As scholarship on mentoring moved away from roles and actions towards processes and relationship development, definitions of mentoring have developed greater commonality not only around a shared focus on relationships, but also a shared focus on the general functions and characteristics that define those mentoring relationships. As this shared focus has increased, however, greater attention has been drawn toward the multiplicity, dynamics, and diversity of meaningful development relationships, creating greater complexities in defining mentoring.

From the historical influence traced in the previous post, Johnson (2016) devises his own definition of mentoring, specifically contextualized within academe, as is also our focus: “Mentoring is a personal and reciprocal relationship in which a more experienced (usually older) faculty member acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced (usually younger) student or faculty member. A mentor provides the mentee with knowledge, advice, counsel, challenge, and support in the mentee’s pursuit of becoming a full member of a particular profession” (23).

We can see in Johnson’s definition a balance of the historical features: inclusive of both the mentor as a role and mentoring as a relationship. His definition leads with the relational (“Mentoring is a personal and reciprocal relationship”) but goes on to list some of the roles a mentor assumes (“guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor”). Johnson’s definition, then, returns to the relational, identifying a range of primary functions served by and within the mentoring relationship (to provide “with knowledge, advice, counsel, challenge, and support”).

Reflective of Kram (1988), the mentoring functions highlighted in Johnson’s definition range from career- to psychosocial-based. However, and of special note, Johnson, like Healy and Welchert (1990), goes beyond defining mentoring as a relationship or process; he characterizes the relationship, attributing specific and significant adjectives to it. For Healy and Welchert, the mentoring relationship is dynamic. For Johnson, it is personal. And for both, it is reciprocal. In other words, mentoring relationships are distinguished not only by their functions, but also by qualities of the relationship.

Towards some common understanding

Although scholars are not in agreement about a universal definition of mentoring, most incorporate the foundational work of Kram (1988) on developmental mentoring relationships in the workplace. In her research, Kram conceptualized two primary mentor functions as instrumental, focused on goal-directed activities, skill mastery, and career development, and psychosocial, supporting socio-emotional, personal, and identity development.

Crisp and Cruz (2009) applied this framework to mentoring undergraduates in higher education and expanded it to incorporate not two but four functions, or types of support: 1) psychological and emotional support; 2) support for setting goals and choosing a career path; 3) advanced academic subject knowledge in one or more fields; and 4) identification of a role model. In this work, the functions served within and by mentoring relationships are further expanded and defined, highlighting the uniqueness of mentoring relationships, as distinct from other kinds of relationships and specifically within higher education.

In a more recent review of research on mentoring undergraduates, Crisp et al. (2017) further identified four cross-cutting tenets, or characteristics, of mentoring within higher educational contexts: 1) mentoring relationships are focused on students’ growth and development; 2) mentoring includes professional, career, and personal/emotional supports; 3) mentoring relationships are reciprocal; and 4) mentors have more experience, influence, and/or achievement as compared to their students (19). As previous scholarship did to expand and more clearly define the functions of mentoring relationships (Crisp and Cruz 2009), this work (Crisp et al. 2017) more clearly defines mentoring by categorizing distinctive characteristics of mentoring relationships.

Tracing this progression, then, we see mentoring definitions, stemming from Kram through Crisp and Cruz and further developed by Crisp et al, begin to focus more commonly on the functions and characteristics of mentoring relationships.

Related widespread agreement in definitions of mentoring has been identified through a comprehensive review of the literature by Mullen and Klimaitis (2021). They have noted that, more recently, mentoring is commonly characterized as “relational and developmental” and includes “phases and transitions” (20). More specifically, it is, now, well-established that mentoring relationships are long-term, promote holistic growth through guided reflection, and shift over time to adapt to new contexts, skills, and identities (Irby 2013; Johnson 2016; Mullen and Klimaitis 2021).

Emerging complexities

Though the scholarship around mentoring more commonly accepts that mentoring is defined by a set of relational functions and characteristics, it is also more commonly understood that these relationships change over time and across contexts. Because of these dynamic interpersonal and contextual dimensions, mentoring relationships are complex1 and can be challenging to identify, interpret, and assess.

Who is a mentor? The answer may vary depending on who is asked and when. A person may not be identified as a mentor until the relationship has progressed over time, particularly when developed organically, or in the absence of a formal structure. A mentoring relationship “emerges from a series of interdependent, reciprocal interactions over time” (Keller 2010, 31). Additionally, designating someone as a mentor does not guarantee that an authentic mentoring relationship will evolve that is tailored to members’ expertise, identities, and needs. The mentees’ contributions to the relationships are also critical (Mullen and Klimaitis 2021).

Although various models of mentoring take interpersonal differences into account as significant to the development of mentoring relationships, they seldom consider marginalized identities as a factor, despite the salience of racial, ethnic, cultural, gendered, and sexual identities for students’ experiences and well-being in higher educational contexts (Harris and Lee 2019). Longmire-Avital (2020a, 2020b) argues that mentoring is most transformative when it recognizes and nurtures students’ existing capital (2019) and centers the identity-related needs, experiences, and strengths of learners. High-quality mentoring requires significant commitment, open communication, mutual respect, and acknowledgement of privileges and limitations (Phillips and Adams 2019). However, classical mentoring can be seen as “unresponsive to dynamics of privilege and oppression in excluding historically underserved populations from purposeful mentoring,” and mentoring opportunities may not be inclusive of all identities, particularly in predominantly White institutions (Mullen and Klimaitis 2021, 21).

