Photo courtesy of codementor.io
What Are Assistance Requests?
This year I made the challenging decision to pivot my career into web development, first completing an intro to web development course with Lighthouse Labs’ in July 2020 and then a 12 week bootcamp in full stack development in November 2020.
In my previous career I taught for one institution in the department of motion picture production in the areas of Sound Design Production and Post Production, and also for another institution in live event technologies. Both programs were taught in a physical setting.
Before starting at Lighthouse Labs the concept of online assistance requests was foreign to me. The first time I discovered the Request Assistance button in the Compass learning platform I had an instant curiosity about it’s use.
|The Compass learning platform provided by Lighthouse Labs
|The interface on Compass learning platform to create an assistance request
The premise of an assistance request is simple, I have the option to outline a problem or bug I am having with my code or an activity. I can also categorise my issue and include a short description of my problem or a general question.
With this information a mentor with more experience can pick up my request, set up a google hangouts session between us and offer their assistance. Excellent! I can screen share with the mentor and voila! It’s like having an experienced hand looking over my shoulder. I can chat with the mentor as I would in a physical space and even exchange code or links via slack or the hangouts chat. Wow! This was mind-blowing to me!
|A view of an assistance request in action
At first, asking for assistance was a bit intimidating, not knowing who I would be connected with or what kind of personality would be on the other end of the call made me feel apprehensive.
At the same time it was a very exciting prospect! I was starting to experience what Codementor.io¹ user Jenny Swift was feeling:
“No longer do I need to go through the frustration of spending
hours stuck on my own — just knowing I can get
help if I do get stuck has been a huge relief!”²
“I was no longer afraid of hitting a problem
that I couldn’t solve. There would be no more long
afternoons of furiously searching Stack Overflow,
and no more impending dread.”³
Swifts experiences from codementor.io⁴ reflected this new found opportunity Lighthouse Labs had provided for me.
Examining My First Assistance Request
During my first week of bootcamp, I hesitantly submitted my first assistance request. It was a very simple code review to check some conditional statements about lunch.
|The first piece of code I got reviewed by a mentor via assistance request, a conditional lunch decision maker!
Building Confidence Post Genesis
After I had navigated through my first successful assistance request the floodgates opened. Along with gaining confidence in my coding ability, I was also building confidence in asking for help. In Compass’ assistance request queue there are a number of senior mentors and apprentice mentors who are fresh from graduation available to assist, so I had no idea what level of experience my mentor would have. I was fortuitous as all my interactions with mentors after my first request were excellent, and I got a lot of useful information and feedback from them.
As a byproduct of the assistance requests, I also ended up taking the step of connecting with one of my mentors I had during this period on Linkedin, which opened up another really interesting part of this new learning vehicle — networking! I was riding a wave of positivity with my new found confidence and awesome mentors. That was until week three in my journey.
Negatives, Bumps In The Road And Wobbles — Should I Trust Mentoring?
Starting in week three, I experienced a bad run of assistance requests and “mentorship”. I left sessions feeling more confused then when I began. I vividly remember one really bad request where the mentor was just sighing, and rolling their eyes at me every time I asked a question, which really shook my confidence.
I started to wonder if I was the problem, and my impostor syndrome started kicking in overtime. I worried that this is what working in the industry would be like, and if so this career may not be the right for me.
Wearing my teacher hat, I still believe that mentors should never make you feel like this. Mentors should be there to offer support, learning and encouragement. I began to realise that this feeling of inadequacy was because of the lack of proper mentoring, and frankly people who needed to adopt a better attitude towards providing help. This was not my fault.
This realisation dissuaded me from using the mentor queue system for two weeks and I ended up turning to my peers for assistance. The confidence I had gained over the previous weeks had evaporated. My trust in “mentors” was at an all time low. I had started to come out of my shell but suddenly felt unable and unwilling to articulate my thoughts with a mentor.
Rebuilding My Trust From The Ground Up — Assistance Requests Post Wobble
My talented mid-term project partner Andre Iskandar, was able to budge my perspective on the mentoring process. Our mid-term project was tough to construct technically and initially his position on using mentors consistently, scared the crap out of me. I thankfully trusted his judgement and went along with it albeit my (unknown to him) reluctance to go forward.
As a training developer, this project was my most prominent learning opportunity and one of major personal and technical growth. Working on our QuizApp through midterm week was a turning point in my understanding of how many different personalities and people can be good, bad or even indifferent to your puzzle. Doing 12 hour long sessions, with mentor calls in such rapid succession was the most learning I had done up to that point.
