Mentoring Relationships in Undergraduate Research

written by admin on September 22, 2015 in Doing EL and Engaged Learning and Studying EL and Undergraduate Research with no comments

by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler and Caroline Ketcham

In the second summer of the CEL seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research (UR), participants worked to identify the key characteristics of mentoring relationships in the context of student, faculty and institutional development.  We identified factors that contribute to mentoring relationships along a continuum ranging from preparing to engage in UR through the processes of doing UR and the resulting impact and outcomes.   Our research teams are examining a number of key elements including ways in which we prepare future faculty members to become mentors; faculty participation in mentoring UR across career and institutional contexts; salient practices of award-winning mentors; and influences of student characteristics such as gender and ethnicity on access to participation and identity development.  One topic under investigation has seldom been examined in mentoring UR:  the study of the variety of models of mentoring, including multiple faculty mentors to one or more students, and the ways in which the dynamic, reciprocal nature of these relationships may impact faculty and student development.

As Ragins and Verbos (2007) note, little is known about the “underlying cognitive, affective and behavioral processes through which mentoring relationships develop” (p. 91) and little research has considered mentoring from both the protégé’s and the mentor’s perspective. The nature and development of the mentoring relationship depends in part on how it is defined and structured.  Although a traditional “one mentor-one protégé” model is often assumed, in which the older, experienced mentor guides the younger, less experienced protégé, recent perspectives on mentoring in the workplace suggest that positive mentoring relationships extend beyond the dyadic relationship and often include a constellation of positive, developmental relationships (Higgins, 2007; Ragins & Verbos, 2007).  Some individuals seek multiple mentors including peers as well as more experienced teachers or colleagues, and research on organizational mentoring has begun to focus on developmental network perspectives that acknowledge the complex social networks in which individuals learn and develop (Higgins, 2007).

The nature of mentoring relationships is also determined by the degree to which they are formalized structures within an institutional context or informal relationships outside of the traditional organizational model.  Research has demonstrated that traditional, formalized one-to-one models of mentoring are often less effective than spontaneous, informal relationships (Higgins, 2007; Mullen, 2010).  Informal mentoring relationships may go deeper and can yield more benefits in a graduate school context (Mullen, 2010).  However, Johnson and Ridley (2004) caution that even informal graduate faculty-protégé relationships should be cultivated carefully and include both career-related (e.g., teaching skills) and psychosocial (e.g., encouraging and supporting) functions.

Little is known about the variety of models of mentoring relationships in an undergraduate context.  Even in traditional, formalized models of UR in which the student is paired with one faculty mentor, the student is learning within a social network in which peers and other faculty and staff members at the institution are providing academic and social supports. Social, collaborative learning is at the heart of many developmental theoretical frameworks, including Lave and Wenger (1991), Rogoff (1990) and Vygotsky (1978).  The basic assumptions of these theoretical perspectives are that individuals learn best by working with others in authentic and engaging activities that cultivate learning, particularly when guided by one or more persons with greater expertise.  Although cognitive apprenticeship models have been proposed to explain the benefits to students of participating in mentored UR experiences (e.g., Fair, King & Vandermaas-Peeler, 2004; Vandermaas-Peeler, Nelson, Feretti & Finn, 2011), little empirical research has focused on the reciprocal nature of the mentoring processes or developmental networks of mentoring beyond the dyadic relationship between one student and one faculty mentor.

One type of multi-mentoring model discussed by Mullen (2000; 2010) is co-mentoring, or collaborative mentoring at the faculty level. This is loosely defined as a proactive, reciprocal, and egalitarian relationship that transforms power structures. However, these collaborative mentoring relationships have not been examined in the context of UR.  The CEL team examining multi-mentoring models is investigating the nature and quality of the relationship between multiple mentors and how this may impact the experience and outcomes for the UR students, the mentors and their projects. Interestingly, preliminary findings utilizing a sample of approximately 100 student UR projects (mostly summer experiences) across five institutions, indicate that approximately 80% of undergraduates identified more than one faculty member as a mentor (Bata, Bradley, Dolan, Fitz Gibbon, Ketcham & Pollock, 2015). Further investigations of this team will explore the context of the relationship between these mentors and the role it may play in their professional development, as well as the impact on student outcomes. If the practice of collaborative mentoring is transformative for faculty and student experiences and outcomes, facilitating and supporting multi-mentoring models may be be an important consideration for UR programs. Clearly the theoretical constructs surrounding multi-mentoring models as a high impact practice are in place. Thus, further investigations of the prevalence and quality of these models are needed, and the results will inform future practices and institutional structures for mentoring undergraduate research.



  • Bata, M., Bradley, E., Dolan, E., Fitz Gibbon, M., Ketcham, C., & Pollock, M. (July 2015). Mentoring Models. Center for Engaged Learning: Mentoring in Undergraduate Research Seminar, Elon University.
  • Fair, C., King, C., & Vandermaas-Peeler, M. (2004). A cognitive apprenticeship model of undergraduate research in human services. Human Services Education, 24, 61-68.
  • Johnson, W. B. & Ridley, C. R. (2004).  The elements of mentoring.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mullen, C.A. (2000). Constructing co-mentoring partnerships: Walkways we must travel. Theory Into Practice, 39, 4-11.
  • Mullen, C. A. (2010).  Naturally occurring student-faculty mentoring relationships:  A literature review.  In T. D. Allen and L.T. Eby (Eds.), The Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring: A Multiple Perspectives Approach (pp. 119 – 138). Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Ragins, B. R. & Verbos, A. K. (2007).  Positive relationships in action:  Relational mentoring and mentoring schemas in the workplace.  In J. E. Dutton & B. R. Ragins (Eds.), Exploring positive relationships at work (pp. 91-113).  Malweh, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Vandermaas-Peeler, M., Nelson, J., Ferretti, L., & Finn, L.  (2011).  Developing expertise:  An apprenticeship model of mentoring undergraduate research across cohorts.  Perspectives on Undergraduate Research Mentoring, 1.1, 1 – 10.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is Director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement, a Professor of Psychology at Elon University, and a Seminar Leader for the 2014-2016 CEL Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research.

Caroline Ketcham is an Associate Professor and Chair of Exercise Science at Elon University and a participant in the 2014-2016 CEL Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research.