Many undergraduates who wish to pursue degrees in science, particularly students from underrepresented groups, drop out of science majors before realizing their goal. This study examines the effectiveness of a mentoring program – called Biomentors – aimed at promoting success in biology courses for undergraduates beginning their coursework toward a bachelor's degree in the biological sciences. Students enrolled in the Biomentors program met twice a week in a small group with an advanced biology major under the supervision of a faculty member to explore effective learning strategies for success in an introductory-level biology course they were taking. Students who participated in the Biomentors program scored significantly higher (based on total points earned) than other students enrolled in the course across two cohorts (d = 0.36 in the fall quarter of 2014; d = 0.34 in the winter quarter of 2015). The biomentors group significantly outscored the control group even when the effects of gender, parent income level, parent education level, total SAT score, and cumulative GPA were statistically controlled using a stepwise regression. Overall, the results encourage further investigation of the effectiveness of peer-mentoring programs that emphasize domain-specific learning strategies for college students beginning as science majors.

Introduction

Objective & Rationale

Many undergraduates who wish to pursue degrees in science, particularly students from underrepresented groups, drop out of science majors before realizing their goal (Graham et al., 2013; Toven-Lindsey et al., 2015). The goal of the present study was to determine the effectiveness of a peer-mentoring program – called Biomentors – aimed at promoting success in biology courses for undergraduates beginning their coursework toward a bachelor's degree in the biological sciences. Students enrolled in the Biomentors program met twice a week in a small group with an advanced biology major (under the supervision of a faculty member) to explore effective learning strategies for success in an introductory-level biology course they were taking. The Biomentors program is a relatively low-cost program because all participants are volunteers, and the program has the potential to reach a substantial number of students. In this study, we sought to assess its effectiveness across two different introductory biology courses.

We focus on the persistence framework outlined by Graham et al. (2013) by engaging with students early and often as they progress through the core preparation courses in the biology major. The persistence framework is based on the idea that as students experience success in science learning – initially through scaffolded learning activities and the development of effective learning strategies – their confidence and motivation increase, causing them to work harder and learn more. Rather than frame the goal as student retention (from the institution's perspective), the persistence framework frames the goal as student agency (from the student's perspective) – although the intended outcome is the same from both perspectives. Calls for such reforms – focusing on empowering students to become better science learners – are based on the fact that students who wish to major in biology are often confronted with a series of large lecture courses (e.g., with enrollments of 1000 students or more) that are not complemented by small-group discussion sections or opportunities for active learning (Handelsman et al., 2004; Woodin et al., 2009; Tanner, 2013). At the university where the present study took place, the completion rate in biological sciences (i.e., percentage of declared pre-biology students who completed the biology degree within six years) was <30% for students in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which is aimed at supporting students from underrepresented groups, and <50% for students not in the EOP.

Mentoring programs that involve undergraduates mentoring other undergraduates have been shown to have potential to improve student learning in higher education, including in STEM disciplines (Micari et al., 2005; Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Terrion, 2012; Tenenbaum et al., 2014). However, reviewers have noted persistent problems involving the methodological rigor of some studies, particularly those using qualitative or descriptive approaches (Crisp & Cruz, 2009), so the present study attempts to overcome these problems by using controlled experiments within the context of actual college courses, with course grade as the dependent measure. The present study is intended to add to the empirical research base on the effectiveness of innovative mentoring programs that focus on developing effective learning strategies with beginning college students in STEM fields. In particular, this project employs the techniques recommended by Light and Micari (2013) in Making Scientists, in which students learn effective study strategies such as summarizing lecture content, asking questions about material that needs to be clarified, and giving explanations to others.

Theory & Predictions

Research in cognitive science has shown that teaching cognitive skills is most successful (1) when the training focuses on specific skills within the domain in which they will be used and (2) when more-expert peers model appropriate use of cognitive skills and allow for beginners to practice with feedback (Mayer, 2011; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012; Singer et al., 2012). In the present study, we focus on helping students develop learning strategies that will help them succeed in college biology courses. A learning strategy is an activity that the learner engages in during learning in order to improve learning (Weinstein & Mayer, 1985; Fiorella & Mayer, 2015). During the past 20 years, researchers have produced a substantial research base that pinpoints evidence-based learning strategies that have been shown to lead to improvements in student learning, including strategies such as summarizing, mapping, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting (Pashler et al., 2007; Dunlosky et al., 2013; Fiorella & Mayer, 2015). In addition, research on collaborative learning shows that the strongest effects are achieved when learning occurs in small groups, focuses on specific skills, and involves a group commitment to improving everyone's learning (Slavin, 2017).

