Mentoring in Higher Education and Student Development

By Josiah Hatfield

    The university student has been learning inside the classroom since the beginning of higher education. There is no question that a student’s mind is stretched and molded in the classroom due to lecture, class discussion, or homework. Yet in order for students to succeed as whole human beings, students need additional attention and care outside of the classroom. Obviously, there are a number of practices that aid in helping a student to develop but this article will address some of the benefits and implications of mentorship. While having a mentor is certainly not a new idea, it has resurged in recent years in a variety of ways with a variety of results. Mentoring can happen in a number of ways, yet it almost always has a positive effect on the mentee, in both psychosocial and academic ways (Terrion & Leonard, 2007). Because such benefits can arise from mentoring programs, it is important that such programs are done well. While mentoring can have a significant impact on the student/mentee, when the student serves as mentor, there are also a number of positive outcomes on the student mentors’ development.

    This article will focus on multiple forms of mentorship, therefore it is important to define the various forms mentorship can take. The classical form of mentoring refers to:

    A situation in which a more experienced member of an organization maintains a relationship with a less experienced, often new member to the organization and provides information, support, and guidance so as to enhance the less experienced member’s chances of success in the organization and beyond. (Campbell, T,, & Campbell, D., 1997, p. 727)

    This form of mentorship assumes a hierarchical approach where the mentor is doing the majority of the teaching and instructing and often includes more academic or career related guidance. A different approach would be that of peer mentoring, which “matches mentors and mentees who are roughly equal in age, experience, and power to provide task and psychosocial support” (Terrion & Leonard, 2007, p. 150). While the mentor in peer mentoring typically still holds a higher level of experience than the mentee, they are usually more approachable and easier to relate to due to their commonalities with the mentee. While these mentors are becoming increasingly involved in academic assistance, when compared to faculty/student mentor relationships, peer mentors show a stronger ability to provide psychosocial support characterized by “confirmation, emotional support, personal feedback, and friendship” (Terrion & Leonard, 2007, p. 150).

    Arthur Chickering developed seven vectors of student development, all of which could be assisted by the presence of a mentor in a student’s life (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010, p. 67).  The presence of a mentor can aid a student as he or she progresses through the seven vectors, encouraging and directing the student forward. Perhaps the more direct connection would be to the vector “Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence” in which students “come to recognize and accept the importance of interdependence, an awareness of their interconnectedness with others” (Evans, et al., 2010, p. 68). In this stage, the student realizes that he or she needs the instruction and help of others, most notably, a mentor.

    I would first like to highlight the benefits of mentoring for the mentee. Without these foundational benefits, there is no reason to have any sort of mentoring program or to have any sort of discussion about mentoring. The first advantage of having a mentor is the academic benefit. The research done by Campbell and Campbell (1997) reports that those students who had a faculty mentor “attained a higher grade-point average equivalent to between .2 and .3 of a grade point” (p. 738) when compared to students who did not have a faculty mentor. Another study done by Fox and Connelly (2010) showed that the mentees who participated in a peer-mentor program “achieved higher deep, strategic and surface apathetic scores after their involvement” (p. 150). Compared to students not engaged in the peer-mentor program, the mentees in this study scored significantly higher not only on grades but also in how they were studying, scoring higher in “deep and strategic” methods of studying. These “deep and strategic” methods of studying are characterized, respectively, by students being “directed towards the intentional content of the learning material” and studying as to “obtain the highest possible grades,” (Fox & Connelly, 2010, p. 146). The students without a mentor more often resorted to surface level studying characterized by simple fact memorization. The effects of mentors have been unanimously positive when taking academic performance into account.

    The second major benefit of mentoring for the student mentee is the psychosocial encouragement received. Stress is often listed as one of the major reasons for student attrition yet Terrion and Leonard (2010) point out that a peer mentor “can serve as one source of support to reduce the stress experienced by a younger and less experienced student” (p. 156) which, in turn, has the potential to reduce the attrition rate of universities.  The research of Shotton, Oosahwe, and Cintron (2007) listed three ways that peer mentors helped their mentees: “(a) connecting students to the community, (b) providing support, and (c) providing guidance” (p. 94). Colvin and Ashman (2010) provide a similar list of benefits for the mentees who described their mentors as being a “connecting link, peer leader, learning coach, student advocate, and trusted friend” (p. 125). The roles a mentor plays for the mentee are many and cover a broad spectrum of needs that the mentee may have.

    While the effect of mentors on the general population of mentees is significant, the effect is even larger for some subgroups such as ethnic minorities or women. For many ethnic minorities, the statistics are a grim reminder that too few of the members of these groups actually continue until graduation. Cruz (2008), commenting on Hispanic students, suggests that “the focus must be not only on high-quality instruction, but also on how to support and mentor students to generate an image of themselves that refutes past patterns of failures” (p. 32). While the Hispanic students cited a variety of mentors in their lives, peer mentors aided the mentees specifically by performing “the role [of peer mentor] by offering words of advice when too many obstacles seemed to prevent the university students from moving forward” (Cruz, 2008, p. 38). Another study focused on the effects of a student organized mentoring program for Native Americans (Shotton et al., 2007). As the Native American students often felt disconnected from the campus, the peer mentoring program “not only integrated them into the university but also helped them to develop support networks vital to their persistence” (Shotton et al., 2007, p. 97). The other major subgroup that greatly benefits from mentorship is that of women. While women are certainly not underrepresented on college campuses these days, they can often times feel unsupported, specifically if they are in a program that is not well populated by women. Typical problems that women run into are “the scarcity of potential mentors, the lack of frequent faculty-protégé interaction, and the tension that stems from traditional gender-role expectations” (Chandler, 1996, p. 94). Yet when these problems are overcome, many women receive benefits from a mentoring relationship.

