What is Mentoring? What is Peer Mentoring? What are the Positive Effects of Peer Mentoring on College Student Success?

What is Mentoring? What is Peer Mentoring? What are the Positive Effects of Peer Mentoring on College Student Success?

Welcome back. I hope 2016 will be a good year for all of us. In this post I will share some essential background information on mentoring and the impact of mentoring on college students. In an effort not to bog you down with log lists of citations, I have chosen to provide a single example to support different specific claims. For more elaborate lists of examples, please see any of the project final reports on the “Approach” page of my website.  For an even more current and exhaustive list of citations, please see my 2015 book: Developing Effective Student Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practioner’s Guide to Program Design, Delivery, Evaluation and Training. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.

The concept of mentoring goes back to the ancient Greeks. In Homer’s Odyssey, when Ulysses embarks on his journey to Troy, he leaves his son in the care of a trusted teacher, Mentor, with instructions to watch over the boy and raise him as he would his own child.


Definition of mentoring

Mentoring seems to mean different things to different groups of people. Although there is no universal agreement on a single definition of mentoring in higher education, Donaldson, Ensher and Grant-Vallone define “mentoring” as occurring when a senior person or mentor provides information, advice, and emotional support to a junior person or student over a period of time.

Models of college student mentoring are based on Kram’s original work from a business context. She proposes that mentoring relationships serve two primary functions: career development and psychosocial support. For college students, career development can be thought of as academic support and includes mentors promoting academic success and facilitating mentees’ efforts to complete their degrees. Psychosocial support, on the other hand, focuses on helping students adjust to the new college environment and legitimating them as “real” college students.

Within higher education, mentoring is increasingly associated with efforts to promote student success, which includes helping students stay in school and complete their degrees in a timely manner. Peer mentoring programs are particularly popular. Sixty-five percent of the public four-year colleges and universities included in American College Testing’s “What Works in Student Retention” survey reported having peer mentoring programs with goals of promoting student success and retention.

Differences Between Informal and Formal College Student Mentoring Relationships

In a college context, formal student mentoring refers to structured and intentional relationships where mentors and student mentees are matched by a third party, such as mentoring program staff. Informal student mentoring, on the other hand, refers to naturally occurring supportive relationships students have with older and more experienced individuals such as advisers, professors, or other students. Many times informal mentors actually provide the initial push and encouragement that lead college students to get involved in formal mentoring programs.


Differences Between Hierarchical and Peer Mentoring for College Students

Hierarchical mentoring for college students involves individuals from two different social positions, such as faculty–student, adviser–student, or counselor–student. This is similar to a mentoring relationship in a business context where a senior manager mentors a junior staff person.  Peer mentoring describes a relationship where a more experienced student helps a less experienced student improve overall academic performance and provides advice, support, and knowledge to the mentee. Unlike hierarchical mentoring, peer mentoring matches mentors and mentees who are roughly equal in age and power. Although a peer mentor may or may not be older than the mentee, there is a considerable difference in each one’s level of college experience.


While I am an advocate of peer mentoring, I want to emphasize that BOTH hierarchical and peer mentoring are effective in promoting student success and helping students deal with a range of college adjustment issues. In a subsequent posting I will explore why I think peer mentoring may be more effective for working with these students, but for now one big take away is “when it comes to promoting college success, both types of mentoring work.”  In this blog, I will focus on peer mentoring.

What Do We Know About the Impacts of Peer Mentoring on College Students?

Peer mentoring increases the chances of degree completion.  College students who participate in peer mentoring programs report stronger intentions to stay in college and complete their degrees (e.g. Sanchez, Bauer, & Paronto, 2006).  The theory of reasoned action from psychology argues that individuals’ stated intentions are the best predictors of their subsequent actions (e.g. Ajzen & Fishbein, 1970). Therefore peer mentoring programs, by positively affecting mentees’ intentions to stay in school and graduate, actually contribute to increasing these students’ chances of graduating.

Peer mentoring promotes mentees’ academic success at college. Participating in peer mentoring programs is associated with improved student retention rates in numerous studies (e.g. Colvin & Ashman, 2010 ). Peer mentoring also has an impact on the likelihood of students’ academic success by improving grade point average (e.g. Pagan & Edwards-Wilson, 2002 ) and the number of credits successfully completed (e.g. Collier et al., 2008, See Projects: Executive Summary)

Peer mentoring helps transitioning students adjust to the university. New students who participated in peer mentoring programs credited mentors with facilitating their university transitions (e.g. Ruthkosky & Castano, 2007, Issue 4(5)). Mentees reported an increased sense of campus connection and increased satisfaction with their universities (e.g. Sanchez, Bauer, & Paronto, 2006 ). College student mentees also highly valued the support provided by peer mentoring relationships (e.g. Terrion & Leonard, 2007 ).

Peer mentoring affirms mentees’ beliefs they can succeed as college students. Students making the transition from high school, community college, or another educational system to a university must learn a new role or a new version of the role of college student. Several studies found that students who participated in peer mentoring programs demonstrated increased levels of confidence in this new role (Smith-Jentsch et al., 2008 ).



Peer mentoring provides mentees with safe allies for sharing personal and college concerns. New students making the transition to college face an unfamiliar and complex environment. They must deal with a range of new issues and struggle to find other people they can confide in. Several studies found that mentees viewed peer mentors as allies with whom it was safe to disclose personal issues and information. Mentees also reported that they viewed peer mentors as approachable sources of expert knowledge about college because of their academic achievements (e.g. Schmidt, Marks, & Derrico, 2004 ). Mentors had already succeeded in the very same college context that mentees aspired to succeed in themselves.

Peer mentoring is particularly effective at promoting college success for students of color and other underrepresented student groups. Many colleges and universities use peer mentoring to facilitate unrepresented student groups’ college transitions (e.g. Jackson, Smith, & Hill, 2003). Peer mentors serve as role models and provide encouragement and support for these students who must deal with the range of college adjustment issues all new students face while struggling to adjust to a context where their home culture is no longer dominant. Participating in peer mentoring programs has been shown to be associated with improved retention and academic performance for several groups of students of color including Latino/Latina (e.g. Thile & Matt, 1995 ),  African American (e.g. Good, Haplin, & Haplin, 2000 ), Native American (e.g. Shotton, Oosahwe, & Cintron, 2007 ), and Asian American students (e.g. Kim,Goto, Bai, Kim, & Wong, 2001 ).

In this post I have defined mentoring, distinguished between peer- and hierarchical mentoring as well as between informal and formal mentoring programs. I have also identified several possible positive outcomes for college students who participate peer mentoring programs. But mentoring is not a magic pill. Students in some mentoring programs may “feel good” about their time in their programs without necessarily experiencing an accompanying improvement in academic outcomes. In the next posting I will explain why every college student mentoring program does not produce the same positive outcomes.

Next: Peer Mentoring is a Set of Tools; How You Use them makes a Difference
part 1


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