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Tiered mentoring: Engaging students with peers and professionals

Jane Fowler and Tammy Muckert
Griffith University

This paper reports on the benefits of a Tiered Mentoring Program (TMP) for upper year level students who were simultaneously involved as mentors of first year students and mentees of professionals in their field of study. The TMP was trialed across three schools at Griffith University and involved 19 upper level undergraduates, 21 first year students, and 19 mentors from relevant professional fields. Results indicated a range of benefits for the upper level students from their dual mentoring experience. Of particular interest in the current study was whether the experience of being involved in one tier of the mentoring relationship enhanced the experience of being involved in the other tier. Indeed, results indicated that this was the case. Implications of the findings are briefly discussed.

Student-mentoring programs have become increasingly popular in institutions of higher education. Generally, these programs are developed and implemented as one of two types. The first type of student-mentoring program typically involves upper year level students or university staff members mentoring first year students with the aim of assisting with their transition to university. The second type of program typically involves final year students being mentored by a professional in their field with the aim of assisting those students with the transition from university to employment. The current study reports on a third type of student-mentoring program - a tiered mentoring program - in which first year students were mentored by upper year level students, who were simultaneously mentored by professionals in their field of study.

A considerable amount of research (eg., Fowler, 2002; Kram, 1980) conducted in the organisational context has reported a wealth of mentoring benefits for both mentors and mentees. It is unclear however, whether student-mentoring programs are similarly beneficial due to the paucity of formal evaluation and research in this particular area. Given the increasing existence and support provided for student-mentoring programs in higher education, it is important that the effectiveness of such programs in terms of benefits to students is appropriately investigated. Thus, the first aim of the current study was to investigate the perceptions of upper year level students, who were in the dual roles of mentors (to first year students) and mentees (of professional mentors in their field), regarding the benefits they experienced from those relationships.

Of particular interest in the current study was whether the experience of being involved in one tier of the mentoring relationship (eg., being a mentee of a professional) enhanced the experience of being involved in the other tier of the relationship (eg., being a mentor of a first-year student). Indeed, several researchers have suggested that successful experiences as a mentee, in the organisational context, influence the ability to undertake the role of mentor (Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). Such an investigation has not been undertaken in the higher education context, and no comment has been made to date on the influence being a mentor may have on being a mentee. Thus, the second aim of the study was to investigate the perceptions of the upper year level students (who were simultaneously mentees and mentors) regarding the influence one relationship had on the other.

Benefits of mentoring first year students for upper year level students

Several reports of student-mentoring programs (eg., Gardner, et al., 1999; Goldflam, 1999; Mernagh & Crosling, 1999; Pike, Pooley, Young, Drew, Haunold, & O'Donnell, 2000; Pope & Van Dyke, 1999; Treston, 1999; Webb, 1999), that involve upper year level students mentoring first year students, indicate that mentors receive many benefits from the relationship. For example, mentors develop a range of skills (such as communication; interpersonal; leadership; group facilitation; and/or networking skills), receive a variety of extrinsic rewards or tangible benefits (including financial payment, tickets; and personal and professional development), and a range of intrinsic rewards or intangible benefits (such as increased network of friends; and feeling appreciated by first year student mentees who valued their help). These reports are limited, however, in that they provide little or no information about the methodological or analytical procedures employed.

Benefits of being mentored by a professional mentor for upper year level students

The same limitations exist regarding reports on student mentoring programs that involve upper year level students being mentored by university staff or professionals in their field. Most are reported in the form of websites and promotional material. The information included in these materials suggests that upper year level students gain a lot from their involvement in such a relationship. For example, it is reported that final year students in the Griffith University Mentoring Program ( http://www.gu.edu.au/ua/aa/ss/careers/mentoring/mentoring.html), who are mentored by experienced professionals from business and industry, gain inside knowledge of organisations, experience learning in authentic work situations, have a better understanding and clarification of relevant career aims, obtain access to professional networks, enhanced self-esteem and confidence, and find a professional role model. Overall, it is claimed that the program eases the transition from study to work for the final year student mentees involved.

Similar claims are made about mentoring schemes at the University of Melbourne ( http://www.eng.unimelb.edu.au/diversity/mentor-benefits.html) and RMIT University ( http://www.rmit.edu.au/departments/fe/mentor/benefits.htm) that match upper level engineering students with professional engineers. These schemes claim to: increase students' understanding of occupational or professional requirements; increase confidence via a mentor who has pursued a career path of interest to the mentee; and increased technical knowledge. It is unclear, however, whether such claims are anecdotal reports of potential or actual benefits from organisers or students involved in the programs, or the results of systematic evaluation.

There is no argument being offered by the authors of the current paper that these and/or other benefits do not result from involvement in student mentoring programs. We do suggest, however, that systematic investigation should be undertaken to explore mentoring benefits from the perspectives of students involved in the programs.


A Tiered Mentoring Program (TMP) was trialed across three schools in the University. The purpose of the TMP was to provide the opportunity for first-year students to be mentored by upper-level (2nd/3rd/4th year) undergraduate students, who in turn were mentored by professionals from the field of study in which those students are engaged. The program was designed to extend the provision of academic and social support to first-year students, provide personal and professional development to upper-level year students (including developing and/or strengthening their professional identity and enhancing the opportunity for employment after graduation), and strengthen University and community/industry partnerships.

Nineteen of the 38 upper-level undergraduate students who volunteered to participate in the TMP were selected to act simultaneously as mentors to first-year undergraduate students and as mentees to professionals working in a field relevant to the student's program of study. These 19 students, comprising 14 females and 5 males and ranging in age from 22 to 45 years (mean 32.94 years, SD 6.43 years), were enrolled in one of three schools in the university (School of Human Services, School of Nursing, or School of Applied Psychology).

