Curricular Components 2: Mentorship

Today we’re continuing our ‘Curricular Components’ miniseries within the Curriculum Corner (I blame Marshall for the unnecessary alliteration). This is where we provide an in-depth look at the various elements of VBI’s programming. As Marshall mentioned in the first post, this is not just a description of the individual curricular elements. We will also be looking at the roles these elements play in our overall understanding of camp, and how we think these elements can be improved. Like the previous post, this post will be split into three parts. First, an overview to the curricular element, second a discussion of why the element is important, and third a discussion of some of the challenges and solutions we have been thinking about when crafting the program.

This second entry in our Curricular Components miniseries is dedicated to mentorship.

What is Mentorship?

A mentor is a VBI faculty member that is assigned to students to work with one-on-one every other day outside of lab. The mentor program provides continuous feedback and oversight of each student’s personal curriculum since mentors help students achieve their own unique interests and goals. Each mentor session is student driven, with students playing the largest role in determining what each individual mentor session looks like.

There is no single type or even best type of mentor session since these sessions are highly individualized and are meant to emphasize the distinctive instructional style of the instructor as well as achieve the specific interests of each individual student. A typical mentor session is half an hour long and can include anything from drills, video analysis, rebuttal redoes, simply talking about debate, to anything in between. The topics covered in each mentor session vary wildly and can be what the instructor believes would be most helpful for a particular student to learn or what the particular student is interested in. For example, with some of the younger students, I liked logic exercises and with older students, I preferred to listen to rebuttal redoes, but many other instructors will approach their mentor sessions differently. Each student will have a unique experience with their mentors and focused one-on-one attention simply not available anywhere else.

Each student will also be part of a mentor group of 3-4 students that meets with the mentor every night. Students meet with their mentor group to discuss their progress throughout camp. These mentor groups aim to recreate the feel of a team, with a diverse group of students in terms of experience. The mentor is, in essence, the students’ coach throughout camp, since they will be the staff member that students will likely spend the greatest amount of one-on-one time with throughout camp. They will not only help each student directly by boosting their skills and content knowledge, but they will also help facilitate peer learning by helping students help each other.

Students have the ability to request a mentor prior to camp that they feel would best help them attain their debate goals. Many of our staff have strong specializations in specific topics in debate, and students interested in improving in those specific areas, like philosophy, critical, or policy style debating, can select staff members with those specializations. If students choose not to request a mentor prior to camp, mentors will be assigned to students based on that students’ interests and experience.

To learn more about mentorship, visit here.

Why Mentorship?

Mentorship has become standard practice at many national debate camps because of the unique benefits it brings to students on top of already established camp practices such as labs and modules. Mentorship has now become almost as foundational to camp curriculum as labs. I think there are three unique reasons why mentorship is an excellent complement and addition to core camp curriculum.

First, mentorship is the best source of one-on-one instruction. I talked about this above, but mentorship is the single greatest one-on-one learning that a student can get at camp. Consistent, unfettered access to top debate instructors in the nation can drastically enhance student learning at camp at a rate not previously possible with less one-one-one instruction. There is simply no substitute for individualized instruction at this level. Each student has different skills, interests, and learning styles. To assume that each student will retain the same information from lab as their fellow peers is misguided. One-on-one instruction allows the teaching to be custom tailored to each individual student, an element of personalization simply not possible to achieve to the same level in a lab setting. This is not to say that lab isn’t valuable (which would be silly, as Marshall’s previous post here excellently lays out the importance of lab), but rather that mentorship adds a unique level of instruction that can’t be replicated by lab.

Second, mentorship helps students fill in missing gaps from lab or modules. This is related to the above point, but I think especially important to isolate as a unique benefit to mentorship. Because each student learns differently, core skills and content taught in lab will be remembered and interpreted by each student differently. Mentorship helps each individual student retain and utilize that knowledge from lab in their own unique way. Say the lab was covering a particular argument on the camp topic and brainstorming different ways to respond to this argument. Well, each student probably has different thoughts about this argument or may not have understood this argument. Mentorship provides an opportunity to clarify that argument and help the student understand this argument. Students are frequently less willing to voice concerns about their level of understanding in public settings for obvious reasons, so mentorship provides an opportunity for students to fill in this missing information. Additionally, mentorship provides an additional unique perspective on subjects. Lab instructors might think about certain issues differently, and having a mentor to provide additional insight and a different opinion about the issue helps the student learn and grow.

