In 2020, Elon University became one of ten institutions in the inaugural cohort of the American Council on Education (ACE) inclusive learning community called the Learner Success Lab (LSL), with an institutional focus on Mentoring for Learner Success. Elon’s 2030 strategic plan, Boldly Elon, calls for the adoption of a groundbreaking mentoring model in which all students will learn to build meaningful mentoring constellations that include near peers, staff, faculty, and others beyond the university. Although mentoring has long been conceptualized as a traditional one-to-one hierarchical model, a mentoring constellation, defined as the set of relationships an individual has with multiple people who support and advance their personal and professional development, captures the authentic complexities of social relationships (Higgins and Thomas 2001; Sorcinelli and Yun 2007; Vandermaas-Peeler 2021a).

What, exactly, 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 be a mentor becomes obfuscated.

The lack of clarity about the definition and key characteristics of mentoring stems in part from the complex and overlapping nature of developmental relationships in higher education. Indeed, being a mentor is often conflated with other student- and learning-centered relationships such as advising, coaching, tutoring, and supervising, among other roles. To avoid this confusion, Johnson (2016) suggested that mentoring relationships be considered along a continuum rather than as a distinctive category. He encouraged a shift in thinking about mentoring, such that it “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” (Johnson 2016, 28). In order to support high-quality mentoring relationships at Elon University and enact a strategic plan with the ambitious aim for all students to build mentoring constellations, we must elucidate the critical functions and characteristics along the continuum of mentoring as a developmental relationship (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021b).

As one component of the year-long self-study research conducted in 2021, we were charged—along with our ACE Research Working Group collaborators, Tim Peeples and Joan Ruelle—with defining mentoring in the Elon context. We began by identifying and reviewing a core set of resources on mentoring, focusing on comprehensive literature reviews of definitions, conceptual frameworks, characteristics and functions of mentoring and other developmental relationships, and studies in higher education. After a collective review of the core resources, all of which conclude that there is not one accepted definition of mentoring, we each began drafting a definition to fit Elon’s context. We engaged two students as partners in this work, Alanis Camacho-Narvaez and Jordan Young, who also reviewed core resources and wrote definitions. We compared our definitions, scrutinized them against the literature to identify overlaps and omissions, and spent the next few months reviewing and refining a short definition as well as accompanying materials in this definition package. We obtained extensive feedback in multiple meetings with others in the campus community (including a campus-wide conversation) and revised accordingly.

As part of an integrated set of recommendations to be considered by a future implementation team, we recommended that the Elon community adopt and consistently apply a common definition of mentoring relationships that offers clarity about what constitutes a mentoring relationship within a continuum of other meaningful relationships in a supportive, relationship-rich context. We believe other campuses also would benefit from this work.

In summary, the following definition was generated out of an extensive review of extant theory and scholarly research, further refined through interviews and surveys conducted with the Elon community, and iteratively tested and revised in response to extensive feedback.

Mentoring relationships are fundamentally developmental and learner-centered. Within Elon’s relationship-rich campus environment, mentoring relationships are distinct from other meaningful relationships in that they:

  • Promote academic, social, personal, cultural, and career-focused learning and development in intentional, sustained, and integrative ways;
  • Evolve over time, becoming more reciprocal and mutually beneficial; and
  • Are individualized, attending to mentees’ developing strengths and shifting needs, mentors’ expertise, and all members’ identities.

Although mentoring sometimes is conceptualized as a one-to-one hierarchical relationship, mentoring relationships function within a broader set of relationships known as a mentoring constellation. The number and nature of specific relationships within these mentoring constellations vary across individuals, time, and contexts, with different mentors and peer mentors offering varied forms of support and expertise. As a result, mentors play significant roles serving one or more mentoring functions, though few mentors will serve all mentoring functions.

We also created an annotated version of this definition for greater transparency of the foundational literature on which it is based, as seen below.

An Annotated Definition

Elon University’s full ACE LSL report includes a comprehensive “definition package” comprised of an interrelated set of materials that offer context for the conceptual framework of mentoring constellations, including:

  • A Definition of Mentoring Relationships in the Elon Context
  • An Overview of Relevant Research
  • An Annotated Definition
  • A Relationship-rich Map of Mentoring
  • Composites and Maps of Undergraduate Students’ Mentoring Relationships

In our final report, we concluded that a constellation model in which students have multiple meaningful relationships, including mentoring relationships, with peers, staff, and faculty, among others who provide multifaceted support and guidance, acknowledges the complex realities of developmental relationships and the continuum along which mentoring occurs. In this model, mentoring relationships become one of many kinds of relationships that, together, provide a supportive context for learning and development. 

Mentoring relationships are sustained, developmental, and learner-centered. It is imperative that we scaffold opportunities for students to develop agency to build mentoring relationships throughout their time at Elon, through diverse pathways in the curriculum and co-curriculum. A mentoring constellation framework fits our institutional context and offers opportunities for mentors to connect with and support each other and their mentees.

How might a mentoring constellation framework support your own institution’s goals for fostering students’ meaningful relationships that promote academic, social, personal, cultural, and career-focused learning and development?

You can find more information about our project and mentoring resources, including the complete definition package and our final report, on the Mentoring for Learner Success website.


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). John Wiley & Sons.

Eby, Lillian T., Jean E. Rhodes, and Tammy D. Allen. 2010. “Definition and Evolution of Mentoring.” In Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring, A Multiple Perspectives Approach, edited by Tammy D. Allen and Lillian T. Eby, pp. 7- 20. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Fletcher, Joyce K., and Belle R. Ragins. 2007. “Stone Center Relational Cultural Theory.” In The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by Belle R. Ragins and Kathy E. Kram. 373-399. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Higgins, Monica C., and David A. Thomas. 2001. “Constellations and Careers: Toward Understanding the Effects of Multiple Developmental Relationships.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22(3): 223-247.

Johnson, W. Brad. 2016. On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, 2nd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis. 

Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, Heather Fitz-Gibbons, and Helen Walkington. 2018. “Co-Mentoring in Undergraduate Research: A Faculty Development Perspective.” Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, edited by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore: 155-179. Washington, D.C.: Council for Undergraduate Research.

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

Mullen, Carol A., and Cindy C. Klimaitis. 2019. “Defining Mentoring: A Literature Review of Issues, Types, and Applications.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1483(1): 19-35.

Sorcinelli, Mary Deane, and Jung Yun. 2007. “From Mentor to Mentoring Networks: Mentoring in the New Academy.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 39(6): 58-61.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021a. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Conceptualizing Constellations.” Center for Engaged Learning. February 18, 2021.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021b. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Developmental Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning. September 2, 2021.

Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is a Professor of Psychology who came to Elon University in 1995.  Her scholarly interests include children’s learning in collaborative, authentic experiences; adult guidance of children’s inquiry and discovery; sociocultural and global contexts of learning; and undergraduate research mentoring. Maureen co-led the Center’s 2014-2016 research seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Maureen is now serving as the Director of Elon’s new Center for Research on Global Engagement, and in this role she fosters the scholarship of global engagement on campus and with national and international collaborators.

Jessie L. Moore is Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric. With Peter Felten, she edits the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching and the Center for Engaged Learning Open Access Book Series.

How to cite this post

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, and Jessie L. Moore. 2022.  “Mentoring for Learner Success: Defining Mentoring Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. April 6, 2022.