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Wellbeing: Connecting student wellbeing and service design

Wellbeing: Connecting student wellbeing and service design

By Sophie Tversky

Health Wellbeing 


Cultivating wellbeing as a life skill needs to be central to university experience. Understanding students’ diversity is key to addressing their needs and creating a positive law school community.

The successful transition into tertiary study in law has been identified as being critical to ongoing engagement with student studies, constructing professional legal and student identities and fostering social integration. It also enables adjustment into the tertiary educational environment, and the formation of new friend and support networks. 

Undergraduates have a one in four chance of developing mental ill-health. Law students display at least equivalent levels of wellbeing to the general population before starting their course. However, between the first semester and the end of first year, they experience significantly greater stress, anxiety or depression symptoms than other undergraduates. A multitude of interrelated factors influence their occurrences, including: perfectionist traits, isolation and lack of social connectedness, pessimism, competitive nature of law school, lack of feedback, Socratic teaching methods, extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivations for studying law, lack of proactive wellbeing strategies by students and the adversarial nature of the discipline. It is important to increase protective factors and decrease the exposure to risk factors for law students, to increase the likelihood of wellbeing.

How do we cater for the diversity of student experiences, enabling a successful transition and fostering student wellbeing?

Peer mentor programs are recognised as part of the toolkit for facilitating successful transitions and enabling support networks and integration into the tertiary space. They generally involve later-year peers (mentors) from the same discipline mentoring first-year students (mentees). Mentors guide mentees’ social and academic integration in the tertiary education environment, build a sense of connectedness with the faculty and university and refer the mentee to appropriate services such as career advice or counselling. These programs are shown to increase social adjustment, emotional support, connectedness and belonging, and reduce feelings of uncertainty. They are also utilised to increase the likelihood of degree completion and student retention. For mentor and mentee, personal and academic development occurs.

Engagement in relation to transition into tertiary education is multilayered, not only facilitated by organisational internal workings but by student engagement in constructing their identities as students, participation in the law school community, academic pursuits and development of a positive sense of belonging. This is not limited to the first-year experience and should continue throughout a student’s law degree. This prompts the following questions:

  • How might we create engagement for mentors, mentees and a law school community?
  • How might we cater for the diversity of student experience to help them through this transition, increasing protective factors that contribute to wellbeing while also facilitating an integrated law school culture and first-year experience?

Service design methodologies and principles are key to creating integrated, student-centric programs that increase community within law school. The rest of this article explores examples of how these methodologies and principles can be employed.

Redesign of the Monash University Law Faculty Peer Mentor Program

Service design is a human-centred, collaborative, interdisciplinary, iterative approach which uses research, prototyping and a set of easily understood activities and visualisation tools to create and orchestrate experiences that meet the needs of the business, the user, and other stakeholders.

Service design techniques were utilised to redesign the undergraduate Monash University Law Faculty Peer Mentor Program (Peer Mentor Program) in 2016. 

The final iteration of the program comprised of a Peer Mentor Coordinator and six Deputy Coordinators (student leadership team). Each Deputy Coordinator oversaw several groups of mentors. Paired mentors assisted approximately 15 mentees each. Multiple communication and accountability pathways were established. Peer Mentor Program events and support systems fed into those occurring within the faculty, broader university services and the Law Students’ Society. This structure was achieved by employing service design techniques.

Designing through collaboration

The process of design process improvement of the Peer Mentor Program, or any wellbeing initiative, should be collaborative, requiring cross-departmental or interdisciplinary involvement in the design process. In the design of the Peer Mentor Program, this included collaborating with the student leadership team driving the 2016 program, students and staff. This increased engagement with stakeholders and ensured the right problems were being solved. Rather than imposing solutions on people, collaboration makes it possible to tap into knowledge sources, ensuring that a full understanding of the problems or improvements needed are obtained.

In the redesign process, program pain points and opportunities for mentors were identified. The perspectives of the student leadership team, previous mentors and mentees were collated. Their insights were captured in meetings and informal interviews, as well as ratings and comments shared in surveys from previous years of the Peer Mentor Program. This enabled the identification of consistent and divergent themes.