We could not have completed this project without the assistance of some exemplary mentors — one memorable such example included a fantastic mentor who sat with us for two and a bit hours whilst we worked out how to manage state in jQuery.
In contrast another mentor during this project also gave us a really disheartening evening assistance call, dropping a harsh truth bomb where we were basically told, we didn’t understand anything and were doing everything wrong therefore they were not going to help us.
This was the point at which the contrasting styles of mentoring we were encountering clicked in my head. This was the kind of on the job training I was looking for! It may seem obvious to state but the sheer volume of reviewing, code assistance and mentor requests helped my velocity of learning.
The sheer quantity of assistance, diverse personalities, mentoring styles and opinions encountered was eye opening. Unarguably, this was the most valuable and substantial character-building experience during the formative weeks of bootcamp, and I have Andre to thank for that!
Mentoring Becoming The New Norm
Since midterms I have gone through many different requests with a variety of mentors and issues. I have discovered that the mentoring style which best fits me, is one where I am led to the answer by specific questions and walked through the thought process to arrive at a solution.
Some requests still leave me feeling disappointed or frustrated, however I draw back my experience with the mid-term project and continue to dig in and try. It’s a little bit like finding a good doctor, if you don’t like the first opinion you can always look for a second one! It’s important to take the emotion out of it and see it as a business transaction with the issue being the currency you are trading in. Any potential new knowledge or growth is the takeaway item from your transaction.
Positives — What Techniques Have Worked Well For Me In Assistance Requests
- Getting over the initial fear of asking questions and my own hang-ups and shyness was hugely important. The mantra our bootcamp forced on us was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- Being as descriptive as possible in my AR request and labelling things correctly.
- Making comments in my code i.e:
//MENTOR PLEASE LOOK AT THIS
- I had to become more assertive to keep certain mentors on track.
- I have taken steps to be more of the driver of the session and this worked better for me rather than passively sitting back letting them do the driving.
What makes an assistance request good for me?
- Being asked questions and guided to the answer without having the whole answer spelled out.
- A friendly and personable mentor who creates a good working relationship, but also knows when to stick to business
- A mentor who can explain difficult concepts in a straightforward manner without making me feel inferior.
- A mentor who treats me as an equal not as a subordinate.
- A mentor who builds me up and gives me confidence, refraining from tearing me down and making me feel like a burden.
What Are Others Saying About Remote Mentoring/Assistance Requests?
In ‘Promoting Technology integration through collaborative apprenticeships’⁵ Glazer, Hannafin & Song explore how teachers can benefit from a teaching community, when studying how to integrate technology into the classroom.
The study explores how the collaborative apprenticeships model of learning can help teachers to “practise, reflect and modify their practises.”⁶ They look into studies that have proven the benefits of this model, “Novices learned to solve problems and handle complex tasks through modelling, coaching, and fading”⁷
The study they examine in detail looks at four phases and roles that “promote collaborative apprenticeships for technology integration in teaching communities.”⁸
The learning model explored looks at 4 phases of learning that mentees go through whilst studying methods to implement integrated classroom technologies
Looking at the above model we could argue that mentorship and assistance requests could indeed follow the same trend just in a condensed sense.
The model would be as follows:
- An introductory phase: where the mentee needing assistance and the mentor have to go through introductory steps to gauge pre-existing knowledge, conceptualise the problem and gauge each others’ expertise level
- A developmental phase: where the mentor can scaffold and coach the mentee
- A proficiency phase: where the mentor leaves the mentee to get through the problem a little bit unaided
- A mastery phase: by this point there may have been some exchange in questions and ideas referring to the previous phases however mastery would see the problem be resolved and the mentee be at least comfortable with resolving the issue or the concepts needed to do that. The mentor can also provide further readings and resources to expand upon topics covered
Online mentorship and assistance requests are a fairly new and emerging way to learn, with seemingly no formally agreed upon formula.
The model above applies to a different area of teaching, however I feel shares some commonalities that could be theoretically applied to the phases of learning during assistance requests. During the peer review section I will highlight where these phases fit in with mentor instructional techniques.
In Production and industry
Whilst academic research has exhibited the benefits of a community of teaching based learning, in tech it is far too common to have problematic mentors when trying to roll out a community based learning model.
The article ‘Online Dev Communities: Stop scaring the new developers away’⁹ sounded all too familiar to me in terms of my assistance request journey. The article spoke to me about some of the worst mentors I have encountered during assistance requests.
