Infants’ first attempts in learning to walk are characterized by enthusiastic, wholehearted, but unbalanced steps that frequently result in many falls. Learning this novel skill is influenced by the child’s developmental history, or prior experiences, such as being held in similar positions, and their supportive environments, which help motivate infants to get back up after inevitable falls and keep trying. Eventually, infants learn to use their new walking skills to solve interesting and relevant problems concerning surrounding objects or people.

Regardless of the learner’s age, the content or skill being learned, or the context in which learning occurs, learning happens because a learner connects something novel to their prior experiences, knowledge, and skills in order to solve a relevant problem. The components explained above regarding how infants learn to move also apply to how we learn throughout a range of new experiences across the lifespan, and it can provide a useful framework when applied to mentoring relationships in higher education contexts, which I explain further below.

1. Developmental Histories

A first goal in mentoring involves investing time early on to get to know mentees and helping them understand their own developmental histories regarding the mentoring relationship. A significant part of learning involves being able to relate the new information or context to prior experiences and knowledge.

One way to support this is to encourage mentees to reflect on how their prior experiences or coursework may relate to key concepts, principles, and overarching themes of the mentoring relationship (e.g., Rendón 2008). For example, an extraverted student from a large family may feel comfortable presenting takeaways from their internship in a public setting, or a student who has completed coursework in research methodologies may have an improved understanding of their own mentored research project. Tapping into our mentee’s developmental histories can help both mentees and mentors create more supportive environments in which mentees can thrive.

2. Supportive Environments

For many mentees, college is the first time they must balance competing interests, demands, and responsibilities. Many are still learning how to do this and sometimes need help maintaining a sense of well-being and wholeness. These obstacles may be even more exacerbated for mentees from historically excluded or underrepresented backgrounds. Thus, a second mentoring goal could prioritize balancing high expectations to challenge mentees while maintaining a supportive learning environment with appropriate emotional supports. It is important to show genuine care and empathy not only for mentees’ inner emotional worlds, but also based on systemic inequalities students face in higher education as a result of their group membership(s). Helping mentees learn to maintain well-being and wholeness may involve learning who the mentee is more personally, helping them find or create spaces where they can thrive at their current institution, and helping them develop meaningful professional direction for life after graduation. Normalizing help-seeking, guiding students to appropriate resources (e.g., counseling services or identity-linked campus support centers), and helping them consistently keep their attention fixed on their goals will help them realize the truth that their goals are within reach.

A few ways to build trust and create a supportive environment include beginning each mentoring meeting with a brief check-in (e.g., how their weekend went, whether they have questions, etc.), modeling healthy vulnerability (e.g., a mentor sharing their own prior experiences), or providing pre-planned scaffolded steps to help mentees gradually work towards larger goals (e.g., Shanahan et al. 2015). If traditional assignments are used with the mentoring work, they could also be coupled with more human-centered, reflective journals, which allow mentees to share their motivations, experiences, and reactions while working on their projects (e.g., Thurman and Vandermaas-Peeler 2023).

3. Solving Relevant Problems

By first aiming to understand who mentees are, then by creating a supportive atmosphere, mentors can work towards supporting mentees in engendering competence – that is, engaging in learning experiences in ways that are meaningful to them. Our academic interests are deeply rooted in our identities, experiences, and backgrounds. Thus, a third main goal of mentoring can involve challenging students to learn disciplinary skills and knowledge for application to real-world problems faced by members of their communities or disciplines. When mentees learn new information or skills, they are better equipped to tackle problems themselves. For mentees, this builds confidence, growth mindset, and resilience and helps them become better able to solve problems and improve not only their own lives but also the lives of people in groups or communities they care about.

This can be done by emphasizing evidence-based approaches in improving quality of life and expecting mentees to engage with scholarly literature in their academic areas. Mentors can incorporate assignments designed to elicit exploration of how academic knowledge and skills apply differently in various communities. For example, my mentees and I have critically explored classic scientific approaches to studying language development, which have recently been shown to overlook important differences in children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g., Sperry, Sperry, and Miller 2019). Approaches like this could help students understand the importance of using a strengths-based framework to contextualize the experiences of diverse groups they care about, while also helping students acknowledge systemic barriers that affect various underserved groups differently. These important insights help students – especially those from privileged groups – adopt values that build community at local, national, and global levels, and equips them with the knowledge required to offer respect, solidarity, and support to marginalized groups while we all work collaboratively to solve social problems and improve quality of life for all humans. 

In conclusion, it is important to point out these factors related to infants’ and mentees’ learning – developmental histories, supportive environments, and an emphasis on application to interesting and relevant problems – can occur in contexts that are not necessarily led by infants’ parents or students’ mentors but are more so coordinated by them. Collaboration within mentoring relationships will be explored more deeply in a future blog post. By rejecting hierarchical models of mentor-mentee relationships and instead emphasizing mentees’ own responsibility and opportunities for collaboration, mentors can create empowering learning environments in which all participants use their knowledge and skills to interact effectively with others and enact meaningful change in areas they care about.


Rendón, Laura I. 2008. Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.  

Shanahan, Jenny Olin, Elizabeth Ackley-Holbrook, Eric Hall, Kearsley Stewart, and Helen Walkington. 2015. “Ten Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 23 (5): 359–376.

Sperry, Douglas E., Linda L. Sperry, and Peggy J. Miller. 2019. “Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds.” Child Development 90 (4): 1303-1318.

Thurman, Sabrina L. and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler. 2023. “Adaptive Undergraduate Research Mentoring in a Constellation Model.” Perspectives on Undergraduate Research Mentoring 11.1. Special issue on “Continuity of Undergraduate Research Mentoring during Times of Uncertainty.”

Sabrina Thurman is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, she is highly invested in working to increase access to higher education opportunities for historically underserved or excluded persons. She is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that build belonging, while maintaining a strong sense of personal identity, and that improve experiences for all people of varied intersecting identities. She serves as a seminar leader of the 2023-2025 Center for Engaged Learning seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite This Post

Thurman, Sabrina. 2023. “Learning through Mentoring: Lessons from the Earliest Phase of Life.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. August 22, 2023.