Mentoring: Small Acts That Go a Long Way

Steve Volk, January 29, 2018

I’m pretty sure that my primary work in the “Article of the Week” is to remind educators of what they already know. I know that I certainly could use frequent and repeated reminding. All this by way of reporting on one of the many sessions I attended at the just-concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington DC. (Truth be told, I escaped at one point to visit the Renwick Gallery’s absolutely marvelous exhibit of 19 miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Not to be missed!).

The presenter at this particular session was José Antonio Bowen, the president of Goucher College. I’ve heard Bowen speak a number of times before and knew that I would be in for a treat. A former jazz pianist who has appeared around the world with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, leader of the José Bowen Quartet, composer of symphonies (one nominated for a Pulitzer), multiple recordings (including a “Jazz Shabbat Service,”) a degree in chemistry from Stanford, the inaugural Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown, Dean of Fine Arts at Miami, author of hundreds of scholarly articles, and numerous books, including the award-winning Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningOK, you get the idea. No matter what you’ll do in your entire career, he’s already done more. On stage – and he’s often on stage even when he’s not – he’s part carnival barker, part preacher, part your favorite high school science teacher.

Combining personal stories and insights drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Bowen’s talks are filled with broad observations about where we are (and where we should be headed) as educators, and specific tips on how to improve teaching and learning. What makes his observations more fun is that, as president of a small liberal arts college, he actually has a place to bring his ideas to life.

Example of former: Learning is all about change and readjusting assumptions, not about accumulating information. At the end of the day, your smart phone is still smarter than you are.

Example of latter: When returning papers to students, hand them back with comments on them, but not the grades. Post the grades to Blackboard (or whatever LMS you use) a few hours or a day later. It’s a simple way to help students focus on the comments you have written rather than having them immediately turn to the last page, look for the grade, and ignore your input.  (Not, I’m sure, that any of our students would do that!).

Bowen also happens to be a data freak: Goucher has done away with standard distribution requirements but, among the courses that all students must take are two semesters of data analytics. His action directives, not surprisingly, are data driven even as his argument in Teaching Naked is all about not letting technology get in the way of teaching and learning. Teaching, he argues, is a design process. Whereas we, the faculty, begin with content and a love of our subject, students are on the outside, and our first task is to motivate them, encouraging them to “fall into our content” by helping them become more relaxed and engaged around our content. Anyway, to get back to the point, as the president of a college he vacuums up every piece of data he can get his hands on to make informed decisions designed to augment student success at Goucher. Like these:


Question one: Which first-year student do you think is least likely to graduate on time: the one assigned to live in a single room, or the ones in doubles, triples, or quads? The answer is upside down on the bottom of the page. No, actually it’s here (and based on the date he collected): students living in single rooms in their first year are less likely to graduate on time than the other students. Why? Loneliness is among the most frequently reported mental health issues of incoming students. This is a problem that has increased year by year. There are many reasons for this but one, referenced by Bowen, is that today’s students “take their friends with them” when they leave high school, i.e., they remain in constant communication with their high school buddies either by text or voice. Those students in singles are least likely to make new friends and, therefore, are at risk of being most isolated and lonely, something that will impact their overall well being and chances at success. (It’s also why those in quads are most likely to finish on time.) So, as a college president, do you try to drive admissions by acquiescing to parent demand that their children be given the single rooms they desire (since they have never had to share a room) and therefore increase single-room inventory? Or do you respond to what the data says about student success and reduce the number of single rooms at the risk of crimping admissions? (For Bowen, you do both: educate parents and reduce the number of singles.)


Question two: Who is more likely to graduate on time? A student in a dorm room at the end of the hall from the bathroom or one who is closest to the bathroom? By now, you know the answer: the one who is farthest away. (Oh, the joys of data!) Why? No one knows for sure, but Bowen suspects it’s because those at a greater distance from the bathroom have more opportunities to meet their hall-mates and make friends as they drip their way back to their rooms from the shower.


Student Outcomes and Faculty Inputs

It’s interesting to think of how small, data-driven changes (“nudges,” he calls them) can improve student outcomes. But the main point I want to stress from Bowen’s talk is the importance of two factors that, students report, have had a very strong impact on their lives after graduation:

  • having a professor who cared about them as a person, one who made them excited about learning, and,
  • having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams,

A variety of different studies have come to similar conclusions, the Gallup-Purdue polling from 2014 being the most frequently cited one. Gallup-Purdue created an index to examine the long-term success of graduates as they pursue a good job (understood as the degree to which they were “engaged at work”) and a better life (degrees of “well-being”). They defined the latter as “the combination of all the things that are important to each individual… how people think about and experience their lives,” and to get at these factors they posed ten questions in each of five areas:

  • Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
  • Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life.
  • Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
  • Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community.
  • Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.