Third, mentorship helps facilitate group interactions and peer learning. While lab does provide some opportunity for learning from and teaching other students, an often-overlooked tool in student instruction, peer learning from mentorship is unique because mentors groups are often smaller, more tight-knit, and are united around similar core interests, unlike labs which are often larger and grouped differently. Since mentor groups are encouraged to work together, mentors can help these groups teach and learn from one another.

How Can Mentorship Be Better?

Because mentorship is still a new practice but so valuable to many students, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it better. I will mention a few concerns that we have about mentorship and a few suggestions for how it could improve. That being said, mentorship has easily been one of the best advancements in camp curriculum in recent memory and even though there is always room for improvement, we think mentorship is a fantastic part of camp curriculum.

First, there is concern of what the optimal way to select mentor groups is. Currently, mentor groups are selected based on what students are interested in and assigning them to a mentor and then grouping those students together so there is a diversity in skill level. However, with some advanced instructors who specialize in teaching very high levels of debate, there is a good chance that they will be requested by only high level debaters. This, I think creates two distinct issues. First, is that younger debaters lose access to certain mentors. Second, it deprives more advanced debaters of the ability to interact and potentially help younger debaters. As of now, there doesn’t appear to be an obvious solution. More experienced debaters should be allowed to request a mentor and there doesn’t appear to be a good reason to deny them the ability to request a mentor on face. Thankfully, this concern doesn’t play out too often as very few instances of this actually occur each year. However, there are still a few things that can happen to minimize this occurrence. Since many more experienced debaters will request multiple instructors, it’s usually possible to still fulfill mentor requests while still having younger students incorporated into a mentor group. It’s also possible for VBI to simply ask for additional mentor requests from students when conflicts occur. In the end, this is a concern worth examining but there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer to this.

Second, there is a question of how to balance one-on-one time with mentors and group time with mentors. Currently, the schedule has it so that mentors meet with each student once every other day for half an hour, and every day with the mentor group for approximately half an hour. There are questions of whether there are preferable balances of time. In general, I’m pretty satisfied with our current division of one-on-one time and group time. Allotting more time for one-on-one instruction means more time where other students aren’t able to learn from instructors, and decreasing one-on-one time for group meetings seems even worse given the benefits of one-on-one instruction. Half an hour for group meetings each night also seems sufficient as well for encouraging group cooperation and even having a few group drill sessions if necessary. Additionally, there are times at night where optional late night activities occur that can also be used to meet with mentor groups. In the end, I think our current balance of one-on-one versus group time is pretty good, but certainly we’d like to hear your opinions on this.

Third, there is a question of what students do when they’re not being mentored. This isn’t so much a concern as just a question. In the past, students have been free to utilize this time however they want, using it as free time, additional work time, or even listening in on other mentor sessions. This year will be no different in that students will be free to utilize this time however they want, except that there will be additional opportunities for students to learn in the way of student led modules which we briefly talked about here and will be explained in more detail in a later post. We believe that students are capable of managing their own time and can utilize this time in a manner that is best for them. Some students prefer to do more work, while some prefer to take advantage of every learning opportunity, while some simply would appreciate a rest day every so often.

Fourth, there is a concern of mentor groups being splintered and not maximizing their potential to be a cohesive unit. Since one of the major advantages to mentorship is the ability to work together with other students of different experience levels, mentor groups that choose not to interact with each other are diminishing the educational potential of mentorship. While we can’t force students to like and work with one another, there are a few solutions to encouraging mentor group cohesiveness. First, mentors need to be proactive in encouraging mentor groups to work together. This can’t merely be a few words about being a team and ending there. This needs to manifest itself in concrete actions, such as eating a few meals with mentor groups to encourage them to work together, actively encouraging cooperation during mentor team meetings, and facilitating meetings with the mentor groups during down time. Second, camp policy will actively promote mentor groups working together by encouraging it during official gatherings, and by constantly encouraging students to work together. These solutions should help increase the likelihood that mentor groups work with one another. Coupled with some of the solutions of how to improve instruction generally from the previous post on labs, and we think that mentorship is going to be great this year!

That’s mentorship! I hope you found this overview helpful whether in designing your own camp curriculum, understanding what you would be signing up for at VBI, or helpful in getting inside the heads of the curriculum team (I recommend getting inside Marshall’s head, he has a lot of good ideas in there and he’s certainly more interesting than I). Let us know in the comment section if you have any additional questions about the mentorship system at VBI, or would like to know our thoughts on other aspects of mentorship.