College as a Hero’s Journey: Faculty and Student Self-Reflection Grounds Intervention Research

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Cheryl Talley, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Virginia State University
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Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, Ph.D.
Ron & Dr. Mary Neal Distinguished Associate Professor of Chemistry Education, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, College of Science
Louisiana State University

VSU Peer-mentors and mentees from Petersburg High School pose for a photo while visiting the Musem of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (Image credit: Talia Blunt).

The Call – Scale a High Touch Mentoring Model

This year’s entering class at Virginia State University (VSU), a historically Black land-grant university, marks the largest number of first-year students in the school’s 142-year history. The reasons for a nearly 50% increase in the number of students accepting the offer to attend VSU are not entirely clear. However, what was apparent was the all-hands-on-deck call that went out from the Division of Student Affairs to accommodate such large numbers. It is not unusual for faculty and staff to help on campus move-in day; however, for this year, faculty supported students moving into a variety of locations as some students are residing in either local hotels or new dorm trailers.

With classes starting, Academic Affairs needed a similar all-hands-on-deck approach. For many faculty, the classroom is the pain point- where the quantity of enrolled students and the quality of their pre-college preparation converge. Service courses, particularly STEM introductory courses that serve a variety of majors, were especially hard-pressed.

History has taught us that it is not enough to increase the number of sections of a gateway course if there is not a corresponding increase in the academic support provided to help students outside the classroom.

That is why this year’s call for help was not aimed at hiring more teaching faculty but in recruiting more upperclass students as near-peer mentors. This creation of a type of “mentor corps” is one important outcome from nearly ten years of a multidisciplinary research effort focusing on building communities of practices in the teaching and learning of STEM. The plan is for the mentor “basic training” to be the same across disciplines and then to provide additional training that is discipline-specific. While the training regimen for this discipline based educational research project worked when there were 80 students in the study, the scaling effort will eventually try to reach 800 students. The question becomes how to scale a high-touch program, retain the fidelity of the intervention, and measure its effectiveness, even if the researchers have no background (or interest) in social science research. The answer to that question has evolved over several years, starting from empirical studies and growing into community-based participatory research and training for the campus community.

Why a Peer-Mentor Corp?

Three Virginia State University students work together while sitting at a wooden table. On the table is a paper plate full of marshmallows alongside dried spaghetti noodles strewn across the table. The students are building a structure by attaching marshmallows at the end of spaghetti noodles to build the frame of a box with several sets noodles and marshmallows. Some of the columns of the frame are reinforced with two spaghetti noodles connecting the marshmallows.

Peer Mentors help train high school mentors in team-building exercises at Petersburg High School (Image Credit: Talia Blunt).

Project Knowledge (PK) began in 2014 as a research study aimed at identifying and understanding the critical components of a successful academic intervention for entering HBCU students (NSF HBCU-UP #1238757). Instead of seeking to improve grades, the PK intervention focused on the antecedent behaviors and skills used by high-achieving VSU upperclass students as part of their regular study habits. These successful older students lamented that many of the skills and strategies necessary for success in college were often learned too late. Moreover, learning how to be successful in college was left to trial and error.

Because attrition is likely to happen during the first three semesters for struggling college students, the goal of this behavioral intervention was to increase first-year retention. The behavior intervention leveraged small groups, consisting of one upperclass VSU student having the same STEM major as their five entering first-year mentees. These groups were effective in modeling effective academic behaviors. Not only did the younger students adopt academic skills but also established strong relational bonds that have lasted through their college careers and beyond.

Between 2014 and 2019 around 200 students participated in the weekly meetings. Formal programming occurred during a one-hour weekly full community meeting during the students’ first year. Informal contacts with their mentors were encouraged but only monitored during the mentees’ first year.

By the end of the study, over 80% of PK participants persisted in their STEM major, which was greater than the national average and double the VSU STEM persistence rate.

Additionally, PK participants had a cumulative GPA of nearly an entire grade point average higher than non-participants and all participants who remained at VSU graduated within six years.1

Faculty Insights

The Evolution of a Mentoring Ecosystem

PK provided general peer mentoring supports to entering STEM students with activities that took place outside of class. Through another disciplinary-based educational research project, our team developed a course-based mentoring intervention, Successful Transition to the Academic Realm (STAR-SI). This NSF IUSE project (NSF DUE IUSE #199218), a collaboration between the departments of Psychology and Biology employed Supplemental Instruction (SI) to provide peer-facilitated academic support implemented within individual STEM courses. In SI, high-performing former students of the STEM courses were trained with the help of the teaching faculty to assist current students in the course. The goal was not tutoring but training in effective learning methods and strategies. Originally, SI depended on voluntary participation.  However, at VSU, a small portion of the student’s course grade is tied to participation in SI.

STAR-SI peer leaders convincingly informed the research team about the complexity of the learning needs of our students. Issues such as effective note taking and organizing, studying for recognition vs recall, and time management were just a few issues that were uncovered. One of the biggest hindrances appeared to be helping students pivot from unsuccessful but familiar strategies of learning to more effective methods.

