OPINION: Mentor sessions are worth another look

Students converse with their peers at a mentor session in Carnegie Hall.
You should give mentor sessions a try if you need help studying, argues guest writer Henry Peterson PO ’23.(Courtesy: Alison Tu)

Should you go to the mentor session for your class? Of course, you might not have a choice. Maybe your class doesn’t have a mentor (a student who took the class before and helps the next cohort in various ways). Or maybe mentor session attendance is required.

But sometimes you do have a choice in whether to attend — a difficult one if it’s the first time you’ve had to think about it. I host a mentor session every week, and I never know how many people are coming. More importantly, I never know exactly why people are coming (rather than to the professor’s office hours, their peers, the internet, etc.). For these reasons and more, mentor sessions can be dynamic and unpredictable. With countless other responsibilities we have as students, this only makes the decision for students to dedicate time out of their day for mentor sessions even trickier.

So, should you go to the mentor session? To answer this, I’ll share a few recurring experiences and perspectives that many students have pondered in regards to this question, leading them to decide that they are worth the trouble.

First, when one person has a question, other people have almost certainly been wondering the same thing. This is especially true for the questions that feel too embarrassing to ask. As a mentor, the questions I am asked most frequently are also the ones I am asked most privately. Mentor sessions are a great place to ask these questions because shared confusion can break the ice, spark conversations and ultimately lead to collective learning.

Second, “imposter syndrome” is extremely common and negatively impacts learning and well-being. A mentor session can be a great place to connect with other students going through the same experiences, and most mentors will freely share the challenges they faced taking the same class. Many students are surprised to learn just how much they have in common with their classmates and mentors. These weekly sessions may be limited in scope, but we must resist the alienating culture of elite higher education whenever we can.

Finally, it’s worth taking a step back to consider how learning really happens. A mentor session is usually an intellectually challenging environment, and environments like that can sometimes lead to frustration over a lack of initial progress. This frustration may be one reason why many students turn to easy but ineffective study strategies

Rather than fall into this trap, we should trust the robust empirical finding that “desirable difficulty” is the key to effective learning, even when it feels like the opposite. In other words, real learning tends to sneak up on you when you least expect it — like when you’re totally convinced that this one stupid problem will never make sense. But the guidance of your mentors and collaboration with classmates can give you the extra motivation to make genuine progress toward your learning goals.

So, should you go to the mentor session? Hopefully, you can tell by now that I think you should. When it works well, a mentor session is a challenging but collaborative environment where you can connect with others, share common experiences and work toward collective goals.

Maybe you just haven’t gotten around to attending a session yet. When you go, try asking a few questions you have about the homework, recent lectures or the course in general. Maybe your first time was a hectic midterm review session. Try going again on a less busy day to see what you think of the space. If you find that the environment simply doesn’t work for you, at least you’ll have an answer to the question that’s been in the back of your mind all semester. And if you find the environment does work for you, then you’ve increased your academic support network — one session at a time.

Guest writer Henry Peterson PO ’23 is studying geology, but he’s just as happy to talk maps or shapes if you have another favorite “geo.” For inspiring this piece, he is grateful to the Physics 9: “Peer Mentoring in STEM” community, Professor Umanath’s “Effective Learning Across the Lifespan” course and Professor Prokopenko’s endless “flashes of brilliance.”

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