ST66 – Developing Belonging: The value of Academic Mentors within the first year student experience

Room C – MONDAY 16:45-17:45

Dr Michaela Keenan

School of the Built Environment, Ulster University

Michaela Keenan is Faculty Partnership Manager for Art, Design and the Built Environment. Pedagogic research interests include: the student experience; transition; induction; student retention; and student success. Michaela is a Senior Fellow of the HEA and Fellow of the Centre for Higher Education Research Practice.


This paper will explore how Academic Mentoring is effective in enhancing the student experience and in helping to improve retention. The Academic Mentor model is aligned to the creation of student belonging through the development of early staff-student contact which is nurtured particularly within the first semester of the first year study.


This paper will explore how the introduction of a model of Academic Mentoring, which initiates contact between staff and student pre-induction and pre-entry, is effective in enhancing the student experience and in helping to improve retention. The Academic Mentor model is aligned to the creation of student belonging as a means of enhancing the student experience through the development of early staff-student contact and relationships which are nurtured through ongoing contact particularly within the first semester of study. Indeed, Tinto (2008) argued that in essence ‘access without support is not opportunity’.

Vallerrand (2008) related belonging to connectedness with Baumeister and Leary (1995) arguing that belonging is developed by regular and on-going contact which provides stability within the relationship. Belonging has also been a central element within the Higher Education Academy, ‘What Works, Student Retention and Success’ research whereby within Phase 1 it was noted that “meaningful interaction between staff-students” was one of the core elements when seeking to develop student belonging (HEA, 2012).

The School of the Built Environment, which traditionally and in-line with other similar Schools within the higher education sector in the UK, experienced significant levels of first year student attrition. The first step in our approach to implementing change was to recognise, as a team, that the first year student experience is both fragile and critical. Laying secure foundations as educators for our students is imperative both to secure their underpinning knowledge and also to work to prevent students avoidably exiting from their higher education journey. Since the introduction of the Academic Mentor model, attrition within the School has reduced significantly and early signs indicate that the model and shared team ethos to the first year experience is having a positive impact. This paper draws upon research evidence which includes: experience and learning from the discipline team who are part of the Higher Education Academy, Student Retention and Success Project Phase 2, first year belonging questionnaires and qualitative data from first year student focus groups.

Participants will be encouraged to discuss how this model could be enhanced and adopted across disciplines.

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