Armed with this knowledge of our student’s learning habits, a small interdisciplinary group of VSU faculty and staff began utilizing outcomes from the research findings, including this ability to self-monitor, and applied them to inform our own pedagogy. Over the last three years, the community has grown to include faculty from Psychology, Biology, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics. Staff members from the Division of Student Affairs Academic Center of Excellence, which is known as the campus tutoring center, are also members of the community, as is the director of General Education and other faculty from the College of History and Humanities.

What brings this group together is not academic content but pedagogy. The inclusion of metacognition as part of classroom instruction aims to encourage students to reflect on the academic behaviors (or lack thereof) that they employ before recognizing that an intervention is needed. As a result, faculty members learn to teach students how to learn the course content. The early efforts were informed by the book, “Teach Yourself How to Learn” by Sandra McGuire.a  However, there was limited success in replicating aspects of the McGuire approach to help students change their academic habits. One limitation was the philosophical dilemma involved in devoting coveted course time to the science of Teaching and Learning. For some members of the community, this was not a moot point and actually required a reframing of their entire teaching philosophy. The focus on metacognition was a call to be more than student-centered, the need was to be student-responsive.

The classroom interventions that finally emerged are based on metacognitive techniques for students and for faculty. During a two-day joint conference in May 2023, speakers from the Academy of Process Educators presented workshops on “self-growth” as an educator. During the conference, the faculty participants identified characteristics from the Academy’s “Profiles of a Professional Learner.” The list includes 50 individual characteristics that the group used to identify which traits were most lacking in their students and which they would target in a classroom intervention.  The list defined a professional learner as one who would:

  1. Have learner ownership,
  2. Clarify expectations,
  3. Set goals,
  4. Plan, and
  5. Self-motivate.

Faculty were then encouraged to create course activities that would aid students in adopting one or more of the characteristics. It should be noted that one difficulty in creating an in-course intervention was identifying measures that capture evidence of student behavior change. A template was created to aid in this process (see additional resources for the template).

In addition to targeting the faculty, we are now embarking on an effort to transfer the professional learner training to VSU’s near-peer mentors. These trained student facilitators from across several campus organizations will be tasked with adopting metacognitive strategies for themselves and then modeling and transferring the research-based practices directly to our students. The task is daunting due to the repercussions of COVID-related learning loss and COVID-related student learning expectations. The other difficulty is making a research intervention fun and engaging to college students. Which is why the training will be modeled after Project Knowledge.

The Hero’s Journey

One lesson learned from the work with faculty is that a similar introspective process used in assessing a teaching philosophy can be adopted by students to address their own learning philosophy.  Fortunately, the Virginia State mascot, the Trojan, provided a fitting way to introduce the story of Telemachus, the hero’s abandoned son in the epic story, the Odyssey . Like Telemachus, the college student’s journey begins with self-doubt but with the help of a mentor (i.e. Athena) knowledge is increased, and with new experiences comes confidence, faith, and finally wisdom.

The story of Telemachus was the opening activity in the Fall 2023 18-hour training course for a cohort of 25 peer mentors, representing four different campus organizations. All the students received copies of “Teach Yourself How to Learn.” The training includes metacognition as part of self-growth and personal development because PK research identified these traits as protective factors, which we believe lead to an increase in self-confidence and academic agency.2 The findings showed that metacognitive activities (i.e. meditation, affirmation, journaling) are more palatable when delivered within the community.2-3

Based on the research, we now believe that building a Mentor Corp in which members feel connected to each other and to a sense of a broader mission is critical to sustain this effort. Therefore, the motto for the student training is “Be Excellent, Serve Others, and Trust the God in You.”  These themes resonated with college students and were part of an additional sister study at a local high school. In the high school setting the positive association between mental and emotional well-being, strong mentoring relationships, and academic behavior change were confirmed.4

Learn more about the Peer Mentor Corp Training Model.

Next Steps

Lessons Learned

HBCU students are not homogenous and therefore academic interventions aimed at supporting incoming students will be more effective if tailored to meet their unique needs. These needs are often not readily apparent, even to the student. One way to elicit introspection and self-disclosure is within a community that is safe and affirming. This kind of high impact, “high-touch” intervention is difficult to create with only faculty and paid staff. Supplemental Instruction and near-peer mentoring can provide this relational benefit to students with less personnel costs to the university.  Furthermore, the tools and methods developed can augment existing academic enhancement efforts. There is no need to start from scratch.

Things to consider in the design of a PK-Informed academic intervention/research study.

