A common area of concern among colleges and universities is the retention rate of first-year students. Strategies that support students through the transition from high school to college ultimately improve graduation rates.1 According to recent reports from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 61.1% of students maintained enrollment at the same institution in the fall of 2016 following their first year of study.2 Similarly, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that only 59% of students enrolled in a 4-year postsecondary institution in 2015 completed their bachelor’s degree from the institution in which they originally enrolled within a 6-year period.3 First-year attrition and low graduation rates cause financial deficits at the local, state, and national levels. Raisman4 reported that among 1669 institutions analyzed during the 2010-2011 academic year, first-year attrition costs universities a cumulative amount of $16.5 billion in revenue.
In an excerpt by Tinto,5 he emphasized that institutions should provide “information/advice, support, involvement, and learning” to encourage retention. Frameworks to successfully target these key influencers have ranged from additional gateway courses with faculty mentors to supplemental instruction by peers.6-8 Commonly incorporated among these successful strategies has been the use of peer facilitation and peer mentoring. Peer mentors are more experienced persons who can fulfill needs and provide knowledge to lesser experienced individuals.9 Use of peer mentoring in higher education has been shown to have several benefits including increasing mentees’ integration, class retention, self-esteem, psychosocial wellness, and academic success.10-12 In addition, peer mentoring has been shown to elicit positive outcomes for mentors, ranging from improved problem solving to heightened coping skills.13,14
Although peer mentoring has been reviewed in many studies, several gaps on the effects remain. Specifically, many mentoring programs analyzed and tested have been a voluntary option for students, not mandatory, thus creating a biased sample. Moreover, expectations for peer mentoring are loosely defined, with mentors often not receiving formalized training. Lastly, few programs focus mentoring around a targeted discipline or degree of interest to cultivate specific professional and academic development. Because of this, little literature exists that focuses on the first-year experience of a nursing student. Likewise, there is limited information on the benefits of mentoring specifically for nursing students. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to discover the benefits of a peer-mentoring program in a baccalaureate nursing program from the perspectives of the mentor and mentee.
Evaluation of the impact of peer mentoring on both first-year nursing students and their associated peer mentors took place at a large Midwestern university. The College of Nursing (CON) began mandating full participation of peer mentoring in a learning community (LC) during academic years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. First Year Experience is a structured program designed to facilitate student success during the first year of a baccalaureate program. One component of the First Year Experience is a LC.
An average LC includes 15 to 20 first-year students who coenroll in a package of courses based on major or college-specific curriculum requirements. Dependent on the specific major’s need, colleges can choose from several LC structures. One structure of the LC model is peer-led. To be eligible to be a peer leader (PL), students must be in their second year of nursing study (typically sophomore and above), have a minimum 3.0 GPA, and possess the academic and experiential background to facilitate a meaningful first-year experience. Students chosen to be PLs embody 6 roles: leader, mentor, connector, facilitator, learning coach, and coworker. They are accountable for the development and facilitation of weekly lesson plans that address the First Year Experience 4 target learning areas: (1) integrative learning, (2) professional and civic responsibility, (3) university engagement, and (4) intellectual and self-management.
In addition to classroom expectations, PLs collaborate with faculty, staff, on-campus organizations, community members, and peers to provide their students with a high-quality experience. PLs complete a 1-week training session at the start of the academic year and a 1-day training session before the start of the spring semester. Following training, all PLs are certified at the highest level through the College Reading and Learning Association. In addition, PLs are expected to attend weekly meetings with their assigned PL coordinator and their PL group, as well as organization-wide monthly meetings, for subsequent training and personal development. Each PL’s performance is assessed, and he/she is given feedback from his/her students and PL coordinator twice a semester, during the fourth week and last (15th) week of the semester.
The cost of a PL in an LC is approximately $1500 per semester. This cost includes training, hourly wage, a human resources/technology fee, and other administrative costs. The cost was paid for by the university’s First Year Experience and Learning Communities for the first year of the program. After the first year, the cost was shared with the CON.
This study used a cross-sectional survey design to determine the outcomes of LCs on first-year nursing students as well as the upper-class students who led the LCs. This descriptive study design was used to assess the LC experience during spring semester of the first year for freshmen nursing students. This time point was selected to allow the students adequate exposure to LCs to describe their experience. This study design was appropriate as LCs are offered only to first-year students.
