WGU Insights On Mentoring Practices –

Students have been utilizing online education for years—partly due to the convenience and flexibility of its degree programs—for their pursuits in higher education. And for many online students, the right form of mentoring becomes a determining factor in whether or not these students are successful in college.

So mentoring programs, such as the one offered by Western Governors University (WGU) play an important role. WGU’s Mitsu Phillips, director of mentoring, and Rebecca Johnston, mentoring project manager, were both honored recently by The Sloan Consortium for “Best Practices in Mentoring Online Students.”

Johnston, who started out as a mentor in 2009, said every WGU student is assigned a mentor who advises, coaches, and supports the student throughout his or her entire university experience and has weekly meetings—usually a phone call, but sometimes includes screen sharing, chats, or video conferences.

“Most of our students have some previous college experience, so we have a lot of students who are new to online education, but not new to higher education,” she said. “We have a standard process for working with new students that helps them acclimate to online education.”

This involves an orientation in which students first meet their mentors. The mentors then learn the students’ abilities and areas of need, help them select the right blend of classes, and walk them through their first course experience.

Johnston said mentoring online students is vital, partly because they can feel disconnected with the university, due to not being on campus.

“The average age of our students is 37, and the majority of our students work full time,” she said. “This means they have to balance work, home, school, and other responsibilities. It can be a big challenge for them to fit in studying.”

Johnston shared one mentoring experience in which she was on the first call with a student who said his family supported him in going back to school, but it soon became apparent that was not the case.

“His family regularly refused to support his need for quiet study time—expecting him to work extra jobs, watch the kids, and complete projects around the house when he needed to work on his schooling,” Johnston said. “We practiced conversations he could have with his family about supporting him, and we brainstormed together times and places where he could actually study.”

Citing rapport between students and their mentors as having an enormous impact on students’ outcomes, Johnston added that students who have strong relationships with their mentors are more likely to be retained and more likely to finish courses.

“Mentors can be the student’s advocate, reminding them that the sacrifice is worth it, discussing what they learned to help them stay excited about it, and encouraging them to persevere when life is tough,” she said. “I have had many students say that the mentor is their only advocate for returning to school—a sobering thought.”

Johnston said WGU spends a lot of time and resources trying to improve mentoring – reviewing what others have done and trying out the best practices as well as regularly trying new things. She said each of the more than 40 mentoring teams at WGU is currently piloting different methods.

“As we try new ideas, I ensure those pilot projects have measurable outcomes, and then I study those outcomes,” she said. “In my role, I have the opportunity to research mentoring initiatives and determine their impact on students.”

Course mentors—experts in their respective fields—are also available to provide students with group and individual help as students work through specific courses. Student success mentors help with time management, study and test-taking skills, as well as technology tutorials.

“Effective mentors are also highly responsive to students and hold students accountable for their own learning and achievement,” Johnston said. “Successful online students are independent problem-solvers.”

The mentors collect feedback from students through several methods, including surveys. Johnston said students repeatedly express gratitude for their mentors, saying the weekly calls, cards, and emails help students feel they can achieve their goals and persevere through difficult courses and challenging personal circumstances.

“A lot of universities employ advising, faculty mentoring and peer tutoring programs. In addition, successful students in both online and in-person programs often seek out mentors and work with those mentors informally,” Johnston said. “At WGU, we have just formalized something that is often an implicit part of the higher education, on-campus experience. As those experiences do not directly transfer to an online environment, we sought a creative way to help students connect with the university, feel supported, and gain perspective on their learning experiences. Students don’t always start out excited about working with a mentor; however, they end up loving the experience.”

Follow Valerie Jones on Twitter @ValerieJonesCMN