The Power of Daily Mentoring
- A more holistic approach to student thriving considers external factors in a student’s environment that may impact their performance. The holistic model seeks ways to support students as part of their environment, rather than assuming that a student’s failure is due to a personal deficit.
- Mentoring interactions during daily teaching and informal interactions outside the classroom, particularly when they happen on a sustained basis with multiple people, can impact a student’s external environment. Treating a student as if they belong and are capable can have a powerful effect, especially for first-generation and other underrepresented students. It can take just 1-2 minutes to create this effect regularly. Some good daily mentoring strategies are recognizing progress, framing feedback, and introducing more group messaging in the classroom.
On October 29, 2019, Dr. Becky Wai-Ling Packard, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College, presented a talk that illustrated the importance of small but sustained mentoring interactions in supporting students through academic transitions and challenging contexts.
She began her talk by illustrating a more holistic model of student thriving using the analogy of a bird species situated in three seemingly similar environments. In environment #1, this bird is plentiful and thriving; in environment #2, this bird species does not exist, although there are other kinds of birds; in environment #3, this type of bird used to be plentiful but now is only rarely sighted. If asked for some potential reasons why each environment differs in the numbers of this bird, often people will suggest external influences, such as water quality, deforestation, or competition with other birds, rather than suggesting that the bird is not motivated enough or that it doesn’t provide value, and therefore it isn’t needed in those environments.
Similarly, a more ecological model for student thriving takes into account the broader context in which students are situated and the various external influences in a student’s environment that may contribute to their performance or achievements. In the past, student-deficit models were often invoked to explain poor academic performance or development. This model suggested that if a student faced struggles, it was due to a deficit in the student themself, such as a lack of motivation, preparation, or ability. However, similar to how we would suggest external influences in the bird’s environment as responsible for the differences,, a student’s broader environment can significantly influence student success and thriving. Faculty, instructors, and staff are part of the ecosystem that students are surrounded by, and how we informally interact with and talk to students daily creates a big impact. When students face challenges academically or socially, they often question whether they are capable, valued, or wanted. Mentoring interactions are an excellent opportunity to affirm students’ value, capabilities, and humanity as they make sense of their new academic and social contexts.
With all that in mind, Dr. Packard defines mentoring as a supportive developmental relationship that grows the learner or mentee forward and involves a constellation of people and a collection of interactions. Whether or not a learner has an official “mentor” matters less than the collection of supportive interactions across a variety of people. If there is a sustained level of support by a network of individuals over time, this influences how a learner perceives themselves and how they face challenges. This, in turn, results in the positive outcomes associated with mentoring, such as academic success, better research skills, retention in major, and graduate school acceptance.
Over the years, many mentoring programs have cropped up to create an intensive and impactful mentoring experience and formalize that to deliver it to many mentees. One example is the well-known Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. However, the intensity of some programs often ends up instead making it exclusive for mentees and mentors alike when mentee participation is capped, or the expectations for mentors are too time or commitment-intensive, thus discouraging additional mentor participation. Additionally, since programs like the Big Brothers Big Sisters program are the most well-researched, frequently, these are the models available to turn to when creating mentoring models for college-age students and adult learners. What works well for 13-year-old children in certain mentoring situations may not be the best approach for young adults on career transitions, who may benefit more from a rotational model that is shorter in duration.
Dr. Packard has found that a more appropriate approach to supporting college students is to embed good mentoring practices within daily teaching and informal interactions outside the classroom (before and after class, office hours, informal lab conversations, online discussion boards, etc.) Mentoring does not necessarily have to exist solely at a program level but can work well through multiple intentional student interactions. Suppose groups across an institution can work together to point students in a similar direction so that more students receive positive interactions and messaging on a daily basis; In that case, they can have a substantial impact. For example, when a mentor treats a student like an intellectual equal and asks for their opinion on a topic, this instills a sense of confidence in the student. Someone of credibility in the field sees them as capable of contributing to the conversation, particularly for first-generation, low-income, and historically underrepresented students in STEM. When this happens on a sustained basis with multiple people, a mentee starts to believe that they are capable of contributing and behaves in ways that are consistent with that belief. This can encourage them to practice things they might otherwise avoid or stick with a complex problem.
