I have a few [mentors] that have just been absolutely phenomenal. I would say that mentoring has been the cornerstone of my Elon experience. I didn’t expect that when I came in, but I have been absolutely overjoyed with the amount of guidance that I feel and support that I felt like I’ve had. … [My mentor] is incredible … and really great in her field and knows so much. And so every time we talk, I leave with more questions than answers .. like my brain is exploding. She does a really awesome job of letting me explore things on my own while still giving me guidance. And at first that was really intimidating, but I think the more we work together, the more I appreciate it because it allows me to be more of a self-starter, which is going to serve me later on really, really well.

Perspective of a mentee

What it means to be a mentor, I think, is to have a relationship with another person in which you have their best interests and their learning, growth, and development at heart, and that through that relationship, you are attempting to guide, advocate for, or support them in that growth and development. And I guess I should say that as they have defined it, not as I am imposing it.

Perspective of a mentor

What does it mean to be a mentor? What are the characteristics of developmental mentoring relationships in higher education? These quotes represent the perspectives of two participants who, along with over 100 other student, staff, and faculty participants, reflected on their mentoring relationships as part of an ongoing study for Elon University’s ACE Mentoring for Learner Success project (see also Vandermaas-Peeler 2021a; 2021b). During the interviews, students identified their need for a wide range of mentoring supports, including emotional, cultural, career-focused, and social, as well as academic support and encouragement for the particular challenge of moving from comfortable, safe intellectual spaces to less familiar contexts that extend boundaries and foster deep learning. As one student commented, mentors “push me to get out of my comfort zone and try those scary things.”

Although educators struggle to define mentoring and elucidate the complexities of mentoring models and practices, it is generally agreed that mentorship requires a balance of challenge and support to foster learning and development (Crisp et al. 2017). Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1980) conceptualized learning within a zone of proximal development (ZPD), in which learners can advance to greater levels of achievement and understanding through the guidance of a more experienced peer or adult. The amount of assistance required to support the learner’s proximal development depends on individual factors as well as the social, cultural, and environmental contexts in which learning occurs. In one interview, a psychology major defined mentoring using the ZPD framework:

I think to be a mentor is to have a support system in place and have someone who is, maybe, more of an expert in something than you, leading and guiding and teaching you so that you can adopt some of that expertise and so that you have a buttressed system when learning, and you are able to take a more hands-on approach … like the zone of proximal development where there are some things that maybe I or someone that I would mentor might not be able to reach without that extra push. And so it’s working together to achieve something that might be outside of the mentee’s original capabilities and kind of pushing that into their new comfort zone.

Traditionally, the role of a mentor has been conceptualized within a hierarchical model in which one mentor, the expert, imparts wisdom to one mentee, the novice (Mullen 2016). This unidirectional mentoring model has been challenged as failing to capture the complexity and reciprocity of developmental relationships (Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Johnson 2015; Mullen 2016). Indeed, collaborative, co-constructed learning features prominently in a Vygotskian paradigm, aptly captured in the above student’s description of mentoring within a ZPD as, “it’s working together.” In social constructivist frameworks, learners collaborate to build shared knowledge and understanding, and learning is conceptualized as a community-oriented, active, and social enterprise (Rogoff 1990). Through sustained mentoring of learning in context, new members of learning communities gradually gain skills and knowledge in communities of practice, or CoP (Lave and Wenger 1991). This model has been applied to mentoring of undergraduate research (UR), as students are introduced to disciplinary knowledge through joint participation and sustained guidance from their peer and faculty mentors, eventually building professional skills, knowledge, and identities within the CoP (Brew 2006; Vandermaas-Peeler 2016). This collaborative mentoring model contests some of the basic assumptions of a traditional hierarchical model (e.g., one mentor as omniscient expert) without devaluing the role of expertise in supporting students’ learning.

In a recent keynote at Elon University’s Conference on Engaged Learning, Nancy Budwig challenged higher education professionals to reconceptualize students’ learning within a relational developmental paradigm (see also Budwig and Alexander 2021). Rather than focusing on “learning by doing,” in which mere participation in an activity is a sufficient condition for significant learning, she advocates a shift towards “learning to participate” via situated learning that “includes the adoption of the practices, beliefs, and values of a knowledge community” (Budwig 2013, 41). Building on the CoP model and decades of scholarship in the field of developmental science, Budwig reminded us that “general knowledge stems from acquiring both the habits of mind and repertoires of practice that develop from participation in knowledge-building communities” (Budwig 2013, 41). Implicit within a relational developmental framework is the critical role of developmental mentoring relationships to facilitate deep learning in authentic contexts. As members of diverse knowledge-building communities, mentors in higher education have a unique and invaluable opportunity to support mentees’ development of personal and professional habits of mind and repertoires of behavior.