Based on this work in the science of learning, we predict that college students enrolled in an introductory biology course will earn higher scores if they participate in a peer-mentoring program aimed at teaching learning strategies appropriate for the course within a small group. Specifically, we predict that students in an introductory biology course who participate in the Biomentors program (biomentors group) will score significantly higher in the course than students who do not participate in the program (control group).

Methods

Participants & Design

The participants in cohort 1 (completing MCDB 1A, a second-year introductory biology course for science majors at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), in the fall quarter of 2014) included 60 students in the biomentors group and 972 students in the control group. The participants in cohort 2 (completing MCDB 1B, another second-year introductory biology course for science majors at UCSB in the winter quarter of 2015) included 63 students in the biomentors group and 883 students in the control group. The courses are required for majors in biological sciences, and the majority of students in the class intended to major in biological sciences (n = 655 in cohort 1; n = 591 in cohort 2). The remaining students in the class were also science majors (e.g., chemistry, biopsychology, and environmental science), as other introductory biology courses were available to fulfill general education requirements for non-science majors. The majority of students were sophomores or juniors (n = 981 in cohort 1; n = 885 in cohort 2), because three quarters of chemistry was a course prerequisite.

Procedure & Materials

The Biomentors project was designed as a cocurricular program to assist students enrolled in a large introductory biology course. The program involved pairing a small group of students (up to six) with a biomentor – a high-performing senior biology major working under the supervision of a faculty member. Each group met with their biomentor twice each week for one hour per meeting. One of the meetings was scheduled at a fixed time and place in an active-learning classroom. This classroom had multiple tables with seating for five at each table and a shared computer/LCD monitor on the wall next to the table. The other weekly meeting was scheduled ad hoc by the biomentor, depending on exam dates, work schedules, and other factors and took place either on or off campus, usually at a big table in a coffee shop.

Each week, the group examined the course material for that week and participated in study strategies that have been shown to be effective (Fiorella & Mayer, 2015), such as summarizing a lecture, asking focused questions for clarification of the material, and explaining the material to others. The biomentors ensured that all students participated and were engaged by giving each student an assigned activity. The biomentors also maintained an open and supportive group environment in which students learned how to make constructive comments. In order to avoid intrusion in the biomentor-led groups (and due to resource limitations), there was no direct observation of how biomentors implemented the instructional program. However, biomentors reported on their classroom activities and received constructive feedback during weekly meetings with the faculty mentor.

Students were invited to participate in the Biomentors program by e-mail. Initially, only the biology majors enrolled in the class were invited. If the program had additional capacity, then a second invitation was sent to nonmajors. In both fall and winter, the program reached full capacity (80 students) very quickly. Students who did not get a spot asked to be on a waiting list. During the initial meetings, students who failed to show up were immediately replaced with students from the waiting list.

The biomentors were recruited from the pool of senior biology majors who had completed a significant number of upper-division major courses with a grade point average (GPA) greater than 3.0. During the fall quarter of 2014 and the winter quarter of 2015, twenty biomentors were recruited to participate in the program. They were unpaid volunteers who either enroll in a one-unit class, Internship in Biological Science (MCDB 184), or used this activity as their community service hours if they were in the College Honors program.

All Biomentors attended a one-unit course on mentor training, which involved meeting with each other and the faculty supervisor each week to learn how to be an effective mentor, to review and prepare course materials for the following week, and to share their experiences. The faculty mentor was a highly experienced biology faculty member, with more than 30 years of teaching experience focused on instructional innovation in introductory-level biology courses. In some weekly meetings, the instructors of MCDB 1A and 1B attended the meetings as well. Biomentors learned how to avoid excessive tutoring and instead to guide or facilitate discussion of course topics and learning strategies during their sessions. At these weekly meetings, they were taught active-learning strategies for making sense of the material, were asked to use these approaches with their mentees, and were taught how to apply the science of learning to their mentoring. They were also taught about the content of the class. The mentoring training was inspired by Light and Micari's (2013) Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, which is based on Northwestern University's Gateway Science Workshop. We followed guidelines for the ethical treatment of human subjects.

Results

Data Preparation

We refer to students who completed MCDB 1A in the fall quarter of 2014 as “cohort 1,” and we refer to students who completed MCDB 1B in the winter quarter of 2015 as “cohort 2.” The primary data were the total number of points earned in the course from quizzes and exams for each student, as well as demographic data, which was not linked to student names to protect confidentiality. For purposes of the data analysis, the biomentors group consisted of students who were enrolled in the Biomentors program and attended at least 5 of the 10 weekly biomentor sessions (n = 60 in cohort 1; n = 63 in cohort 2), and the control group consisted of all other students in the class who were not enrolled in the Biomentors program (n = 972 in cohort 1; n = 883 in cohort 2). All results reported in the tables and results sections are based on these data.