Listed below are four suggested strategies that anyone in any mentoring capacity can use to build in these intentional interactions with learners:
Recognition can be powerful for students, especially for underrepresented students. Even one to two minutes can make a difference. For example, Dr. Packard provided the following as an example of recognition: “I noticed you really stuck with it today. It’s that kind of persistence that will pay off for you in the field.” It is recognizing a student’s progress and engaging with them in a way that shows that they belong and their perspective is valued. When students are looking to see if they might be capable in a field, it can be a powerful experience when someone credible in the field believes in them. TAs and peer mentors (when prepared) can readily recognize progress, too, as they teach and mentor when they engage with students (Pon-Barry et al., 2017). Classmates and seasoned peers can also help, making recognition an embedded strategy that can have large-scale effects when implemented regularly.
Feedback can be difficult for students to receive, but it is essential to provide it so they know how to grow. Framing the feedback so students understand its intention is a good strategy to help them process and learn from it more readily. For example, you may tell a class that you will reach out to all the students who received under a 6/10 on a quiz to discuss more. Then, explain what your performance feedback means and how they should receive it – you are reaching out to that group of students because their performance indicates that something didn’t work out for them in that particular situation, and you are here to help them figure out a plan to be better prepared in the future. Letting students know that you are here to help can provide a sense of support for students, especially when they question their belonging,
In giving feedback, you may also ask if they are willing to try new strategies. Share that you would like to brainstorm with them, and ask if they would be willing to try something different. This conveys the message that you are enlisting the other party as a partner and working together, not simply telling them what they should do.
Sharing feedback with a whole group before students receive it individually can help improve feedback uptake. By sharing the feedback collectively and explaining what it means, no student feels singled out or targeted based on some characteristic of their identity when it comes time for the one-on-one feedback conversation. Sharing with students that you believe in their ability and recognize their effort can go a long way.
Messaging the group
In addition to framing feedback, you may consider messaging the broader group. Find opportunities to embed important messaging to the whole group of students by incorporating important messages into class time or other interactions with the whole class.
A study conducted by Dr. Packard and colleagues in 2013 looked at hundreds of students in a community college and asked them to name the professor who was most influential in helping them decide to transfer to another institution. The results found that the professors who were more frequently named were more likely to embed messaging about transferring in the classroom to the whole group, while the professors who were rarely named relied more on one-on-one interactions with students during office hours. The latter group of professors still impacted students regarding transferring, but not as frequently since they were named less often. There was also no difference in overall time used for the professors who utilized more group messaging and those who relied more on one-on-one interactions.
Past research literature has shown that first-generation students, in particular, are less likely to use office hours or request an appointment with their advisor, mentor, or professor. Group messaging can be especially helpful for such students during class. Even if students don’t take you up on offers you announce to the whole group, such as a research opportunity or enrichment experience, repeated interactions like this can continue encouraging students unbeknownst to you.
Walk your spaces
As we move through a physical campus, it is important to notice who is celebrated in certain on-campus spaces. Who sees themselves reflected in those spaces? Who is using the student resources, and who is not? What has been done to change how people access those resources, and how often are the resources embedded into core activities? As a campus, we can assess our resources and ask how we can create synergies between groups on campus and bring those synergies into physical spaces to provide students with the supportive environment they need to thrive.
Dr. Becky Wai-Ling Packard
Professor, Department of Psychology & Education Mount Holyoke College
Becky Wai-Ling Packard is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College where she has served on the faculty for over 20 years. The author of Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives: A Research-Based Guide for Faculty and Administrators (Stylus Publishing), Packard has visited over 60 campuses and numerous organizations interested in improving mentoring, STEM persistence, and equity. Her research has focused on students using community college pathways, first-generation college students, low-income students, students of color, women, and nontraditional students, among others. In 2005, she was recognized with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on early career scientists. As a campus leader, she served as the founding director of teaching and learning initiatives, the director of leadership, and Associate Dean of Faculty. During the 2018-2019 school year, she served as a faculty fellow at the University of Michigan working on inclusive climate in STEM departments. A first generation college graduate, Packard earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University.
Heather Pon-Barry, Becky Wai-Ling Packard & Audrey St. John (2017). Expanding capacity and
promoting inclusion in introductory computer science: a focus on near-peer mentor preparation and code review, Computer Science Education, 27:1, 54-77, DOI: 10.1080/08993408.2017.1333270
Packard, B. W., Tuladhar, C., & Lee, J. (2013). Advising in the classroom: How community
college STEM faculty support transfer-bound students. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(4), 54-60.
Packard, B. W. (2018). The power of mentoring within high-impact practices: A focus on
low-income students. Diversity & Democracy, 21(4).