Two surveys were developed for data collection procedures. Surveys for this study were completed during the spring semester of academic year 2016-2017. One survey was specific to the peer-mentoring experience from the perspective of first-year nursing students. The other survey assessed the peer-mentoring experience from the perspective of the PLs. Surveys were administered via an electronic survey tool.15
An electronic link to the First-Year Student Mentoring Survey and Peer Mentoring Survey was sent directly to the students’ and PLs’ e-mails, respectively. The First-Year Student Mentoring Survey consisted of 13 closed-ended and 2 open-ended questions assessing the different ways in which a PL has impacted each student’s first year enrolled in the nursing program. The Peer Mentoring Survey consisted of 10 closed-ended and 1 open-ended question evaluating how their role as a PL had impacted them as students at the CON. Closed-ended questions were rated using a 5-point Likert scale, with the choices ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree (1-5). This study was reviewed and deemed to be quality improvement and not human subjects research by the authors’ university institutional review board.
Quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. Content analysis was used to analyze the open-ended questions. Two team members rigorously reviewed the students’ and PLs’ responses, one being an unbiased party not affiliated with LCs. Responses were read, and preliminary codes were developed by the team members. Responses were then coded, and interrater reliability was determined. Codes in which there was low interrater reliability were discussed and revised for clarity. The codes were then categorized into fitting themes. Team members reviewed the data set separately and compared findings afterward to draw conclusions.
First-Year Student Results
Of 140 first-year nursing students, 116 completed the First-Year Student Mentoring Survey (83% response rate). The Likert-style survey statements can be found in the Table, Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/NE/A512. As shown in Table 1, 89% to 96% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the positive effects associated with peer mentoring. Nursing students responded that their PL assisted in the integration to higher education and provided a strong foundation to excel professionally, academically, and socially. In addition, students’ responses indicated that they felt their PL provided a safe place for addressing and discussing obstacles in college. The majority of students (range, 64%-82%) indicated that their PL assisted in making their experience and transition to college smooth or less difficult (Table, Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/NE/A512).
First-year students were asked to answer 2 open-ended questions, one at the beginning and one at the end of the survey. The open-ended question at the start of the survey was “In your own words, describe what you think the role of a PL is in learning community.” The open-ended question at the end was “In your own words, how has your PL personally impacted you as a first-year student?” Responses to both open-ended questions rendered similar responses. Content analysis of student responses to the open-ended questions revealed 7 key themes. The themes are displayed in Table 1 with corresponding definitions.
The first theme that emerged, integration and transition, originated from the assistance PLs provided students regarding the process of transitioning to college and navigating unknown territory. PLs acted as a liaison to multiple resources, opportunities, and appropriate personnel. An exemplar student response representing this theme was “My PL has helped me decipher all the things I can do as a nursing student as well as a college student in general. They helped us with housing options, what to expect in our future years, volunteering options, NCLEX, and how to adjust to college.”
Another major theme was the academic support students received from PLs. Students reported a heightened ability to use their personal learning strategies and tools in the classroom because of their PL’s mentoring. A student wrote, “I am a 4.0 student and I contribute my academic success to my PL’s advice on how to study for specific classes and the support of the rest of my learning community.” Expanding on the support the PL provided them, students described 2 other themes: emotional/personal support and social support. Students reported that their PL provided them with a safe space to develop freely as an individual and without pressure (emotional/personal support). Moreover, the PL offered an environment where relationships could be fostered and uniquely guided (social support). On the theme emotional/personal support, a first-year nursing student said, “When I wasn’t doing well in school, she helped me find resources and let me know she was there if I need anything. She’s supportive, and my LC is like my home away from home.” Regarding the social support provided by PLs, a student expressed, “Personally, having a PL leading our LC has facilitated a greater sense of belonging, togetherness, and an all-around greater sense of a strong educational foundation built for the years to come.”
In addition to receiving support, students frequently stated that their PL gave them general guidance and advice that assisted them in making informed decisions as students, community members, and professionals. Similarly, first-year students felt that the PL provided them with a role model to emulate. Students indicated they valued having access to an upper-nursing-class student who had successfully navigated the challenges of being a nursing student. One student said, “My PL is someone I aspire to be, and I look up to her. [She] has taught us about professionalism, future planning, volunteering, and jobs in hospitals.” Lastly, students discussed their feelings of preparedness as a result of their PL. The discussions were easily categorized into the major theme future preparation. When elaborating on this topic, students focused primarily on career development. This topic ranged from résumé building to graduate school options. Discussing the theme broadly, one student wrote, “Our PL has helped me with preparing and planning for my future, not only as a student but as an employee as well. Having an older nursing student give us advice is helpful.”
Peer Leader Results
The Peer Mentoring Survey statements were all positive responses, with students strongly agreeing or agreeing on each statement. Responses indicated that PLs found the experience to have positively developed their leadership, listening, and collaboration skills, as well as further their current strengths. In addition, PLs reported that their self-assurance and confidence were improved as a result.