    So far, the primary focus has been on the benefits of a mentoring relationship on the student mentee. Recently though, many schools have started programs where students themselves serve as mentors. Reasons for starting these programs vary but, in general, it is a very real representation of a culture that feels open to learning from a variety of sources. Peer mentoring does a certain level of flattening to the hierarchy represented by a faculty/student mentoring relationship. When peers learn from each other, key terms such as “inclusive,” “authentic,” “democratic” and “mutual” (Mavrinac, 2005, p. 399) are used, indicating an equal access to knowledge. For many schools, instituting alternative learning styles are certainly a priority but often times,  schools such as the one Smith (2008) studied are simply “institutions [who] are facing increased student enrollment and decreased external funding” (p. 49) causing them to reach out to student mentors as co-educators for practical reasons. Using students as mentors and educators is simply “resource effective” and “more meaningful” (Muldoon, 2008, p. 208).

    Getting students to act as mentors may seem like a difficult process but research has actually found students quite willing to participate. For one school, “the overwhelming reason given for becoming a peer supporter was the desire to help” (Muldoon, 2008, p. 210). Other reasons these students participated were “to meet people, to get more involved, to give something back to the university and to develop skills and personal attributes such as mentoring skills, communication skills, confidence levels and leadership skills” (Muldoon, 2008, p. 210). While not all of these are completely selfless, they do indicate that students are certainly willing to help others develop, especially when it adds to their own skill set. Another study found that students who played the role of mentor found themselves in multiple roles of mentorship ranging from teaching, facilitating, co-constructing, observing, to learning (Kafai, Desai, Peppler, Chiu, Moya, 2008, p. 196). This type of result indicates that the mentor not only increases their own skills as a mentor and communicator but that they also understand a particular subject matter to a greater degree. One student from this study reflected that “I think it changed from being thought of as being a tutor/teacher and turned into something more like a supporter/companion” (Kafai et al., 2008, p. 201).

    In order for students to act as healthy mentors, there are a number or characteristics that are important. In a study conducted by Mee-Lee and Bush (2003), both mentors and mentees thought the most desirable characteristics of student mentors were to be “(1) ‘understanding & sympathetic’, (2) ‘accessible to students’, (3) ‘[able to] communicate well’ and (4) ‘enthusiastic’” (p. 268). Another study solely focusing on characteristics of good mentors mentioned the following eight qualities: “communication skills; supportiveness; trustworthiness; interdependent attitude to mentoring, mentee, and program staff; empathy; personality match with mentee; enthusiasm; and flexibility” (Terrion & Leonard, 2007, p. 156). The interesting thing about both of these lists is that neither of them cites behaviors requiring a large knowledge base. For the mentor, it is simply important that “they discover that mentoring is not wholly about the exchange of knowledge, skills or advice but that it is often an exploratory process which needs time” (Garvey & Alred, 2000, p. 124). Rather than transferring information to accomplish simple tasks, the mentor should be more concerned with helping the mentee to use the method of understanding, exploring, and taking action (Garvey & Alred, 2000, p. 124). While this may take some stress off of the mentor who is worried about not having an adequate knowledge base, it also requires the mentor to be more invested and patient with the mentee when going through this process.

    To successfully implement mentoring programs, it is important that the programs themselves are valued by both faculty and students. “Lack of time” was a typical problem that mentors cited. One mentor says, “I have so much to do here that I only do mentoring in my spare time because I see it as an added responsibility” (Mee-Lee & Bush, 2003, p. 269). Others complained that they had no idea whether or not they were doing a good job and yet still others felt a lack of support from the higher ups. To avoid some of these pitfalls, it is important that “senior management should believe in mentoring and give full support by giving mentors ample time to carry out their mentoring sessions” as well as instituting “a good reporting system, which includes notes from the mentoring sessions and feedback from students and mentors, would help the mentors to gain recognition, as well as promoting review and improvement of the programme itself” (Mee-Lee & Bush, 2003, p. 270). Other specific guidelines for a mentor/mentee relationship may be to require “frequent contact with their mentor [/mentee] at least on a weekly base” due to the fact that “high rates of contact between [mentee] and mentor are important for enriching the relationship” (Ferrari, 2004, p. 301). Occasionally, when student mentors join peer mentor programs, the student mentor can assume they possess some sort of inherent power over their mentee which is why “more clarification for all parties could help establish the role more clearly and alleviate confusion” (Colvin & Ashman, 2010, p. 132). Peer mentors need to know that their role is that of a supporter, friend, and coach. One last recommendation for mentoring programs would be to pair mentors with mentees of similar personalities. Terrion and Leonard (2007) suggest that a “personality match between mentor and mentee [is] important for positive mentoring outcomes” (p. 160). When “mentorship is understood as the ability to share autobiographical experiences,” (Shotton et al., 2007, p. 87) both people involved in the mentoring relationship feels a sense of belonging and acceptance.  Both of these are marks of a good mentoring relationship.

    As professionals in higher education, it is important that we recognize the influence mentoring relationships can have on student mentees, as well as the influence it can have on both faculty and student mentors. Borrowing from the Chinese idea of Tao, “the best relationship between a mentor and a mentee is like water, a natural element that ultimately changes the shape of whatever it touches. The Tao’s mentoring, therefore, changes the life of people it comes into contact with in a satisfying and positive way” (Mee-Lee & Bush, 2003, pp. 263-4). When done correctly, mentoring relationships can have academic and social benefits that higher education professionals should be actively encouraging on their campuses.

    Josiah Hatfield serves as a Graduate Assistant for Student Programs at Taylor University, located in Upland, Indiana.


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