Mentoring Constellations

As we have reviewed, mentoring has traditionally been conceptualized as a hierarchical relationship between an older, more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced mentee or protégé (Johnson 2016; Mullen and Klimaitis 2021). However, more recent, relational models of mentoring acknowledge the interdependent, mutually beneficial relationships between mentors and mentees and include a broader range of processes, mechanisms and outcomes (Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Ketcham et al. 2018; Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore 2023). Relational qualities of mentoring include mutual engagement, defined as shared involvement and commitment; authenticity, or developing self-knowledge and feeling the relationship is genuine; and empowerment, feeling personally encouraged to take action (Liang et al. 2002).

Furthermore, in contrast to traditional mentor/protégé models that focus on a singular, hierarchical, one-to-one relationship, relational mentoring models are conceptualized within developmental networks or constellations (Sorcinelli and Yun 2007; Vandermaas-Peeler 2021a). Recent research on mentoring constellations and developmental networks supports the utility and benefits of multiple mentors for personal and professional development (Felten and Lambert 2021; Higgins and Thomas 2001; McCabe 2016; Yip and Kram 2017).

In studying this broader constellation, Higgins and Kram (2001) developed a typology of mentoring networks based on the diversity of social systems represented within the network and the strength of those relationships. They found that mentors in networks with greater diversity and strength facilitate access to a broader range of information, often resulting in significant personal learning for the mentee. A constellation model, in which students have multiple meaningful relationships – including mentoring relationships, with peers, staff and faculty, among others who provide multi-faceted support and guidance – acknowledges the complex realities of developmental relationships and the continuum along which mentoring occurs (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021b).

Recent work on mentoring has helped us hone our definitions around processes and relationships, as well as around the functions served by and within these relationships and a set of characteristics that qualify mentoring relationships. And yet in doing so, we have opened up new areas of complexity, such as the diversity and dynamism of these relationships. Within these relational complexities, we have also uncovered the significance of not one but multiple relationships that define the space of mentoring: mentoring constellations.


1. We intentionally use the word complex, rather than complicated, two terms that often are inappropriately interchanged.

    As summarized by Theodore Kinni for business purposes, “Complicated problems can be hard to solve, but they are addressable with rules and recipes…They also can be resolved with systems and processes…The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes.”

    And as summarized by Benjamin Sangwa for scientific purposes, “The key difference between complexity and complication is that complex systems do not have defined solutions, while complicated systems do. Complex systems are often difficult to understand or predict because their behavior is emergent and not reducible to the properties of individual elements. Complicated systems, on the other hand, can be simplified by removing unnecessary elements or reducing the system to its essential components.”

    Mentoring relationships are better defined as complex rather than complicated. One of our aims is to face head on the challenges of complexity throughout our work here.


    Crisp, Gloria, and Irene Cruz. 2009. “Mentoring College Students: A Critical Review of the Literature Between 1990 and 2007.” Res High Educ 50: 525–545.

    Crisp, Gloria, Vicki L. Baker, Kimberly A. Griffin, Laura Gail Lunsford, and Meghan J. Pifer. 2017. “Mentoring Undergraduate Students.” ASHE Higher Education Report 43(1). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    Felten, Peter, and Leo M. Lambert. 2021. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Harris, Tina M., and Lee, Celeste N. 2019. “Advocate-mentoring: a communicative response to diversity in higher education.” Communication Education 68 (1): 103–113.

    Healy, Charles C., and Alice J. Welchert. 1990. “Mentoring Relations: A Definition to Advance Research and Practice.” Educational Researcher 19 (9): 17–21.

    Higgins, Monica C., and Kathy E. Kram. 2001. “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective.” The Academy of Management Review 26 (2): 264–88.

    Higgins, Monica C., and David A. Thomas. 2001. Constellations and Careers: Toward Understanding the Effects of Multiple Developmental Relationships.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22: 223–247.

    Irby, Beverly. J. 2013. “Editor’s Overview: Defining Developmental Relationships in Mentoring for Mentor/Mentee Dyads, for Mentors, and for Mentoring Programs.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 21 (4): 333–337.

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

    Keller, Thomas E. 2010. “Youth Mentoring: Theoretical Approaches and Methodological Issues.” In Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring, A Multiple Perspectives Approach, edited by Lillian T. Eby, et al, 23-47. Blackwell Publishing.

    Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, and Paul C. Miller. 2017. “Co-Mentoring Undergraduate Research: Student, Faculty and Institutional Perspectives.” Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring 6 (1): 1–13.

    Kram, Kathy E. 1988. Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

    Liang, Belle, Allison J. Tracy, Catherine A. Taylor, and Linda W. Williams. 2002. “Mentoring College-Age Women: A Relational Approach.” American Journal of Community Psychology 30: 271-288.

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    McCabe, Janice M. 2016. Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Phillips, Anji L., & Adams, Tony E. 2019. “Suitcase, Crockpot, Car: Mentoring Relationships, Cultivating Confidence, and Challenging Workplaces for the Emerging Professional.” Communication Education 68 (1): 121–128.

    Sorcinelli, Mary, and Jung Yun. 2007. “From Mentor to Mentoring Networks: Mentoring in the New Academy.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 39. 58-61.

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    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 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. July 2, 2024.