Following the 10 Likert-style statements, PLs were asked to respond to the following open-ended response: “In your own words, how has being a PL impacted you as a student and leader?” Content analysis revealed 4 key themes defined in Table 1. The 2 most frequently recurring themes related to the growth and development that PLs experienced both professionally and personally. Specific to the professional development theme, PLs felt that the position facilitated a stronger connection with faculty, as well as aided them to have greater respect for their faculty. Regarding personal growth and development, PLs described the experience and growth differently. Many honed in on their gain of self-esteem, whereas others focused on their development. A PL stated:
A year ago I was very unsure of myself. I lacked confidence in my academic, social, and leadership abilities. When I say I have become a new person because of this job, it would be an understatement. I have learned so much about myself through this experience, and I am thankful every day that the opportunity presented itself when it did.…
A majority of PLs who completed the survey mentioned a difference in their leadership skills as a result of the peer-mentoring experience. PLs felt that the position strengthened their ability to stand in front of a class and communicate effectively. Finally, PLs expressed that their time management skills improved as a result of the job and responsibilities. Respondents discussed that the experience allowed them to learn how to juggle work, school, and personal life.
Survey findings showed that both peer mentors and mentees participating in LCs found the use of mentoring to be beneficial and advantageous to personal, academic, social, and professional aspects of their lives as nursing students. The overwhelming majority of both mentors and mentees strongly agreed or agreed with the benefits of the experience. Moreover, they described the personal impact of the mentoring experience in detail through open-ended questions.
Key findings from the First-Year Student Mentoring Survey are congruent with the current literature that indicates nursing students are more academically successful and professionally prepared with the use of peer mentoring.16 Many studies previously examined the effects of peer mentoring on nursing students’ academic success at a quantitative level, measuring GPA and test scores.16,17 Fewer studies, however, observed the value of peer mentoring from students’ perspectives.18 Our findings showed that mentees recognized the value of the academic support and input that their mentors provided, as well as motivation to excel in the program. As far as social integration, students emphasized that their PLs helped facilitate making friends and a safe place to develop relationships. The literature shows that this is often a barrier students identify during higher education transition.19
Similarly, the literature illustrates decreased attrition with peer mentoring.17 Although this study did not measure attrition, it can be noted from the results that the mentees received Tinto’s5 key influencers to retention, “information/advice, support, involvement, and learning,” through their PL and LC experience. Students described these 4 key categories in their own words, particularly emphasizing the categories of information/advice and support. In addition, the students discussed the personal gains they received through peer mentoring, ranging from improved communication skills, time management skills, to problem solving, which will contribute to their success in the nursing program. The personal gains reflect what others have found.20
It is important to note that unlike many previous studies the participation in the LC was mandatory for all first-year nursing students, and therefore, the population for this study was not a biased sample. Using a study population that is volunteer based could create selection bias and result in lack of generalizability to an entire student body.
Equally significant were the results from the Peer Mentoring Survey. As the primary purpose of the LC program is to support the transition and development of first-year students, the personal growth and benefits to PLs are often overlooked. In this study, PLs highlighted personal growth from their participation in the program. PLs focused on the professional and personal attributes they strengthened or gained from the mentoring experience. One growth factor that stood out in the mentors’ description was the gain in self-esteem and confidence. PLs revealed that they were “unsure” of themselves and “lacked confidence” prior to being a PL, but gained the self-esteem throughout the program to be more confident in their leadership, communication, and personal abilities. Moreover, mentors shared that this gain helped shape their passion for the profession.
Implications from our study suggest the use of peer mentoring, with structured training and supervision, in prelicensure nursing education. Our results show that peer mentoring facilitates transition for first-year students and provides valuable leadership experience for the mentors. In addition, mentoring programs with similar structure may enhance a person’s opportunity to be mentored and provide mentoring in the future. Clinically, such mentoring programs can be emulated to help facilitate the transition process into practice and clinical settings. Further research should be conducted to determine long-term effects of mentoring programs on both parties, determining if the professional and academic benefits follow participants throughout their education and career.
Our findings are affected internally because of lack of a comparison group. This resulted from the structure of the program being college-wide and the lack of a similar program existing at the CON before the LC was implemented. Although the survey was completed by all but 1 PL, generalizations regarding the effects on mentors should be made with caution considering the small sample size.
Peer-mentoring programs for first-year nursing students are valuable for both the mentors and mentees. To capitalize on their benefits, first-year experience programs should be implemented with mandatory student participation, in-depth/in-person mentor training, and supervised structure for the mentors and mentees throughout the academic year. A program such as this one has the capability to lower attrition rates and increase academic performance, as well as to build personal and professional attributes in first-year and upper-class nursing students.
The authors thank Dean Glazer and Pamela Pearson for their support of the first-year learning experience for undergraduate nursing students and this manuscript.
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