  1. Do not assume that students with lower grades are in need of remediation or tutoring. Examining what your own successful students are doing can help develop a strategy for a strength-based program.
  2. Consider your target audience. Academic interventions seek behavior change, and sustained behavior change is difficult to elicit. As one entering first-generation student pointed out, no one teaches students how to learn. They suggested a marketing campaign on “how to study” for incoming students but cautioned on not making students “feel stupid.”
  3. On most campuses Academic Affairs and Student Affairs are under different leadership structures. Sharing information and knowledge about academic behavior change benefits students who spend most of their time on campus outside of the classroom.
  4. Stay focused. PK focuses on antecedent behaviors associated with high academic performance because they are identifiable lead measures. Grades on the other hand, are lag measures with many different factors attributed to them. We assumed that strengthening the fundamentals would eventually result in higher grades.
  5. Start small. Starting with a targeted audience and a targeted number of behaviors will provide data from which to base (larger and more expensive) initiatives.
  6. Finally, learn from your own findings. Don’t be afraid of iterations. Be patient and do not give up.

You can learn more about Project Knowledge at the website.

Learn more about the STEM-US Assessment and the work of the Analytic Hub, the outward facing research arm of the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Center NSF HBCU-UP Award #2010676.

Learn More about PK

The research rationale behind Project Knowledge posited that entering students would maintain and establish effective academic habits when an intervention augmented identified protective factors and mitigated identified academic risks to the entering students.  In this case, the intervention was delivered through structured relationships within the student’s personal proximal ecosystem. This rationale was based on the Phenomenological Variant of the Ecological Systems theory, the theoretical framework used for this and subsequent studies (PVEST).5-6 Since the first-year college experience provides an entirely new relational ecosystem for the entering students, the relational bonds established early were particularly impactful. In the PK Intervention, all programming activities were purposefully designed to either strengthen identified protective factors, such as collective coping and group identification or decrease identified risk factors, such as inefficient study habits.

A PVEST-inspired assessment instrument originally developed at VSU7 has helped to characterize protective and risk factors. The instrument was used as part of another mentoring research effort focusing on Supplemental Instruction (NSF DUE IUSE #199218). Analysis of data collected from over 3000 VSU Biology students between 2016 and 2022 enables more sophisticated data analysis. In fact, the characterization of affective factors and the continuing refinement of structures and supports for the near-peer mentoring relationships are both outcomes of Person-Centered Analysis (PCA)8 which requires larger datasets. Unlike variable-centered analysis, PCA does not assume there is only one population from which all the individuals are drawn and from which an “averaged” set of parameters provide an accurate estimate. Instead, PCA allows for the possibility that the sample could be drawn from multiple sub-populations and therefore different sets of parameters may be utilized. The idea that HBCU students are a heterogenous group was an important foundational assumption in this work.

An early application of PCA revealed through Psychometric Networks that protective and risk factors are not all equal in their salience and may be targeted more effectively in correlated groups.9 The Psychometric Network study is just one of several studies using Person-Centered Analysis to investigate data from the new data repository that is associated with the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Center (NSF HBCU-UP Award #2010676). Data collected from VSU and nine other HBCUs is used in other types of analyses require large amounts of data, such as a Latent Structure Probability Algorithm, Differential Item Functioning Analysis as well as Psychometric Networks.  While the psychometrics continue to inform the assumptions behind Project Knowledge, the methodology informed by PCA is useful in the design and implementation of content used for other student groups. There are always protractive and risk factors. The work is identifying them. Such insights have also been applied to Teaching and Learning communities of practice for HBCU faculty.

Peer Mentor Corp Training

Four thirty-minute content discussions were held during the weekend, intermixed with team-building activities aimed at creating a sense of community. Team-building activities included bowling, matching song lyrics to one word, and decorating and filling a “wellness jar.” Research from PK had shown that group identification and collective coping were associated with mental and emotional well-being.3 Additional content from the Academy of Process Educators book, “The professional’s guide to self-growth: A step-by-step process for developing your unlimited potential” was also embedded in the sessions. The training ended with a ropes course.

Like the empirical studies, this work drew from research suggesting that first-generation students have more motivation to help others.10 We sought to leverage the motivation to encourage introspection and personal development, first with the PM. The original empirical studies also provided the theoretical framework which focused the efforts not only on protective and risk factors but also on the process of identity formation that occurs as challenges are confronted with new, more adaptive strategies. Just like in the early studies, every training activity is designed to support an identified protective factor or reduce an identified risk factor. In addition, the hypothetical model is continually being tested against the incoming data. In this way, elements of the research effort continue to inform and guide the training effort. For instance, the Person-Centered Analysis revealed critical components of an impactful intervention for VSU entering students to be academic skill development, self-confidence/self-efficacy, and academic agency. Those early studies also showed that the method of delivery for the intervention matters, so there was need for both the large and small groups to coalesce around academic achievement as a community.  The faculty training produced new insights that further refined the idea or community to be a community of practice and moved the scope of the project from “intervening” to “promoting self-growth” by becoming a Professional Learner.


I would like to acknowledge the valuable and enduring partnership with Drs. Brian Sayre and Leslie Whiteman from the Biology Department of Virginia State University. None of this would have happened without you.


a McGuire is not a social scientist but a chemist. Both her book for students and the one for faculty (Teach Your Students How to Learn) are based on practical ways that learning to learn can be included as part of course instruction. The community of practice provided a safe space in which to implement McGuire’s suggestions.