In 2015 Stellenbosch University utilised 577 trained mentors and head mentors to guide 3881 first-year students (called mentees) during their first six to nine months at the university. The mentors were senior students who underwent intensive training. The mentees were first-year students and were part of 488 mentoring groups. They stayed in 41 residences and private wards on either the main campus in Stellenbosch or on the medical campus. The team of mentors and head mentors were supported by a team of university staff members, including residence heads, cluster coordinators and staff members from Student Affairs. A huge team of more than 600 people was part of this very unique and huge effort - most probably one of the largest out-of-the-class first-year interventions in the world! Since its inception in 2013 more than 1500 mentors and head mentors have assisted more than 10 000 first-year students in the programme.
Stellenbosch follows a developmental approach that focuses on the optimisation of the potential of all students in the system, both the mentees and mentors â a holistic and systemic approach that concentrates on developing the whole person instead of only addressing problem areas, like the traditional model at most universities. The wellness model of Hettler was chosen as the vehicle to accomplish this. This developmental approach to student success is quite unique in the world, especially because it is done on such a big scale, and outside of the main curriculum. At Stellenbosch this project is known as BeWell.
Six wellness cards with definitions, guiding questions and activities are used by mentors during 10-12 one hour sessions with their mentees to facilitate growth and positive discussions. Each mentor and mentee are supported by t their own individualised wellness websites with assessments, ebooks, audiobooks, e-workshops, tracking tools and profile pages.
Stellenbosch University has a very long and proud history of mentoring, dating back more than forty years. Traditionally (before 2013) the objectives were, broadly speaking, to help first-year students to adjust to university life, to overcome personal barriers (by referring them to professional staff) and to provide general psycho-social support – mainly a deficit or problem-focused approach that assisted the needy but did not have real meaning to the rest who were “sort-of-okay”. In 2013 the university changed its approach to a developmental approach that still catered for adjustment and problem-solving, but also focused on the optimisation of the potential of all students in the system, including both the mentees and mentors (senior students) – a more holistic and systemic approach that concentrates on developing the whole person instead of only addressing problem areas.
An already existing campus-wide peer mentoring system was complemented with new wellness-based face-to-face mentoring sessions, personalised and gamified developmental wellness websites for each mentor and mentee, and a sophisticated tracking and management information system. The big picture goals of this new out-of-the-class programme were:
1. Address and enhance wellness variables that impact the academic performance of first-year students;
2. Assist in closing the existing achievement gap between different races and genders;
3. Continuously use the system’s tracking data to identify more wellness factors that may affect academic performance;
4. Individualise and optimise the overall development and experience of both mentors and mentees;
5. Investigate the possibility of using the programme as a vehicle to develop the university’s graduate attributes and to equip mentors with valuable employability skills;
6. Track the personal growth of mentors and mentees;
7. Measure the effect of gamification;
8. Lighten the burden of traditional support services;
9. Expand the framework to other contexts and environments; and
10. Create a flourishing campus culture.
Six wellness cards (one for each of the wellness dimensions) were designed during 2012 by the BeWell Mentor Wellness Project Team. These cards are meant to be used by mentors during their mentoring sessions with their mentoring groups. The cards contain definitions of wellness and some guiding questions and activities to help mentors guide their mentees in discussions about the various aspects of wellness and to help them coach their mentees (and themselves!) to adopt a lifestyle that promotes health, happiness, well-being and academic success. Mentors still had to conduct the traditional sessions (pre-2013) during the welcoming period, as well as individual sessions (general psycho-social support) during the course of the year. They, however, now had a set of cards (a tool) to guide their mentees during an additional 6 to 10 one hour sessions to facilitate growth and positive discussions. The focus changed from a deficit-approach pre-2013 to a wellness and developmental approach since 2013.
The annual training of mentors nowadays is organised around the wellness concept. Training videos were also produced to make sure that everyone is properly equipped and prepared for their task. Because Stellenbosch University is now in its third year of implementing the wellness cards it means that the majority of our undergraduate population now had some kind of exposure to it – in our opinion a world’s first!
Another outstanding and unique feature of our approach is the personalisation and gamification of each student’s wellness development: All mentors and mentees are supported by their own individualized and secure wellness websites with assessments, ebooks, audiobooks, e-workshops, tracking tools for card sessions, journals, profile pages and personalised leaderboards. Online well-being enhancing activities currently include e-workshops on wellness, grit and growth mindsets, and a gratitude and happiness journal (addressing some of the factors that influence academic performance).