Some particular quotes of interest include:
“I was shamed for asking for help in a place I had thought might have been appropriate”
“Rather than just shutting me down in an open-source community, either ‘I don’t know’ or pointing me to a more appropriate thread would have been more productive”
“you obviously don’t understand this topic”.
These quotes and many others validated the feelings I experienced after my bad run of mentor requests. It allowed me to reflect on the impostor syndrome I felt, which was developed by my experience with mentors and should have never happened.
I appreciated the honesty of this article and assurance that it’s okay to ask questions, even if as a new developer you are completely out of your depth. As I was once told by a Sound Design professor, “the worst question is always going to be the one you don’t ask.”
Other research shows, that mentoring has had incredible real world benefits in industry for companies and individuals in the industry looking to share knowledge. Codementor.io was featured in a Forbes article¹⁰ that states “Almost 20% of young professionals and even 9% of retired individuals describe themselves as grateful beneficiaries of a current mentorship”¹¹
The article looks at all aspects of how more mentorship can be fostered via the wider tech community. One important point of research was Kathy Kram who highlights challenges for mentorship availability and scalability. Kram notes, “Most often, mentors are available to only a few high-potential managers.”¹² Kram points out this mentorship “gap” with Forbes’ Christine Comford adding “76% of people think mentors are important, however, only 37% of people currently have one.”¹³
This begs the question, can the industry do better with the mentorship process? We are reminded that online mentorship is just at its infancy. Since, this article was written in 2019 I would assume that more mentorship programs are in development, however at the time the article was published 6 main options were offered (Parker Dewey, Codementor, Goodtalks.DK, CleverX, Jolt and Weem). Towards the end of the article an assertion was made that more options were available.
With COVID-19 and remote learning becoming even more important, it could be argued that many more organisations and companies will compete in the online mentoring and assistance space. The online mentoring system for Lighthouse Labs’ was only introduced to me during the final weeks of my intro to front end course in June 2020.
This topic will be further explored in the section ‘does a mentor need to be more than a coder?’
As of October 16 2020 I conducted a survey via the Lighthouse Labs’ slack, canvassing my peers as fellow learners across a few different cohorts. With a sample size of 17, I have provided the following data below. Some of the written questions can also be seen as a do’s and don’t list for both mentees and mentors, as well as some of the biggest flaws with the collaborative apprenticeship model.
How many mentor sessions have you had so far?
What percentage on average would you say have been helpful?
What are some techniques mentors have used that you have really liked or have really aided your learning or understanding? (I have added the phases explored in the academic research section into the responses to illustrate the collaborative apprenticeship model at work)
- Providing methodology behind problems/changes and providing a insightful explanation (Proficiency)
- Providing industry context (Proficiency/Mastery)
- Working with you to simplify the problem without spelling it out (Developmental)
- Scaffolding learning by restating the problem in different ways and analogising the solution, steps or concepts (Developmental)
- Asking questions to draw out answers (Introductory/Developmental)
- Walk through, refactoring and breaking-problems into smaller parts (Introductory/Developmental)
- Conversation/Personal Check-in/building rapport (Introductory)
- Having more of a discussion about a problem and using it as a mini-teaching session (Developmental/Proficiency)
- Providing additional resources and readings (Mastery)
- Using VSCode Liveshare to demonstrate code and outcomes (visual learning) providing foundational knowledge on the topics (introduction/developmental)
What are some techniques mentors have used that you have really disliked and has left you feeling more confused, alienated or turned off by seeking further mentor requests?
- Giving misleading or incorrect info, making disparaging comments (we are learning after all they should know this)
- Just sending a resource/copy and pasting code to you
- Just telling you the answer of how to fix the code instead of guiding — providing little to no explanation of the solution
- Going off topic
- Being dismissive, telling mentee they should understand this without help
- Mentors who poke around in the dark without a clue, or dismiss suggestions
- Introducing more complex solutions unfamiliar to the mentee
- No awareness, familiarity or knowledge of the specific activity, assignment or technology
- Complete lack of empathy, condescending, rude, lack of patience, making mentee feel stupid
- Rushing through the request to get to another request instead of taking time with the problem in front of them
Do you feel mentor requests have sped up your learning and path to knowledge?
Do you feel mentor requests have deepened your understanding of the topic(s) you were seeking aid with?
What recommendations would you have for future learners using mentor requests?
