Teaching & Learning


Supporting students with an academic mentoring scheme

Targeted academic mentoring can deliver demonstrable impact on student achievement. This Teaching Toolkit highlights success through UCL's History mentoring programme, running since 2019.

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2 November 2023

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About this topic

This toolkit, co-created by a team of staff and students from the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, provides a template for how to implement an academic mentoring programme to support students in your department who face additional challenges to their success.

These students often are the first in their family to go to university, come from minoritised backgrounds, have additional pressures (e.g. caring, work) on their time, and otherwise face additional circumstantial, structural, or systemic barriers to success.  

Why it matters 

Targeted academic mentoring can deliver demonstrable impact on student achievement.

The Writing History Plus (WH+) scheme at UCL History has offered targeted support to undergraduate students since 2019. Our research suggests that continuing students with average marks at 59.50 or below who participate in the programme experience significant improvement in their academic performance (Robson, 2022). Academic mentoring provides space for students to meet with a mentor to review their progress, discuss their ambitions, and work towards academic targets.

This is in addition to (and often in partnership with) personal tutoring.

Why should we introduce an academic mentoring scheme in our department?  

UCL’s undergraduates are now more than ever drawn from diverse social, cultural, and educational backgrounds. However, research suggests that there are statistically significant differences in the proportion of “good” degrees (1st or 2:1) awarded to different groups of students (UCL, 2020, 4). The largest difference exists between students of different ethnicities. This “awarding gap” is not unique to UCL; it is a pervasive issue throughout higher education. UCL is committed to eliminating this awarding gap and has made progress in raising awareness and launching initiatives such as the Inclusive Curriculum Health Check and the recruitment of Faculty Leads. 

Research has demonstrated that “the more often students have out-of-classroom interactions (e.g. office visits) with their university teachers, the better the quality of the relationship and the more connected the students to the university’ (Hagenauer and Volet, 2014, 373).

However, studies have shown that White students are more likely to actively seek help and support from their lecturers than ethnic minority students (Stevenson, 2012, 108-109). Ethnic minority students are also more likely to commute from home than their White peers, affecting their ability to build relationships on campus due to travel costs, part-time work, and family responsibilities (Garaway, 2021, 14). Ethnic minority students are also more likely to be the first in their family to attend university (Coombs, 2022, 9) and to have attended state schools, which may contribute to a feeling of unfamiliarity and unbelonging at university (Boero et al, 2022).

Successful academic mentoring can meaningfully contribute to students’ sense of belonging, motivation, and achievement. While these challenges are particularly acute for minoritized students, they are also present for a wide variety of students with similar backgrounds. While targeting ethnic minorities is key and will help close the awarding gap, the program can be beneficial for a wide variety of students.

This template is based on the successful Writing History Plus (WH+) scheme which currently benefits undergraduate students in UCL History (Robson, 2022). WH+ is an academic mentoring programme which partners targeted students with an academic mentor for an academic year. The programme facilitates a positive teacher-student relationship which contributes to students’ sense of belonging, motivation, achievement, and intellectual development. 

What challenges do students face in their academic writing?

The requirement to conform to a standard form of Academic English creates an additional barrier for many students, particularly those from widening participation backgrounds, those with specific learning differences, and those with English as an additional language. Researchers have begun to advocate for a greater tolerance of students from widely differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds ‘bringing with them different ways of ordering ideas, differing forms of expression and differing ways of putting English expressions together’ (Turner, 2018, 219). Our student co-creators, drawn from undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across three departments in the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, were asked to reflect on the challenges they had faced with their academic writing at UCL. Common themes included:

Thesis, Argument, Structure

Students were often unclear on what a thesis statement should be, how to write one, and how to develop a thesis into an argument. They were often unsure about essay format, length of sections, and the balance of evidence and analysis. 


Students often have no previous experience with referencing styles and formats. 

Exam Writing

Students are unfamiliar with open-book exams and unsure of how to approach the questions in terms of time management, expectations, and referencing. 

Academic Language

Students struggle with unfamiliar academic terminology in readings and lectures, particularly when studying across disciplines, or for those with English as an additional language. 

Students overcame these challenges by seeking individualised guidance from transition mentors and lecturers through office hours and essay comments, attending writing skills workshops, drawing on support resources from department and central services, and practicing with timed essays and sample essays. Students stressed the importance of lecturer availability, through inviting attendance at office hours and emphasising an openness to questions in lectures. Hands-on writing practice and foundational content also helped improve writing while generic resources and inconsistent course organisation were less helpful for students to reach their academic goals. Students benefited most from multiple opportunities to practice and applied advice on specific examples and formative work. 

Step 1: Targeting students for mentoring 

WH+ is predominantly offered to continuing undergraduate students (i.e. undergraduate students entering their second or final year) based on prior performance. The key academic indicators are:
1.    A period of interruption in the previous academic year, and/or 
2.    A mark of 40.00 or below in one or more modules the previous academic year, and/or
3.    A mark of 59.50 or lower in a non-condonable module the previous academic year, and/or
4.    An average mark of 59.50 or lower in the previous academic year.