Involving the students in the design process (and ongoing improvement process) permits collective expectation setting and a shared commitment to the Peer Mentor Program, promoting a collaborative culture. This is critical, a balance must be struck between clear structure and flexibility for mentors to gauge how their mentees are travelling throughout the semester, while also ensuring clear expectations and commitment are set. Clarity in expectations is communicated through shared vision and language. Ongoing check-ins by the student leadership team with mentors, offering them support and guidance in their mentoring journey, helps ongoing measures of program traction, feedback and engagement. 

Mentors feel motivated and a central part of the ongoing success of the Peer Mentor Program through seeing the engagement of the student leadership team. For both the student leadership team and mentors, training, reflecting on their own law school journey, study skills and personal development, promotes intrinsic motivation for studying, involvement in the community and empathy for the diversity of student experience. Here, storytelling is an important tool, for both process improvement and facilitating a culture of collaboration. Mentors develop professional skills, such as communication and leadership skills, through the mentoring process. Empathy is also developed. By co-creating the Peer Mentor Program, reflecting on their experiences and mentoring, students gain an increased understanding of other people’s experiences and how they can play a role in optimising mentees’ transitions. This is a skill for workplace and client interaction. Understanding the needs of others, or empathy, is recognised as a vital skill for the future of work.

Creating a human-centred peer mentor program

Information gathered from interviews and research informs process improvements, program strategies and the creation of manuals or decisions about how to best communicate information to first-year students. Changes should be driven by information gathered and student experience and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing initiatives is unlikely to be successful. Information can also be used to map out the student front-end experience, including Orientation Day, enrolment and mentor meetings. Visualising processes helps to understand how students experience transition and their first year of law school. This technique can be used as a springboard to identify pain points for students and to ask: 

  • When do mentees need certain types of information?
  • In what form do mentees need this information and where do they find it?
  • When do mentees most need support?
  • How do mentees feel at 'X' point in time?
  • When do mentees most need experiences that facilitate the creation of support networks or friendship groups?
  • How can we integrate fun into the first-year experience?
  • What are common questions asked by mentors and mentees throughout the semester? Can these be codified?

In the Peer Mentor Program, collecting information and asking questions led to the creation of a centralised information guide to assist mentors and the student leadership team to identify potential stress points in the semester. The guide suggests ways of talking about the transition process with mentees, coping strategies and referrals to support services.

Information gathered also highlights aligning or divergent motivations, for example, the motivation for learning skills for advisers and mentees. Mentees need to understand legal research, referencing and study skills and these are often a stress point. These skills are usually introduced within the first few weeks of law school. Learning skills advisers want to build an ongoing professional partnership with students to help them develop these skills throughout their degree. Through the identification of the overlapping needs of first-year teachers and learning skills advisers, an opportunity was identified to integrate peer learning into the Peer Mentor Program. Mentors shared their study experiences and tips, facilitating community building and role modelling.

Creating a holistic and integrated peer mentor program

Visually mapping out process and structures and the interrelationship between information, people and systems enables identification of overlapping or duplication which can cause stress, frustration or confusion for mentees. By zooming out and viewing the whole experience from the perspective of a new student, a smoother and more integrated transition process can be achieved, which promotes a collaborative culture. A peer mentor program should be part of the integrated first-year university experience. Linking up and making transparent services such as counselling, study skills and broader university offerings, is an example of drawing on existing resources to improve the mentee experience.

Consideration can be given to what information is being communicated, by whom, in what way and with what intention. It may be that similar messages are coming from different sources or that different messages are being delivered – ultimately confusing students, rather than providing clarification or reassurance. Identifying pain points and creating integrated processes and communications ensures that no student slips through the cracks.

Continuous feedback and collection of information regarding mentee and mentor experience is crucial. It allows for the continuous improvement of the program. This includes end of program surveys and interviews. Every cohort will be different and adjustments can be made through ongoing learning. When mentees feel there is an investment in community, culture, commonality of language and collaboration, they want to pay-it-forward and become mentors themselves. Anecdotally, this is a major reason for students applying to become a mentor in subsequent years. ■

Sophie Tversky redesigned the Monash University Law Faculty Peer Mentor Program in 2016. This is an edited extract from Wellness for Law: Making Wellness Core Business (Chapter 6, by Sophie Tversky), Judith Marychurch and Adiva Sifris (eds) 2019. LexisNexis.

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