentees. In both cases the authors offer no reflection or solution and feel powerless to change the scenario.
This narrative reflects the same event:
It was a warm morning in the month of March. 4 mentors gathered in the tv studio. Their names were Laura*, Jason*, Tim* and Amy*. They had prepared a whole session for their mentees as then turned up the week before, they had high hopes. The clock struck 9am, it was time to start....but no-one came. 5 minutes passed when one Bulgarian student peered round the door. She came and sat with the mentors and told them that the year group had a close deadline. 30 minutes passed and no one showed. The mentors made the best of a bad situation and answered anything the student wanted to know. After this, still no one showed so they all decided to call it a day and pick up what they were going to do this week, next week. They all parted ways with a thanks and a smile. (Story 3)
Rather than viewing the non-attendance of mentees as a ‘total failure’, (Story 9) this author looks at how to make the best of a bad situation. This rather sweet report belies a much sharper subtext – that it is the mentor’s general attitude that affects the overall experience; a sunny and optimistic approach provides a good coping strategy. The negative stories reveal the need to address feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence in the mentor training.
Power / Control
Just under half of the stories examined the peer-tutoring role with a particular look at the feeling of ‘power’ it bestows on the student as a teacher. This sense of superiority, even dominance, reveals the need for mentors to discuss the role during the training phase.
A mentor named Jon was mentoring a young padawonn on how to use the cameras in the tv studio. The padawon (mentee to you) wanted to know how to make the camera zoom focus and tilt. So Jon started to show them the way. (Story 2)
Here the author uses Star Wars analogy to express his belief in his mentoring ability. He sees himself as a master of the universe in an all powerful, all knowing, role. No faults or mistakes are identified. This is a parallel universe where mentors are great and mentees are compliant but able. This suggests a hierarchical, commanding approach where success is measured as a cloning of the teacher.
The following excerpts reveal how naivety, responsibility and honesty can combine to reveal a power-play relationship and a new feeling of control. This, arguably, is fine when it bolsters the peer tutor’s self-confidence and self-belief;
This (mentoring) gave me a sense of responsibility and confidence and made me feel that I was doing a good thing. (Story 4)
I was nervous but once the teaching began the class flowed smoothly and from it I gained confidence, belief in my own abilities. I was qualified to teach, I actually know the roles of the TV studio well, I’m experienced! I have no reason to not be confident. (Story 6)
But power is perhaps more concerning when it may lead to a sense of control and even exploitation;
Walking in the room seeing 8 people watching you, checking you out and you know they have a first impression of you instantly. It dawns on you that they are still watching you, waiting for some significant speech to come out of your mouth. When you speak you realise that they are really listening and taking seriously everything you say. Which is scary but empowering because you know that you have a certain level of control. (Story 11)
These useful and informative descriptions reveal the recurring theme of power-play and give much greater clarity and understanding of the mentoring experience; in particular of how it feels for students to be put into a position of authority over other students for the first time. Training and supporting mentors in the role is, arguably, the best way to ensure that power is used positively (as a motivational or developmental tool) rather than as a means of ‘controlling’ mentee groups.
Whilst the stories above may give rise to concern, the following stories show that there is good reason to be sure mentoring programmes are a worthwhile learning experience for students.
Self-evaluation questionnaires taken before and after the module reveal that mentoring is often a transformative and successful experience for student mentors (a view supported in the literature, for example, Falchikov, 2006). This view is supported by six positive narratives that revealed a sense of the mentor’s progress (transformation and development) and success.
I found myself giving a lot more one to one conversations with the first years, and tried to give them as much knowledge as I could. This gave me a sense of responsibility and confidence and made me feel that I was doing a good thing by passing this onto the first years and also made me feel that I was also achieving something as well. (Story 4)
One day, Carly was in the T.V studio, mentoring students as she had been for the past few weeks. She had been working with the students for a while now, and could see that they were really starting to understand the studio and how to work within it. Previously Carly had showed them how to set the studio, in particular the talkback system. However, now they were more confident, her and the other mentors let the students set up themselves, as this was something they would have to get used to. (Story 5)
Here the authors give some good detail about their experience and approach and the language used indicates transformation and progression. The compelling prose the authors have used here conveys the sense of progression and personal development they have gained as mentors and the sense of achievement they gain.
The theme of ‘empowerment’ featured in over half of the stories. Following on from the idea of personal development, but rather different in nuance, is the sense of how the mentors view the responsibility of their role and how they wish to empower and enable the mentees. For students to grasp and disseminate this mutual concern in a relatively short time (just five mentoring sessions) is a pleasing outcome of the programme.
