How to give advice?

In the previous step you have discussed how you would share information and your own insights regarding study techniques with the students in your mentor group. In this article we will further tackle the issue of giving advice.

The mentor as an advisor

Your mentor group will be asking you questions. However, you do not need to have an answer ready for each and every question – sometimes a fellow first-year student may be able to provide an answer. This may result in the group becoming more involved with each other. You can also indicate places where students can find answers themselves. As a mentor, you will, however, often be the group’s first point of reference and you will regularly give them advice.

But, good advice is all too often disregarded. How can you prevent this? There are different ways in which you can advise your students. Some ways are more successful than others.

A. Coercive advice

The more coercive the advice, the greater the chance it will be disregarded. If you say: ‘You must do this and that’, about 90% will be against your advice, regardless of its quality. However, if you say: ‘I believe this is a good way’, or ‘I choose this option’, you will only have 25% opposition. The less coercive your formulation is and the more freedom of choice you give your group, the greater the chance that your advice will be followed.

Not recommended Recommended
You should do… I would do….
This is best I would choose this option
This is the right way I think … would be a good way
This the way I like this approach
This is the only thing that works This would work

B. Advice with examples

Advice is often supported by examples. If you say that students study 27 hours on average, there will always be someone who says that he or she doesn’t do that, or who knows someone who passes all their exams studying much less. In such cases it is a good idea to emphasise that, while this is perfectly possible, it does not work for everyone, and that these students are the exception to the rule. Research has shown that students study 20 to 45 hours per week, with an average of 27 hours per week.

People taking themselves as the norm

Mentor: ‘The average student studies about 27 hours a week.’

Student: ‘I do far less.’

Mentor: ‘Let’s see what the rest of the group thinks.’

Mentor: ‘Let’s do a quick round: how many hours a week do you study on average?’

Student: ‘Well, that depends.’

Mentor: ‘Yes, you will probably work a lot harder during exam periods than in the week after the exams, but try to give an average?’

Students: ‘About 20, 25, 40, 45, 30, 35, 20, 15, 35, 35.’

C. Selective perception

Studying takes more time than first-year students think. You may want to tell your students this. After such advice there will always be someone who has a roommate who knows someone who only went to lectures and studied for two days and then scored 90% on an 8-ECTS (208 hours of studyload) course unit. While this story might be true, it is certainly not representative – some students are simply very intelligent. So it is not about what some others are capable of, it’s about what you can do. You should emphasise that the student in the anecdote is an exception.

I know someone who…

Mentor: ‘Research shows that students who spend a lot of time studying get higher marks.’

Student: ‘Yes, but I know someone who got a 9 just by going to the lectures.’

Mentor: ‘That’s possible… exceptions apparently prove the rule. How many students do you know who do have to study for their exams?’

The only other thing you may want to say here is that this one genius student should not be regarded as the norm.

D. The trustworthy expert

Ample research has shown that messages are most convincing if they are conveyed by a trustworthy expert from their own experience.

Answers from own experience

Student: ‘I don’t really have to start studying at the beginning of the period, do I?’

Mentor: ‘I always went to all the lectures, but I would only start reading a bit by the fifth week of the semester. Those last few weeks were always really hard work – nothing but studying for three weeks, just to get it all done. Those last weeks are no picnic, and I often didn’t manage to finish everything.’

Mentor: (in a quick round): ‘Have you started yet?’

Mentor: (to everyone who has not yet started) ‘When will you start?’

This type of question is ideal for a mentor. It gives you the opportunity to talk about your personal study experience and you can ask your group members about their plans. If you want, you can also quickly provide a simple study schedule: ‘Count the number of weeks until the exam, count the number of pages and divide these.’ Students will always be slightly shocked when they hear how many pages they have to read each week.

To many first-year students a mentor, who is also a fellow student, telling lively stories about their own experiences – including failures – is more convincing than a lecturer or study advisor.

Advice becomes even more convincing if someone from the group can confirm your experiences with their own anecdotes. You can encourage this kind of story by asking for them. Experiences from fellow students are often at least as instructive as a technical story about planning. This way the group becomes its own advisor, and all the mentor has to do is to ensure the informative, open and constructive character of the group discussion.

E. Students giving each other advice

Student: ‘How do you deal with studying?’

Mentor: (looks around, stops at one person) ‘Does anyone have any ideas as to how to handle this?’

Student: ‘Do you have to make summaries of everything?’

Mentor: (makes a quick round with the question) ‘Do you make summaries?’ Incidentally, making summaries is not an aim in itself but rather a way of processing study material. Students who jot down from memory the main points of what they have just read will process and remember the material better.

Mentor: (to someone who makes summaries) ‘Why do you make summaries?’ and ‘Doesn’t that take a lot of time?’ and ‘Does it help you remember the subject matter better?’

This student’s answers will convince those who do not usually make summaries that it can be a valuable aid in remembering the subject matter.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Student Assistant: Teaching and Mentoring

University of Groningen

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