Written in collaboration with Jonas Nicolaï (Project coordinator Mentoraat Plus UAntwerpen).

The unequal distribution of opportunities for students in higher education is a persistent reality. One or more social-economic background characteristics (e.g. prior education, academic delays, the language spoken in the home, parental income and/or language skills) can often have a negative influence on the academic progress and success of students.

At the University of Antwerp, this is being addressed through a project developed especially for this purpose: ‘Mentoraat Plus’. In this ECHO teaching tip, we provide a brief explanation of how this specific mentoring service works. Based on experiences with the project and related research, we then provide a few recommendations for programmes that would also like to start working with an initiative to promote the progress of academically at-risk students.

Mentoraat Plus at the University of Antwerp

Mentoraat Plus at the University of Antwerp aims to promote successful progress for academically at-risk generation students by offering them an intensive programme of support focusing on academic and social integration. For many students, efforts to achieve greater social integration and stronger embeddedness within the academic culture of the university is are necessary tools for enhancing educational opportunities, facilitating progress and reducing the likelihood of withdrawal in the first year of the Bachelor programme.

The Mentoraat Plus project is coordinated from the central University and Community department (Equal Opportunities and Diversity team). In 2017, the project was operating in three faculties (Law, Applied Economics, Applied Engineering). In cooperation with these three faculties, the Study Advice and Student Counselling Service and the study programme counsellors, Mentoraat Plus offers students a diversified programme of support, adapted to their individual objectives. Students sign up for the project voluntarily and participate in a number of required and optional activities throughout the academic year. The services offered are focused on academic aspects, including programme-oriented knowledge, study methods, planning and skills, and examination training. At the same time, efforts are directed towards social elements in the form of introductory sessions, group study sessions, individual follow-up discussions and contacts with mentors and later-year students.

Four points to consider when setting up a support initiative

Even in faculties where Mentoraat Plus is not yet active, initiatives for supporting academically at-risk students are possible.  Although successful support always requires some measure of customisation, studies have indicated that successful initiatives can be traced to four pillars (Corradi, Levrau, De Coninck & Nouwen, 2016): intentionality, intrusion, pro-activity and cooperation.

  1. Intentionality
    Support initiatives should be set up based on the desire to promote the academic success of students. This desire builds on the knowledge that the student population is diverse and that certain target groups stand to benefit from supplementary academic support or targeted remediation. Education should not be regarded simply in terms of survival of the fittest.
  2. Intrusion
    Students do not always take the first step towards support. Academically at-risk students often face even greater obstacles in this regard. It is therefore important to be active in referring students to existing remedial programmes when they have achieved poor scores on partial assignments or semester examinations. Consider embedding certain support-focused components (e.g. training specific academic competences or developing metacognitive aspects) into the student’s curriculum (Corradi et al., 2016). Encourage students to attend the inspection and discussion sessions after examinations.
  3. Pro-activity
    Support initiatives should anticipate possible problems before they occur. Examples include informative lectures discussing commonly occurring experiences or interim practice lectures in which students are motivated to engage in early self-evaluation concerning their knowledge of the course material.
  4. Cooperation
    Successful support initiatives assume a broad base of support from and cooperation with various actors within the programme. Commonly occurring obstacles for generation students are cross-disciplinary (e.g. fear of failure, efficient study methods, acclimation to the environment of higher education). They require a holistic approach that considers the student’s study context as a whole. Teachers can work with support services to this end. At the University of Antwerp, examples of such services include the Study Advice and Student Counselling Service and Monitoraat op Maat. Programmes can cooperate in the exchange of good practices.

Diversity awareness

In conclusion: A diverse student population requires a diversity-aware approach to education.

Active pluralism can be integrated into the programme by regularly requiring students to cooperate in teams with a culturally diverse composition. Facilitating interactions across differences in this manner can reduce the obstacles to establishing intercultural contacts. It can transform teaching practice into a reflection of the multicultural context of our society. In addition, it could reflect the future professional context, in which cooperation also does not always take place based on self-selection. Active engagement in conversations about their own identities can help students of ethnic minorities to be acknowledged in their identities. This can reduce academic performance pressure (Smedley, Myers & Harrell, 1993) and translate positively into academic results. Students with a positive image of their own ethnic backgrounds have a greater chance of academic success, are able to adapt to new environments more quickly and achieve academic and social integration sooner (Allen, Bradford, Grimes, Cooper & Howard in Hatti, 2009).

Want to know more?

You can get more information about the Mentoraat Plus project at the university of Antwerp by mailing at mentoraatplus@uantwerpen.be.

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