These indicators provide us with a shortlist of students who might benefit from academic mentoring. The shortlist is then discussed with the Departmental Tutor who provides additional contextual information, including whether students received an access offer, which is used to prioritise students into three categories: 
A.    Highest priority for academic mentoring
Students who meet any indicators and are eligible for UCL Careers Extra* 
B.    Medium priority for academic mentoring
Students who meet indicators (1) or (2) and are not eligible for UCL Careers Extra
C.    Lowest priority for academic mentoring
Students who meet indicators (3) or (4) and are not eligible for UCL Careers Extra

An active and involved Departmental Tutor makes identifying the students who might benefit most from involvement quite easy. 

Category A students are offered an academic mentor first, then Category B, then Category C. This method allows us to manage staff workload and ensure Category A students are paired with a mentor most quickly. If the number of targeted students was too high this system could also be used to decide which students receive mentoring, although thus far in UCL History we have been able to pair every targeted student who chooses to participate in the scheme with an academic mentor.

WH+ has also been offered to first year undergraduates in Term 2 based on their academic performance the previous semester. However, because first year undergraduates often only complete a small number of assessments in Term 1 it is more difficult to target students. The key academic indicators are: 
1.    A mark of 40.00 or below in one or more assessment components the previous semester, and/or
2.    An average mark of 55.00 or lower in assessment components the previous semester.

Step 2: Engaging wtih targeted students 

Engagement, by far, the most difficult aspect of the mentoring programme. In UCL History our targeted students are primarily from ethnic minority backgrounds, and/or living at home, and/or from state schools, which are all indicators that students may not feel a sense of belonging on campus, and thus often believe it is not worth attending anything other than core teaching (Garaway, 2021, 40). One way to overcome this barrier, however, is to try to create an expectation that students attend. Students are therefore personally invited via an email from a member of staff who is familiar to all students, such as the Departmental Tutor or, in this case, the first-year lead, early in Term 1:

Dear student,

I hope you are enjoying being back at university and are finding your feet again. The departmental tutor and I have been reviewing the progress of all students in the department and we have noticed that your current average is below a 2.1. We certainly don’t want you to worry unduly about this (most students improve their performance as they progress) but, as achieving a 2.1 can often be important for graduate jobs or further study, we would like to try to ensure that you have the guidance and support you need to achieve that.

To that end, if you think it might be beneficial, we would like to refer you to one of the History Department’s academic writing mentors in a scheme called Writing History Plus. Our mentoring team is drawn from the department’s teaching staff and will offer you a minimum of three one-to-one meetings to review your assessment feedback from last year and to help you plan for this coming academic year. Students who have participated in the scheme in the past report improved confidence and academic achievement. Past participants have commented that:

“I have found the writing mentor extremely helpful. I was able to discuss ongoing obstacles and worries about my dissertation and this really really helped me to tackle those issues head on. It has been invaluable.”

“The writing mentor sessions were invaluable... I would highly encourage those students who are struggling academically to sign up for sessions.”

If you are interested in this optional scheme, then please let me know by DATE.  I will then put you in touch with one of our mentors to arrange a meeting.

All best wishes

[Mentoring Lead]

The email briefly explains the scheme and establishes that participation is optional: research has demontrated that it is important that those who engage with a mentoring scheme are volunteers (Johnson, 2002) as students who are coerced will not receive the same benefits as those who engage voluntarily (Clutterbuck, 2015). Students who do not reply to the initial email are sent a follow-up message. We also inform personal tutors whose tutees have been offered mentoring and ask them to offer encouragement. 50-80% of targeted students respond positively to the offer. Students who fail to respond are mainly from Category A. Students are then paired with an academic mentor.

Students prefer to have the option to meet their mentor either online or on-campus to accommodate different needs. Writing support should begin early in the academic year but spaced through the year for ongoing support. Students suggested resources, such as essay templates and referencing guides, could be uploaded online, and that they would benefit from forums to ask common questions. We have recently created a Writing History Plus Moodle to cater to these needs.

Step 3: Finding academic mentors and their workload commiment 

In UCL History, our mentors are drawn from Associate Lecturers (Teaching) and Lecturers (Teaching) who are allocated time in their workload model. We estimate that, on average, each mentee requires 4.5* hours per year (which includes meetings, emails, and preparation) though of course this can vary considerably between students. Mentors are allocated between 3 and 6 students drawn from across Categories A to C. We give mentors a spread of students to try to ensure workload equity. If possible, we avoid pairing mentees with mentors who are their personal tutor or a module leader, which can inhibit students from entering an open and honest discussion. Rather, we find it most effective if the mentor can adopt the role of an “academic friend”: an outsider who can be seen to offer impartial support and advice. A Lead Mentor will require an additional 15-20 hours to coordinate the scheme.

* This figure is calculated from our experience in 2019-20: the total of meetings with mentees, plus emails (10mins per email), plus written work read in more depth (20mins per piece), and then divided by the number of mentees.

Step 4: What does the mentoring programme involve?