The BeWell system has grown tremendously since its introduction in 2013. What follows is a summary of this growth and the engagement during 2015:
1. The number of registered mentoring groups grew from 409 in 2013 to 488 in 2015.
2. A total of 1897 mentoring sessions were logged in 2013. Up until September the 8th 2015 mentors logged 6250 mentoring sessions. Assuming that each session lasts for approximately 30 minutes that equates to approximately 130 days of continuous mentoring, 24 hours a day (if all sessions were scheduled one after the other).
3. It was not compulsory for mentees to log sessions, but 3490 sessions were logged by mentees during 2015 (compared to 1074 in 2013).
4. In 2015 954 submissions were made to the e-workshop on wellness and more than 200 to the e-workshop on grit and a growth mindset.
5. More than 300 pages of qualitative feedback about the quality and value of mentoring sessions were collected during 2015, including more than a thousand reflections by mentors on how they have grown as persons and how the skills they have learnt will make them more employable once they enter the job market.
6. 3881 first-year students were part of mentoring groups in 2015 and the average size of a mentoring group was 7.95.
7. The average attendance rate for all 6250 mentoring sessions was 71% in 2015 – on average 7 out of 10 mentees therefore attended each mentoring session.
8. Mentors logged an average of 10.83 sessions in 2015.
9. 577 mentors and head mentors self registered in 2015 and were thus part of BeWell 2015.
10. 104 mentors qualified for a wellness facilitator’s certificate.
11. 2826 personal wellness websites of mentors and mentees were created in 2015, and they were updated more than 70 times.
Preliminary indicators are that BeWell did indeed have a positive impact on the academic performance of both mentors and mentees:
• High logging mentors perform better academically than low loggers.
• Engaged mentees, i.e. those who were very actively involved in mentoring sessions, outperform the rest.
• Wellness card sessions had an impressive positive effect on the academic performance of mentees.
• Residences that made the most progress academically since the second semester in 2013 were also the most engaged in BeWell in 2015.
A meaningful application of data analytics within this environment is to utilise the system’s tracking data to identify "non-academic" predictors of academic performance. BeWell data from 2013, 2014 and 2015 confirmed what other researchers world-wide have found: Grit, a growth mindset and a well-balanced wellness lifestyle are all important predictors of performance at university level. More students should therefore be encouraged to utilise the available BeWell resources on these topics.
Overwhelming evidence also demonstrates that both mentors and mentees had a positive experience in engaging with BeWell, and that mentors have grown tremendously because of their involvement.
The overall average ratings of all types of mentoring sessions by both mentors and mentees are high: 81.1% for mentors and 86% for mentees. The consistent higher ratings of all face-to-face sessions by mentees possibly mean that mentors have done a better job than they themselves thought, and this is actually good news and a complement for all our mentors.
Hundreds of pages of qualitative feedback from more than 1200 mentors (2014-2015) on how they have grown as persons and how the skills they have learnt will make them more employable once they enter the job market strongly suggest that this programme can be used as a vehicle to develop the university’s graduate attributes and to equip mentors with valuable employability skills.
Our dream is to expand the digital or e-component of BeWell (specifically the e-workshop and multimedia resources) and make it available to all our students. This will enable all our students to benefit from the latest research on potential optimisation and will add further value to the development of graduate attributes and employability skills. First-year students will therefore still be served by both the peer mentoring system and its digital developmental component, as is currently the case within the BeWell mentoring project, but senior students will now also have access to the expanded version of BeWell’s digital developmental component.
A conceptual framework for the development of evidence-based, blended learning, individualised and gamified mental skills training and intervention programmes for optimal performance, experience and development will therefore be created to complement the current BeWell model. This framework will make provision for e-products, e-coaching- and membership services, as well as traditional workshops with a web tracking component (a new service that will serve all students). This framework will serve as the master plan for BeWell’s expansion.
Longer term objectives include:
• Expand the range of workshop topics further by including more wellness, happiness and positive psychology based workshops and interventions (examples include blended workshops on a range of evidence-based positive psychological factors that affect academic performance);
• Adapt our framework to support the newly proposed First Year Academy curriculum (our version of the first-year experience) – integrate it with the current BeWell project;
• Cater for wider audiences in the educational sector and include sport and organizations as new target groups – follow an entrepreneurial approach; and
• Fully utilise al our tracking data to conduct big data analysis and quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods research studies to determine whether the goals of optimising performance, experience and development were met in all the application areas.