I’m not here to judge the validity of their conclusions – they based their findings on interviews of 30,000 graduates – and I won’t presume to evaluate the nature of the “well-being” categories they have constructed. But from a layperson’s perspective, they seem adequate for the task. So, what do they find?

In the first place, they found that the odds of being engaged at work are:

  • 2-times higher if the student had a mentor who “encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”
  • 1.9-times higher if their undergraduate professors “cared about me as a person.”

Finally, if employed graduates (the study only examined graduates who were employed) had professors who cared about them as a person, who made them excited about learning, and they also had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled. (A troubling data point: only 14% of graduates could claim all three.)

In terms of well-being, college graduates who felt “supported” during college (i.e., they experienced professors who cared about them and made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) were nearly three times as likely to be thriving as those who didn’t feel supported. (And now for the depressing news: in the 2010-2014 cohort, only 3% of those interviewed claimed to be thriving in all 5 “well-being” areas (as compared, for example, to 26% in the 1960-1969 cohort).

In case you were wondering, it hardly mattered what kind of college or university one attended: results were almost exactly the same in every category (public, private not-for-profit, selective, US News top 100, etc.) except for being significantly lower in the private for-profit sector. (And, not to overlook a very important factor, only 2% of those who graduate with more than $40,000 in debt were defined as “thriving”.)

Small Interventions, Big Differences

The authors of How College Works (Harvard 2014), Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, reported very similar results based on a longitudinal (1999-2010), multimethod study of just one college, Hamilton. Consistent with the Gallup-Purdue study, and quite similar to Bowen’s argument, one of the authors’ central conclusions is that “relationships are central to a successful college experience.” The most important relationships are those of friends (house them in triples and quads – and far away from bathrooms!! – rather than isolating them in singles), good teachers, above all in the students’ first years in college (“when good teachers are encountered early, they legitimize academic involvement”), and mentors.  Chambliss and Takacs define mentorship as a “significant personal and professional connection,” that lasts more than just one course or semester. Mentors cannot be assigned and are not the same as advisors (although they can overlap), most often are teachers or coaches, come about only by mutual consent (this is a relationship that both mentor and student want), and often “blur the distinction between professional and personal concerns.”

The authors further explored the importance of the impact of personal (outside-of-class) connections  between instructors and students, relying on a study by Shauna Sweet that looked at seven years of Senior Surveys (2,018 respondents) compiled by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium of colleges. The surveys asked if students had ever been a guest in a faculty member’s home and if, given the chance, would choose again to attend their college. Sweet found that a positive response to the first question was correlated to a higher response in the second. Not content with correlations, the authors subjected the data to more rigorous statistical analyses, ultimately concluding that visiting a professor’s home had a greater statistical impact on whether they would choose again to attend the same college than if their GPA was raised from a B- to an A-, and that this result persists years after the student graduated.

So, should we all be inviting students to dine with us? “Our point,” Chambliss and Takacs write, “isn’t that all professors should be inviting students to their homes. It’s that remarkably small actions can at least potentially produce huge results, noticeable even years later.”

José Antonio Bowen covered the same ground in his presentation at the AAC&U. In his case, he argued that that faculty should try to be at their students’ lacrosse games or theater performances. I don’t disagree, but what Bowen seems to overlook (and what Chambliss and Takacs better account for) is that as much as faculty and staff would like to do these things, the reality of their lived lives has changed exponentially from 50 years earlier (when, you will remember, student “thriving” was much higher). Today’s faculty, and here allow me some over-generalizations, are less likely to live close to campus, are more likely to be in a family or relationship where all the adults work, and surely are facing an increased work load. I would have loved to go to more field hockey games, or to have invited many more students over to dinner. But where does the time for these come from?

This is where I think that a stiff drink of Bowen needs to be followed by a Chambliss-Takacs chaser: the point is not that you should beat yourself up because you couldn’t get to a student’s recital (after all, you’re teaching 80 students that semester) it is that:

  • small actions can produce huge results;
  • having a professor who cares about students as individuals, and who can make them excited about learning is so critical; and,
  • mentorship is essential for all students: being the person who believes in you, the student, who will give you the honest advice you need, who will tell you that you have what is needed to succeed when so much is in doubt.

See, I told you that all I really do is remind you of what you already knew. So, as you approach the beginning of a new semester, think about the small actions you can take that can produce big results in your students’ future. If it’s attending a basketball game, great; if inviting some for dinner, also good. But support and caring can be shown in a myriad of ways, and they make a difference. The research, and our own observations, tells us that.

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