Are the Groups Equivalent in Basic Characteristics?

Table 1 shows the proportion of women and the mean scores (and standard deviations) on parent education level, parent income level, total SAT score, and high school GPA for the biomentors group and the control group. Based on t-tests, the groups did not differ significantly (at P < 0.05) on parent education level, parent income level, total SAT score, or high school GPA in cohort 1 or cohort 2. Based on a chi-square test, the proportion of women was significantly greater in the biomentors group than in the control group for cohort 1 (χ12=10.06, P = 0.002) and for cohort 2 (χ12=7.79, P = 0.005), which suggests that women were more likely than men to volunteer to participate in the Biomentors program.

Table 1.
Scores (means [M] and standard deviations [SD]) on basic demographic characteristics for biomentors group and control group across two courses.
MCDB 1A (Fall, 2014)MCDB 1B (Winter, 2015)
BiomentorsControlBiomentorsControl
CharacteristicMSDMSDMSDMSD
Proportion women 0.77* 0.43 0.56 0.50 0.73* 0.44 0.55 0.50 
Parent education 6.1 2.3 6.4 2.1 6.0 2.3 6.5 2.1 
Parent income 4.9 2.2 5.2 2.1 4.9 2.4 4.8 2.5 
SAT score 1873.0 197.1 1910.0 183.4 1883.2 185.0 1919.9 178.1 
GPA 3.15 0.49 3.08 0.46 3.08 0.46 3.05 0.44 
MCDB 1A (Fall, 2014)MCDB 1B (Winter, 2015)
BiomentorsControlBiomentorsControl
CharacteristicMSDMSDMSDMSD
Proportion women 0.77* 0.43 0.56 0.50 0.73* 0.44 0.55 0.50 
Parent education 6.1 2.3 6.4 2.1 6.0 2.3 6.5 2.1 
Parent income 4.9 2.2 5.2 2.1 4.9 2.4 4.8 2.5 
SAT score 1873.0 197.1 1910.0 183.4 1883.2 185.0 1919.9 178.1 
GPA 3.15 0.49 3.08 0.46 3.08 0.46 3.05 0.44 

* Indicates significant difference at P < 0.05.

Do Biomentor Students Perform Better in an Introductory Biology Course?

The top portion of Table 2 shows the mean number of points earned in MCDB 1A in the fall quarter of 2014 (cohort 1) for students in the biomentors group and all other students in the course. As can be seen, the biomentors group scored significantly better than the control group (t1030 = 2.55, P = 0.011, d = 0.36).

Table 2.
Scores (means [M] and standard deviations [SD]) for biomentors and control groups in two biology courses.
BiomentorsControl
CourseMSDMSDd
MCDB 1A (Fall, 2014) 326.5* 46.5 308.9 52.2 0.36 
MCDB 1B (Winter, 2015) 143.0* 22.1 134.7 26.0 0.34 
BiomentorsControl
CourseMSDMSDd
MCDB 1A (Fall, 2014) 326.5* 46.5 308.9 52.2 0.36 
MCDB 1B (Winter, 2015) 143.0* 22.1 134.7 26.0 0.34 

* Indicates significant difference at P < 0.05.

The bottom portion of Table 2 shows the mean number of points earned in MCDB 1B in the winter quarter of 2015 (cohort 2) for students in biomentors group and all other students in the course. As can be seen, the biomentors group scored significantly better than the control group (t944 = 2.46, P = 0.014, d = 0.34).

These results provide replicated evidence in support of the Biomentors program and represent the major findings of this study. However, in light of the lack of strict random assignment, it is worthwhile to note that for both cohorts, the biomentors group and the control group were equivalent on all basic demographic characteristics except gender, in which there was a higher proportion of women in the biomentors group. Given that women scored lower than men in the class overall, this difference would favor the control group. In order to control for gender, we conducted analyses of covariance on the class scores, with group as the independent variable and gender as a covariate. The results showed that when the effects of gender were controlled, the biomentors group significantly outscored the control group in cohort 1 (F1,1029 = 8.54, P = 0.004, d = 0.38) and in cohort 2 (F1,943 = 6.82, P = 0.009, d = 0.33), which is consistent with findings without controlling for gender.