To see them then take on their roles in a new sense of confidence showed me that I was doing the right thing, and that my teaching method was obviously sticking with the first years. (Story 4)
It is perhaps in the more reflective writing though that we get a more eloquent description of how a beneficial reciprocal learning relationship can build between students, even if the mentor is very unsure at the beginning;
I was nervous but once the teaching began the class flowed smoothly and from it I gained confidence, belief in my own abilities….maybe I was qualified to teach, I actually know the roles of the TV studio well, I’m experienced…fly students…fly. (Story 6)
This figure of speech, ‘fly students fly’, is arguably a key piece of data from the narrative inquiry. It encapsulates, I feel, how mentoring can benefit all students. It neatly suggests the best of the reciprocal relationship that can be gained from a peer-tutoring programme – that is, mentors and mentees experiencing collaborative learning that is beneficial to them both. I would suggest that this phrase is a good example of the ambition and sense of enablement that student mentoring can stimulate.
I wanted to get behind the data supplied by evaluation questionnaires and, by using narrative inquiry methods, I feel I have achieved this. The stories students tell here give a much fuller picture of their experience as a mentor. They revealed, in particular, that students come to the experience with their own idealised view of how a good mentor should behave. This gives us a great foundation on which to build peer-tutoring schemes. However, we must be aware that students don’t always know how to manage the complex inter-personal roles involved in a peer-tutoring scenario. We cannot assume that they will always enhance a class and ‘do the right thing’.
Peer-tutoring is certainly not a teaching substitution. However, if implemented well, an accredited programme can yield tangible and positive results of significant benefit to student tutors and tutees alike. Fly students fly.
These stories have led me to understand the importance of underpinning a peer-tutoring programme with care and support. Care needs to be taken in the curriculum design to ensure that the training stage includes discussions on the mentor role; particularly addressing issues of ethics, boundaries, and power-play. This training should go beyond guidelines or a code of conduct and include role-playing of likely scenarios to give mentors viable coping strategies in the ‘classroom’. It is really important that staff, tutors and tutees are in agreement on the purpose of the role. Further, a robust, ongoing support system must also be an integrated into the curriculum (online or face-to-face) that gives students a place to discuss and find guidance (openly and non-punitively) on the challenges of position and influence they may face.
Karen Arrand is an associate senior lecturer in Media Production. Karen came to academia after a long and varied career as a BBC Series Producer. Karen is mainly responsible for teaching contemporary broadcasting in television and radio up to postgraduate level as well as delivering professional development modules. Since completing an MA in Learning and Technology alongside her teaching commitments she is particularly interested in exploring the links between the development of new formats and learning in higher education.
Boud, D. Cohen, R. and Sampson, J. (2001) Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from & with each Other, London, Kogan Page.
Butler-Kisber, L. (2010) Qualitative Inquiry: Thematic, Narrative and Arts-Informed Perspectives, Los Angeles; London, SAGE.
Carter, K. (1993) 'The Place of Story in the Study of Teaching and Teacher Education', Educational Researcher, 22 (1), pp.5-12.
Colvin, J. W. (2007) 'Peer Tutoring and Social Dynamics in Higher Education'. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 15 (2), pp.165-181.
Falchikov, N. (2001) Learning Together: Peer Tutoring in Higher Education, London; New York, RoutledgeFalmer.
Klasen, N. and Clutterbuck, D. (2002) Implementing Mentoring Schemes: A Practical Guide to Successful Programs, Oxford; Boston, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Parsloe, E. and Wray, M. J. (2001) Coaching and Mentoring: Practical Methods to Improve Learning, London, Kogan Page.
Level 3 Peer-tutoring Module
A 20-credit module was designed based on reviews of peer-tutoring programmes in the literature that offer useful advice on how to train tutors. (Goodlad, 1998; Brandwein and Divittis, 1985; Falchikov, 2001). The course was only open to Level three Media Production students with TV studio knowledge. 13 enrolled – four males and nine females. I used Parsloe and Wray’s (2000) Coaching and Mentoring; practical methods to improve learning as the module text for its easy-to-follow structure and inclusion of key topics such as feedback, listening and asking questions. The module aims are to develop an understanding of teaching methods and delivery underpinned by current pedagogical principles. Students gain professional experience including project management, time management, enhanced communication and interpersonal skills and transferable skills such as team working, presentation, creativity and problem solving.
Students were required to attend all training sessions and to gain a minimum of five hours tutoring practice. Each student was required to produce a self-reflective blog including postings on material presented in class and what they learnt from the practical sessions. They were also encouraged to complete tasks on the module’s electronic blackboard (Moodle) and take part in discussion forums.
Level three students worked as a team of four to teach up to 20 Level one students. Their role was mainly instructional - to teach how to use studio equipment, and supportive – passing on their experience of working in the TV studio.
Header photo: Karen Arrand, TV studios at Coventry University
Listing photo sourced from morgueFile.com