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Mentoring: Adapting to the Educational Model

Mentoring has long been recognized as an important tool deployed by management to develop the skills and competencies of staff, specifically those recognized as high performers. 

Author: David Johnson

A mentoring relationship, in various forms, seeks to develop the protégé in two broad areas: vocational/task training and psychosocial support (Fine and Pullins, 1998).  Although there is a wide range of mentoring relationships discussed in the literature they can be categorized, for the purpose of this review, under the three general headings described by Darling (1986):

  1. Traditional mentor: Like Mentor of mythology the traditional mentor is a senior person who passes wisdom and advice to an aspiring protégé. Understanding this classical description of mentoring forms the base for understanding the mentoring process.  The traditional mentoring process combines the elements of skills and psychosocial development in the protégé.  
  2. The step-ahead mentor:  This description of mentoring differentiates the senior person of traditional mentoring from a person who, although senior in rank, may not be as senior in age and experience but is one or two steps ahead in the hierarchy of an organization and is tasked with providing training and support to the protégé. The emphasis for this model is primarily in skills development.
  3. The peer mentor: The peer mentor is on or about the same level as the protégé and seeks to help acclimatize them to the culture.  The usual process is to act as advisor and role model. In some environments the peer mentor also fills a skills development function; however, that is not the primary role.  This model places great emphasis on providing the psychosocial support the protégé needs to feel they are part of the organization or community.

Much of the literature discusses the mentoring process as it is deployed in employment settings.  In these circumstances the model used most often fits the traditional definition of mentoring and usually targets high achievers. The step-ahead model is usually deployed as a strategy to enhance the development of some employees who show signs of strength but need seasoning.  Using a combination of vocational/task training and psychosocial support, mentoring can be demonstrated to lead to greater productivity, employee retention and improved succession planning strategies (Ensher, Thomas & Murphy, 2001). Transitioning these models to the academic field requires some modification of the administrative process and roles of the players.

Mentoring has always been a part of the educational experience particularly in graduate studies programs.  In a true reflection of the traditional mentor relationship faculty members “adopt” a graduate student and guide their progress in the acquisition of knowledge and completion of their graduate studies programs.  Faculty mentoring and tutoring is an approach that can be shown to demonstrate success in the retention and academic improvement in students (Brawer, 1996).  Other models combine the traditional role of the mentor and use peer groups as the step-ahead agent to combine skill development in a specific discipline and the psychosocial aspects of mentoring.  This approach seems to work well in situations that are discipline-driven areas of study.  

Engineering students (Good, Halpin and Halpin, 1998) and health care professionals (Koberg, Boss & Goodman, 1998) are representative of academic programs where these mentoring models produce solid results.  These “career- focused” programs often use a combination of faculty mentor (traditional model) and senior student mentors (combination of peer and step ahead model).  This structure provides the psychosocial support, as well as the tutoring aspect, not only to ensure academic excellence for the protégés but also to help them identify with the program, the discipline and the school.  Peer mentoring and tutoring has also been proven to be an effective tool to reach out to under-represented and minority groups (Good, 2000) (Hite, 1998).  Since all of these models include a component of tutoring there is an administrative cost that has to be considered when deciding on the focus of a mentoring program. The screening process to ensure that the academic capability of the mentor matches the protégé’s requirements involves an administrative structure that can become a monetary burden.   Despite the fact that there has been considerable research that demonstrates mentoring combined with some form of tutoring does improve the academic achievements of protégés, the labour cost of assigning a faculty member to each protégé or the administrative costs of training and matching senior students to the academic needs of protégés can act as a limiting factor for the use of mentoring.

An approach that overcomes these limitations draws from the step-ahead model and the peer model but eliminates the discipline-specific skill development aspect. This produces a model of mentoring that matches senior student with entry-level students to act as a psychosocial support agent without the vocational/task training aspect of tutoring.  This model for mentoring has become the choice of many academic institutions to encourage retention.  The objective of this type of mentoring program is to build community, a feeling of acceptance, confirmation and friendship (Lanham, 1999).  A study conducted by B.B. Youngs (1993) found “in the school environment, high levels of self-esteem increase the likelihood that youth will connect positively to peers, teachers, and the school as a whole, all important determinants of academic success”.   Programs that offer empowering activities, support and encouragement and model appropriate behaviour contribute to improved self-esteem (King et al., 2002) which leads to better academic performance and encourages students to continue in their programs.

The value of mentoring is not isolated to the protégé.   There is a growing body of research that suggests the process of mentoring has beneficial outcomes for the mentor as well.  Job satisfaction and personal performance increase as the mentor assists the protégé to meet and perform in the workplace (Fine & Pullins, 2002).  In the academic environment this fact was mirrored by Good, Halpin and Halpin (1998) with their findings that confidence and sense of purpose were enhanced in the mentor group.  Wollman-Bonillia (1997) attributes these benefits for the mentors to enhanced self-esteem and the need for mentors to reflect on their practices in order to act as a guide and role-model.  Although the research is not definitive it does point to the fact that there are benefits to   the mentor in the relationship. 

More recent developments indicate that mentoring, without the tutoring component, in the post-secondary setting has become a tool to increase retention, improve identification with the organization and to enhance academic persistence (Lanham, 1999). 

A more embracing definition of mentoring should recognize that the relationship does not have to be hierarchical nor does it have to include both vocational training and psychosocial support but it should recognize all three stakeholders in the mentoring process; the protégé, the mentor and the institution.  


Brawer, F. B., (1996) Retention-attrition in the nineties, Washington D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 393 510).

Darling, L. W. (1986). The mentoring mosaic: A new theory of mentoring. In W. A. Gray & M. M. Gray (Eds.) Mentoring: Aid in Career Development, Business and Professions. Vol. 2.

Ensher, E.A., Thomas, C., & Murphy, S. E. (2001) Comparisons of traditional,  step-ahead, and peer mentoring on protégés support, satisfaction and perceptions of career success: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Business and Psychology, 53(4).

Fine, L.M. & Pullins, E.B. (1998) Peer mentoring in the industrial sales force: an exploratory investigation of men and women in developmental relationships. The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 18(4).

Fine, L.M. & Pullins, E.B. (2002) How the performance of mentoring activities affects the mentor’s job outcomes. The journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 22 (4).

Good, J.M. (2000). A promising prospect for minority retention: Students becoming peer mentors. Journal of Negro Education, 69(4).

Good, J.M., Halpin, G., & Halpin, G. (1998). The affective and academic benefits for mentors in a minority engineering program. U.S.; Alabama: January 16, 2005, from ERIC database.

Hite, L. (1998). Race, gender and mentoring patterns. In the 1998 Proceedings of the Academy of Human Resource Development Conference, Oak Brook, IL.

King, K.A., Vidourek, R., Davis, B., & McClellan, W. (2002). Increasing self-esteem and school connectedness through a multidimensional mentoring program. Journal of School Health, 72(7).

Koberg, C.S., Boss, R.W., & Goodman, E. (1998). Factors and outcomes associated with mentoring among health-care professionals. Journal of vocational behavior, 53(1), 58-72. Retrieved January 16, 2005, from ERIC database.

Lanham, Mary P. (1999, November) To what extend does a peer mentoring program aid in student retention.   Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL.

Wollman-Bonilla, J.E. (1997). Mentoring as a two-way street. Journal of Staff Development 18 (3).

Youngs, B. B. (1993).  Self-esteem in the school: more than a feel good movement. NASSP Bulletin #76.

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