A constellation model, in which students have multiple meaningful 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 (see also Vandermaas-Peeler 2021a). Rather than expecting one mentor to fulfill all the mentoring functions, students identify a constellation of mentors through their varied academic, cultural, and social experiences. The following quote encapsulates some of the benefits of multiple mentoring relationships from the perspective of an undergraduate:

I like that they each do their own little thing for me. I have my people who are a bit more professional and academic and people who are a bit more social and emotional, help me in that regard. Also, I think it’s just healthy to develop multiple relationships and not be reliant on one person, to not overwhelm them. But also, that’s just how life works, I think. And so it’s been nice. They all provide some different insight and sometimes I’ll take part of something that one of them says and something that another one of them says, and that’s what I go with. So, it’s nice to just have different perspectives.

Learning to navigate multiple perspectives is one of many benefits students in our study associated with having a constellation of mentors. They appreciated opportunities to work with peer mentors through campus organizations, staff mentors in contexts such as on-campus employment, and faculty mentors, often identified in their courses or sometimes through participation in high-impact practices such as undergraduate research and internships. These developmental mentoring relationships facilitate the development of knowledge and skills within and across multiple contexts (Vandermaas-Peeler 2015).

High-quality developmental mentoring relationships require a sophisticated balance of challenge and support. Some mentors navigate this complexity by blending instrumental mentoring focused on professional and career development as well as disciplinary methods and practices together with psychosocial and relational mentoring in support of personal and emotional development (Allocco and Fredsell 2018; Idris and Dahal 2021; Kram 1988; Schenk et al. 2021; Vandermaas-Peeler et al. 2015; Vandermaas-Peeler et al. 2018). Relational perspectives expand traditional mentoring models through an inclusive focus on reciprocity, power dynamics, and the role of the cultural and social contexts in which mentoring occurs (Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Mullen 2016). Ragins (2005, as cited in Fletcher and Ragins, 2007) originally defined relational mentoring as “an interdependent and generative developmental relationship that promotes mutual growth, learning and development within the career context” (Ragins and Fletcher 2005, 10). Relational mentoring accentuates the role of power with, focused on mutuality, rather than a hierarchical model of power over (Fletcher and Ragins, 2007). A relational mentoring perspective thus complicates traditional notions of “support,” moving beyond Kram’s (1988) characterization of psychosocial mentoring focused solely on the personal development of a mentee or protégé, to an interactive model that includes all members of mentoring relationships. Mentoring is viewed as a complex reciprocal and mutually beneficial process, as described vividly by one student in our study:

I think, as students, we do bring something to the table of reframing how [mentors] think about things … We’re all from different places. We have different life experiences and sharing those. And we can tell when it’s not mutual, we really can. And when that respect doesn’t go both ways. I think also, the reciprocity. Students don’t want to feel like all they’re doing is asking a bunch of questions and then, almost, we’re like taking from them too much. And I think there has to be that connection. There’ve been people who, just because you’re the advisor for a role, doesn’t mean you’ll become a mentor if that connection, that relationship, isn’t there.

As evidenced throughout the scholarly literature and supported by the interviews in our project, mentoring relationships support learning and development within and across a wide variety of domains and contexts (Allen & Eby 2011; Johnson 2015). Within developmental mentoring relationships, mentors offer a balance of challenge and support, expanding students’ learning opportunities to develop, in Budwig’s words, new habits of mind and repertoires of behavior. To capture the complexities of mentoring relationships, we must move beyond the one-mentor model and acknowledge the importance of multiple mentors’ instrumental and relational support of student learning in myriad authentic contexts.

In the coming months, we’ll share more stories and findings from the ACE Mentoring for Learner Success Lab as we work to develop recommendations in support of the vision of Boldly Elon, that all students will learn to build developmental constellations that include peers, staff and faculty, as well as others beyond the university. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions, which you can send to me at vanderma@elon.edu or to mentoring@elon.edu.


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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.

How to cite this post

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. (2021, September 1).  Mentoring for Learner Success: Developmental Mentoring Relationships [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-for-learner-success-developmental-mentoring-relationships