- Be organised and have your problem concisely demonstrable and make notes in comments in your editor for a mentor to //look at this
- state clearly in the description what your having an issue with- including assignment #
- If the mentor does not seem to know the problem, ask for another mentor
- Do some debugging of your code first, do what is within your ability don’t expect a mentor to do everything for you if it’s within your power
- Have very clear questions prepared and ready going in and a thorough understanding of the related code and problem so you can explain it well
- Ask your mentor to transfer the problem to a senior mentor if they can’t help you
- Keep the session moving by debugging error by error
- Don’t use the request system if you have less than 15 minutes before you need to do something else
- At the beginning of the call, set the expectation as to what you hope to get out of the call and how much time you have.
- Ask the mentor if they are familiar with the specific exercise you’re working on
- Ask them if they’re familiar with technology you’re working with
- Tell your mentor you have X minutes to figure something out (don’t fill in X with any number less than 15)
- Ask any questions, don’t be afraid!
- Be authoritative and keep mentors on track, this should be student driven learning and not mentor driven learning
What recommendations would you have for future mentors who are assisting learners?
- Please be patient, don’t treat the queue like you have to rush through it if it’s busy
- Please don’t make me feel uncomfortable asking questions
- be patient, and don’t tell people it’s “pretty straightforward” if a mentee approaches you with a problem it’s not “pretty straightforward” to them
- Be sure you know the topic before accepting the request
- Do not assume you know what is wrong, listen to the student
- Engage with the student and be empathetic about where they are, not judgemental
- Don’t be afraid to pass the request on to someone who knows better
- Refer to your own code if possible
- Assess the stress level, anxiety level and the mentee’s capacity to take in new information
- Do some initial assessment to see the mentee’s prior knowledge and learning style
- Avoiding going down rabbit holes and on tangents about the history of a particular technology or language. Consider mentees’ have deadlines
- Pay closer attention to what social cues are available via video call
- Explain things as if you were talking to a 5 year old until it is clear that the person understands what you are talking about.
- Share your thought process
- Slow down and try to understand where the student is coming from
- Please be some-what knowledgeable of the content the mentee is learning
- Ask mentees’ to reflect back their learnings at the end of a session
- use VSCode Liveshare more
- ask mentees if they have any other questions or something to help with and make sure everything was clear
Have you used other means besides compass queue to receive an assistance request e.g. https://www.codementor.io? If not would you consider using an outside source?
Not used but would consider: 7 respondents
Yes: 1 respondent
No: 9 respondents
What changes or additions would you recommend to make an online mentoring session more helpful?
- Integration with a learning platform on the compass side, automatic integration into VScode Liveshare as well as a video call?
- The junior mentors are not very useful; they often just go and see what they wrote for a specific problem; Some even mentioned that they never did that part
- Option of text chat instead of video, option to include snippets of code or a VSCode Liveshare link so the mentor can see ahead of time what needs to be addressed
- Categories of questions is a helpful addition, so that you can reach mentors on their best subject
- Mentors become available earlier. And later on Friday’s and the weekend
- Show a list of pending requests so that people can ask to join in and have group sessions.
- More mentors so less wait time
- More mentors on weekends and being able to see their work for motivation and/or discussion
Analysis Of Peer Feedback
15 respondents have found over 60% of their total sessions valuable. On the opposite end of the scale 11 respondents found 10% or less of their sessions unhelpful.
The trend would suggest that anywhere between 15–30 minutes is how long an assistance request could take.
Out of all 17 respondents 16 would rate their ability to come out of an assistance request at a 6/10+.
64.7% of respondents felt that mentor requests have sped up their path to learning and knowledge and an 70.6% majority feel that mentor requests have deepened their understanding of topics they are seeking aid with.
Overall the results seem to agree with the research indicating this model of learning is successful from a statistical point of view.
Analysing the written peer responses such as the dos, dont’s and suggestions indicates that both mentors and mentees can always make improvements and changes in their approach to using this model of learning.
The biggest problem from the mentee side seemed to be a lack of preparedness at the expectations of what a mentor needs.
The biggest complaint about mentors from the mentee side is a lack of meeting the mentee at where they are currently. Just because a mentor may have experience over the mentee, they should be able to talk at any level and let the mentee drive the session.
The more specific overall problem with the model which I feel is easily solvable, is the lack of options such as a text chat or having an instant link and request to do a VSCode Liveshare session.