The minimum commitment we ask from targeted students is to attend three 30-minute sessions with their academic mentor. These are usually held in Term 1.

Session 1. For the first meeting we ask each student mentee to bring one assessment component (such as an essay or an exam answer) from the previous academic year which they are proud of, and one assessment component which they are disappointed with. (Note that this does not necessarily correlate with their best and worst assessment.) The mentor can then lead a reflective discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the mentee’s work, as well as drawing on any feedback provided by module leaders. The mentor should then ask the mentee to reflect honestly on their work process, asking them to consider how much time they spent preparing, drafting, and revising each assessment. Often, you will discover that a mentee has simply not dedicated enough time to the process, with revision often completely overlooked, although they often do not understand that this is an issue. The mentor can gently explain that a more systematic approach to academic writing is required.

Session 2. For the second meeting, usually held around a week after the first, mentee and mentor meet to design a work plan for the coming semester. This usually involves mapping out assessment deadlines, discussing the probable workload, and establishing targets for when to complete different tasks. It is important that these targets are specific, measurable and achievable. The targets that are agreed should be noted by both mentor and mentee, either individually or in a shared document. The mentee is responsible for meeting these targets, but the mentor should offer encouragement and accountability. Agree a date for a third meeting and set a formative assignment such as an essay plan, research notes, or draft material, for the mentor to review.

Session 3. For the third meeting, held at a point convenient for the mentor and mentee but usually no more than a month after the second meeting, mentee and mentor will review progress. The work plan can be reviewed and adapted. Any formative assignments should be reviewed and any issues discussed. Mentee and mentor then discuss next steps. Some students (especially those in Category C) may conclude that formal mentoring is no longer necessary, but they should be encouraged to make use of their mentor’s office hours. These students often appreciate having a mentor to discuss further academic concerns with on an ad hoc basis. Other students (especially those in Category A) may wish to continue a formal mentoring arrangement with an updated work-plan and regular meetings. These should then be arranged at the mentors’ discretion. Mentors are encouraged to gradually move these meetings to their regular office hours.

Step 5: Evaluating the mentoring programme

Mentors should record attendance for the first three sessions. Mentees who attend the first three sessions are deemed to have successfully competed the programme. Their progression and award data can be compared against students who were offered a place but did not complete the programme, as well as against the whole programme.

Mentees can also be asked to complete a survey at the end of the academic year. In UCL History we use the following questions:

Year of degree. (1, 2, 3, 4) Do you have a SORA? (Y/N) Approximately how many times did you meet with a Writing Mentor. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5+)

Created open and constructive learning environment (1-5)
Encouraged me to discuss problems I had with my coursework (1-5)
Provided ongoing support about the work I did in my classes (1-5)
Provided practical suggestions for improving my academic performance (1-5)
Gave me confidence in my ability to succeed academically (1-5)
Helped me to work towards achieving my academic goals (1-5)
Would you recommend to other students (Y/N)
Please explain why you answer yes or no to the previous question. (Open)
Any other comments. (Open)

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Further help

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Click to view references and further reading 

Boero, G., Karanja, B., Naylor, R., and Thiele, T. (2022) ‘Awarding gaps in higher education by ethnicity, schooling and family,’ Warwick Economics Research Papers.

Clutterbuck, D. (2015) Everyone Needs a Mentor, London: CIPD.

Coombs, H. (2022) ‘First-in-Family Students,’ HEPI Report 146.

Garaway, C. (2021) ‘Commuter students in SHS: characteristics, needs and challenges,’ UCL Social and Historical Sciences. Working Paper.               Hagenauer, G. and Volet, S.E. (2014) ‘Teacher- student relationship at university: an important yet under-researched field,’ Oxford Review of Education, 40:3, 370-288.

Johnson, W. B. (2002) ‘The intentional mentor: strategies and guidelines for the practice of mentoring,’ Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33: 1, 88-96.

Robson, E. (2022). ‘Writing History Plus report: a review of academic years 2019-2022,’ UCL Social and Historical Sciences. Working Paper.

Stevenson, J. (2012). ‘An Exploration of the Link between Minority Ethnic and White Students’ Degree Attainment and Views of Their Future Possible Selves,’ Higher Education Studies, 2:4, 103-113.

Turner, J (2018). On Writtenness: The Cultural Politics of Academic Writing, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

UCL (2020) BAME Awarding Gap Toolkit.


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Case studies

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This guide has been produced by: Jon Chandler, Associate Professor (Teaching), History and:

Inara Andre, Undergraduate Student, Americas
Julia Chaffers, Postgraduate Student, Americas
Zoe Chang, Undergraduate Student, History
Cathy Elliott, Associate Professor (Teaching), Political Science
Adam Harris, Associate Professor, Political Science
Joshua Hollands, Lecturer (Teaching), Americas
Ebbani Juneja, Undergraduate Student, History
Samira Marshal, Undergraduate Student, Americas
James Serieux, Undergraduate Student, History
Anais Virreira Guzman, Undergraduate Student, History of Art

You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the project.