If mentoring matters, what is meant by mentoring, and what does high-quality mentoring entail?

Despite over four decades of research on mentoring, there is no universally accepted definition (Mullen and Klimaitis 2021). Ubiquitous use of the term has not only created definitional and conceptual confusion, but also an “intuitive belief” that mentoring is a panacea for a wide array of personal and professional challenges in a multitude of settings (Eby et al. 2010, 7). Without a clear definition, our understanding of what it means to mentor, to be a mentor, and to develop mentoring relationships becomes obfuscated.

The lack of definitional clarity and key characteristics of mentoring stems in part from the complex and overlapping nature of developmental relationships in higher education1. Indeed, being a mentor is often conflated with other student- and learning-centered relationships, such as advising, coaching, tutoring, and supervising (Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore 2023). To avoid this confusion, Johnson (2016) suggests that mentoring relationships be considered along a continuum rather than as a distinctive category. He encourages a shift in thinking about mentoring such that “Mentoring is not defined in terms of a formal role assignment, but in terms of the character and quality of the relationship and in terms of the specific functions provided by the mentor” (28).

In building towards his own definition of mentoring, Johnson refers to a set of key historical sources, starting with Yale researcher Daniel Levinson in the 1970’s, who has been credited with enlivening a focus on the value of mentoring in young adult development. Levinson et al (1978) highlight the roles of a mentor, as teacher, sponsor, and exemplar. Furthermore, with a focus on the mentor as a significant, individual agent, their work also highlights the actions of mentors, which include welcoming the mentee into and acquainting them to a new social arena, specifically a profession.

Though she remains focused on the mentor, like Levinson et al, Kathy Kram famously identified two broad mentor functions – career and psychosocial – and significantly shifts the focus away from who a mentor is and what a mentor does to the functions served by a mentor (1985). This is significant because it sets the stage to focus more on the functional characteristics of mentoring relationships than on exceptional individuals (mentors) and their actions.

Blackwell (1989) and Healy and Welchert (1990) illustrate, further, this definitional move away from centering on the mentor as an individual agent. Blackwell’s definition draws attention to mentoring as a process (9); the definition from Healy and Welchert focuses on mentoring as “a dynamic, reciprocal relationship” (17). Following the lead of Kram, these later definitions move away from a focus on the actions of an individual (the mentor) towards the functions enacted within a specific kind of relationship, a mentoring relationship.

In this brief review, we see movement in the definition of mentoring, moving from one centered around the roles and actions of mentors towards a relationally centered definition that draws attention to process and relationship development over time.

In future blog posts, we will explore the development of a constellation model of mentoring and some of the consequences of taking mentoring relationships seriously as a definitional and operational ground for mentoring.


  1. Our specific focus is on higher education. However, similar complexity arises within other organizations, such as the workplace (Higgins and Kram, 2001; Yip and Kram, 2017; and for broad overview see The Handbook of Mentoring at Work, Ragins and Kram)and the military (Johnson and Anderson, 2009).


Blackwell, James E. 1989. “Mentoring: An Action Strategy for Increasing Minority Faculty.” Academe 75, no. 5: 8–14.

Eby, Lillian T., et al. 2010. “Definition and Evolution of Mentoring.” In Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring, A Multiple Perspectives Approach, edited by Lillian T. Eby, et al, 7-20. Blackwell Publishing.

Healy, Charles C., and Alice J. Welchert. 1990. “Mentoring Relations: A Definition to Advance Research and Practice.” Educational Researcher 19, no. 9: 17–21.

Johnson, W. Brad. 2016. On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Routledge.

Johnson, W. Brad, and Gene Andersen. 2009. “How to Make Mentoring Work.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (April): 26–32.

Higgins, Monica C., and Kathy E. Kram. 2001. “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective.” The Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2: 264–88.

Kram, Kathy E. 1985. Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Levison, Daniel J., et al. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Ballentine.

Mullen, Carol A., and Cindy C. Klimaitis. 2021. “Defining Mentoring: A Literature Review of Issues, Types, and Applications.” Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1483: 19-35.

Ragins, Belle R., and Kathy E. Kram. 2008. The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, and Jessie L. Moore. 2023. “Exploring Mentors’ Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Mentoring in a Constellation Model.” International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2023.2279306

Yip, Jeffrey, and Kathy E. Kram. 2017. “Developmental Networks: Enhancing the Science and Practice of Mentoring.” In The SAGE Handbook of Mentoring, edited by David A. Clutterbuck et al. 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.


Tim Peeples is currently Senior Associate Provost Emeritus, and Professor of Humanities at Elon University. He also holds the position of Senior Scholar in the Center for Engaged Learning.

Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is a Professor of Psychology and founding Director of Elon’s Center for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University.

Jessie L. Moore is Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University.

Learn more about the authors and the Mentoring Matters project.

How to Cite this Post

Peeples, Tim, Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, and Jessie L. Moore. 2024. “Defining Mentoring and/as Mentoring Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 18, 2024. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/defining-mentoring-and-as-mentoring-relationships/.