In order to better control for basic demographic characteristics, we conducted stepwise regressions for each cohort by entering variables in the following order: gender, parent education level, parent income level, total SAT score, college GPA, and participation in the Biomentors program. The change in R2 for participation in the biomentors group was significant at P = 0.001 for cohort 1 and at P = 0.005 for cohort 2, suggesting a significant positive effect for participating in the Biomentors program even when the groups were controlled for several basic demographic characteristics that typically are related to academic achievement. This indicates that participation in the Biomentors program had a positive impact on achievement in an introductory biology course, beyond any effects attributable to classic predictors of achievement such as gender, parent income, parent education, SAT score, and GPA.

We conducted a supplementary analysis with only biology majors (n = 654 in cohort 1; n = 591 in cohort 2), which yielded the same conclusions as for all students. In particular, when a regression was conducted with only biology majors, the change in R2 for participation in the biomentors group was significant at P = 0.022 for cohort 1 and at P = 0.028 for cohort 2. This pattern indicates that participating in the Biomentors program significantly improved course achievement for biology majors beyond any effects attributable to classic predictors such as gender, parent income, parent education, SAT score, and GPA.

We also conducted a supplementary analysis in which the biomentors group consisted of all students who completed the course and were enrolled in the Biomentors program, regardless of how many sessions they attended (n = 72 in cohort 1; n = 72 in cohort 2). These analyses based on this lenient definition of the biomentors group yielded the same conclusions as those based on a more restricted definition of the biomentors group.

Overall, we conclude that there is encouraging preliminary evidence that a peer-tutoring program targeting beginners in the biology major can promote success for students who wish to pursue college degrees in biology. Importantly, this treatment effect remains even when the effects of gender, parent income, parent education, SAT score, and GPA are statistically removed.

Discussion

Empirical Findings

Students in the Biomentors program scored higher in an introductory biology course for science majors than other students in the course across two separate cohorts. Thus, this study provides preliminary evidence for the effectiveness of a peer-mentoring program aimed at helping students develop learning strategies related to an introductory-level science course they are taking.

Practical Implications

A peer-mentoring program aimed at helping students in an introductory-level science course can be a cost-efficient and effective way to help retain more students in science majors. Given the high dropout rates, particularly among students from underrepresented groups, it is worthwhile to consider programs such as Biomentors as a way to help students develop the skills they need to succeed as science majors.

Theoretical Implications

Consistent with research on teaching of learning strategies (Fiorella & Mayer, 2015), our results suggest that mentoring programs aimed at fostering domain-specific learning strategies can be effective including fostering strategies such as summarizing, questioning, and explaining. In particular, this finding is consistent with general themes in cognitive science that favor a focus on how to learn within a particular course, rather than learning in general or learning through general team-building discussions (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012).

Limitations & Future Directions

This study focused on student academic performance during one academic quarter, but our conception of success for a mentoring program includes longer-term metrics such as graduation with a science major and science GPA. According to Graham et al.'s (2013) persistence model, as students develop learning strategies for success in science, they increase their confidence and motivation, including their beliefs about themselves as scientists. Thus, further work is needed to determine whether extensions of the Biomentors program can have a positive effect on longer-term measures such as graduation rate and science GPA and on motivational measures including surveys of self-efficacy beliefs. Another worthwhile measure of persistence is class attendance, so future research should examine whether students who participate in programs such as biomentors tend to have higher class attendance rates in large-lecture science courses. Future research should also explore boundary conditions for the effectiveness of biomentor programs such as the size of the biomentor-led group, whether the biomentor is a peer, whether the gender of the biomentor matches the student's gender, and how well the biomentor implements the instructional program.

A potential challenge to research on the effectiveness of programs such as biomentors is that the biomentors group might contain a higher percentage of biology majors (who presumably are more motivated and prepared for science courses) than the comparison group. In the current study, this issue is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the second-year introductory biology courses examined were intended for students wishing to major in a science discipline and required three quarters of chemistry, with the majority of students in the class majoring in biology and the rest majoring in other sciences such as chemistry, biopsychology, or environmental science. Students majoring in the social sciences or humanities took a different introductory-level biology course intended for non-science majors wishing to fulfill a general-education requirement in science. In addition, when the analyses were conducted with data only from biology majors, the same main conclusions were upheld: the biomentors group outscored the control group when the effects of demographic variables such as gender, SAT score, and parent income were controlled. Future research should continue to be sensitive to the need to equate the biomentor and control groups on key student characteristics.

The authors acknowledge the numerous senior UCSB biology students who volunteered to be Biomentors. This program was supported in part by a grant to the University of California, Santa Barbara, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Science Education Program. For more information on the Biomentors program, please contact Rolf Christoffersen at rolf.christoffersen@lifesci.ucsb.edu.

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