The study could be enhanced and better balanced in future by surveying mentors on their experiences delivering assistance to mentees from their lens.
It would be important to gauge mentors’ opinions, if they feel assistance requests are useful and give a list of their dos and don’ts also from both a mentor and mentee perspective.
What Other Applications Could Remote Mentoring Have?
I’d like to speculate in this section on other sectors that could incorporate online remote assistance requests into teaching.
As I mentioned previously I have taught in sound design post-production for film. One of the problems in our new post COVID-19 world is being able to pivot and translate other forms of education into a model that can work outside of a physical classroom.
I’d like to provide a mock-up below of a potential use case outside of learning to code fitting into for the sake of this example sound mixing:
A mock-up of what an audio mixing mentoring platform could look like featuring a screen share, a chat, a file dropper and a participants list with options to add files and participants. Adobe Premiere Pro Image courtesy of: speckyboy.com
This is a mockup of what could be an interface for my imaginary assistance request website audiomentoring.com.
This would have merit as a hugely valuable tool for me as an instructor in my previous job, being able to provide help to students remotely after leaving the physical teaching space.
Since using assistance requests as a coding student, my mind has formulated all sorts of possibilities about where to implement this technology alongside the integrated collaborative learning model.
It may be a good exercise for you to think about an industry you have interest in and think would there be a use case for this? If the answer is yes, then you can probably imagine exciting possibilities, and envision how it could alter the very fabric of how we work and train in the future.
Does A Mentor Need To Be More Than A Coder?
As previously stated in the section ‘In Production and industry’, problematic mentors can create a barrier to the assistance request model working. So what could be a solution to this problem?
Personally, I feel like a more detailed use of review models could be used for mentors. I also believe mentors could be seen more as pseudo instructors. As an example, when I am posing the question: “I am having trouble setting up an Express router and getting errors. Why is this?”
What I am actually trying to set up in an assistance session is almost like a mini lecture.
During my training into instructional skills workshops at Camosun College I learned the Mini Lesson Cycle
|The 10 minute mini-lesson model broken down into steps.
Here is a view of this teaching model. The important part of this model to focus on is the Mini-Lesson that should last no longer than ten minutes. In dissecting and asking why ten minutes? The Instructional Skills Workshop guide explains that ten minutes is the appropriate amount of time to balance instructing someone on a concept or material and leaving space for the learner to digest and to participate in a reflection and feedback.
Ten minutes is also “a reasonable length for participants to recall specific details of the lesson in order to provide feedback”¹⁴ What it does is forces the instructor or an assistance request mentor to be concise and directly to the point. Exploration of this model and how to apply this pedagogical method to assistance requests could enhance the usefulness and benefits from the concept itself.
It Is Important We Review Our Mentors And We Can See Transparent And Measurable Metrics
On current system that I am using on compass for mentor review, the only points for feedback we can give are a rating out of 5 stars and a general comment:
|The current feedback system implemented in lighthouse labs’ Compass learning platform.
I have often felt like this feedback about the quality of mentoring I have gotten (at least on this platform) has had no demonstrable or measurable results. Whilst not having a personal grievance with the mentors in question who haven’t quite delivered professionally, I feel a better review model could be taken up and inbuilt into training and review programs for mentors.
Say Hello To Stop, Start, Continue
|The Stop, Start, Continue technique allows options for more targeted feedback. Arguably reviews should work this way for both mentor and mentee to improve.
My biggest frustration with mentoring on Compass has been the lack of transparency with this process - seeing mentors who I have had negative experiences with and provided appropriate feedback for still residing in the queue, makes me want to avoid jumping in the queue that day.
I feel the above feedback model alongside the review and comments could go some way to addressing these issues even during a session. I feel this would benefit both mentor and mentee and actually tighten up training getting the mentor to constantly review and improve their processes.
In this article I have attempted to demonstrate the concept of assistance requests, that it is a powerful and effective tool for learning. Whilst it is still in its infancy and there are many, improvements to make for mentors, mentees and technology, I hope this research serves as a valuable point going forward.
I am always looking to improve my own confidence and abilities in request help from mentors, and realise my own journey in this will be an ever evolving one as I grow and learn. I hope that you may consider this model if you are going into coding and want to learn more efficiently. My last thought, if you are one day in the position of being a mentor, I would implore you to use the skills you have, but never forget that you were a newbie once upon a time and also needed to reach out for help.
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 K. E. Kram, “Improving the mentoring process,” Training and Development Journal, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 40–43, 1985.
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