Each participant was matched with one of 21 (18 females and 3 males) first-year students or mentees, selected from 40 who had volunteered to participate in the program. Two of the participants each mentored two first-year students. The first-year mentees ranged in age from 20 to 51 years (mean 33.71 years and SD 8.92 years) and were enrolled in the same school as the mentor with whom they were matched. The matching process was based, where possible, on age, gender, major area of study, and responses to open-ended questions that explored potential participants' reasons for nominating to participate in the program.

Each of the upper-level undergraduates was also matched with a professional from a relevant field of study[1]. For example, a student majoring in disability studies was paired with a human services worker from 'Queensland Parents with a Disability' and a student interested in clinical psychology was matched with a practicing psychologist from that area. The students met with their professional mentors on at least four occasions during the semester for sessions of approximately one hour in duration.

Before commencing their mentoring relationships, all of the student mentors and mentees participated together in a three-hour orientation and training workshop. During the session, participants worked with their mentoring partner on a range of interactive activities that assisted them to embark on their mentoring relationship, including setting goals, negotiating roles, and identifying key knowledge, skills and abilities they could utilise and develop during the program. Participants were provided with information about the importance of organising and structuring their meetings and engaging in ongoing reflection about the effectiveness or otherwise of their relationship. Each participant was provided with a manual that included information addressed during the training and orientation session and worksheets to assist in planning, conducting, and reflecting on their mentoring relationships. Although particular details were negotiated within each student-to-student mentoring relationship, students were encouraged to meet with their partner for one hour per week during semester. At the completion of the three-hour session for student mentees and mentors, the upper-level students undertook a further hour's orientation and training in regard to the relationship with their 'professional' mentors.

On completion of the workshop, the mentoring process commenced. The TMP was conducted over the course of one semester. It is important to note that it was up to each mentoring dyad to determine their goals and purposes for engaging in the mentoring relationship ('why' they would work together) and to negotiate frequency, format and other details ('how' they would work together). The underlying rationale here is that the main purposes for implementing the program (ie., to enhance the academic and social support of first year participants and the personal and professional development of the upper-level undergraduates) would be achieved through the process of negotiating, planning, and engaging in the mentoring relationships regardless of the particular goals they set or processes in which they engaged.

Program coordinators conducted two telephone interviews with participants, two and six weeks after the orientation and training session. The purpose of the interviews was two-fold: first, they provided the opportunity to monitor the mentoring relationships (and thereby deal with any issues that arose during the course of the relationship) and second, to obtain data to evaluate the program. In addition to these interviews, written qualitative data was collected at the completion of the program. Finally, a closure session comprising a focus group and informal morning tea was conducted at the end of semester.

The current study reports on data collected from the upper-level undergraduate students who were simultaneously involved as mentees and mentors in the program. In particular, participants were asked about benefits received from having been a mentee to a professional working in the field, benefits received from having been a mentor to a first-year student, and whether the experience of having been involved in one tier of the relationship enhanced the experience of being involved in the other tier of the relationship. Qualitative data was thematically analysed by two raters. Details of the systematic collection and analysis of data are available from the authors.


Benefits from relationships with professional mentors

Upper year level students reported six main benefits from the relationships they established with their professional mentors. These benefits are summarised in Table 1 below, along with sample comments from the students.

Table 1: Themes and sample comments of benefits upper year level
students obtained from relationships with professional mentors

Theme Sample comments
Developed networks and contacts
  • I benefited by gaining exposure to networking and industry developments, which has led me to explore joining committees and employment opportunities.
  • I gained access to professionals, prospective employers, future colleagues, who were willing and enthusiastic to share their experiences.
Understanding of employers' expectations
  • I gained an insight into what qualities are expected in new graduates looking for work, as well as how to stand out from other applicants.
  • I was able to find out what workplaces look for in interviews.
Clarification and knowledge about chosen profession
  • My meetings have provided me with the opportunity to clarify and understand what is involved in being a clinical psychologist, which will enable me to choose more appropriately about future career options.
  • I increased my understanding of what the realistic role of a rehabilitation counsellor was from the point of view of someone within the industry, and this has been invaluable to me as a student preparing to enter this field.
Guidance with career choices
  • The relationship enables me to talk about where I want to go in my career, concerns that I might have, and a realisation of what is achievable.
  • I received direction, tips and hints for future career choices.
Seeing issues from another perspective
  • My mentor approaches things in a very different way and exposes me to different ideas that I would not otherwise be aware of, which ultimately assists in my development as a professional and as a student.
  • I gained a broader perspective of opportunities in my field of study, which has made me realise that there are wider opportunities available after university.
Psychosocial support
  • I developed greater confidence in my ability to achieve career goals.
  • My mentor provided me with encouragement and support.

Benefits from relationships with student mentees

In addition to gaining a range of benefits from their relationships with their mentors, the upper year level students reported four key benefits from the relationships they established with their first year student mentees. These benefits are summarised by themes in Table 2 below, along with sample comments made by the students.

Table 2: Themes and sample comments of benefits upper year level
students obtained from mentoring first year students

Theme Sample comments
Opportunity to assist and/or support first year students personally rewarding
  • I felt that it was really rewarding to be in the mentor role.
  • I enjoyed being able to assist a first year student adjust to university life.
Opportunity to share knowledge and experience
  • I was able to share experiences and offer encouragement to my student mentee and I was able to learn about how another student handles their learning.
  • I enjoyed the opportunity to pass on experience learned; information from my personal experience as a first year student.
Increased self-awareness and learning about how to work with others
  • I learned something about acceptance, flexibility, and adaptation within a professional relationship.
  • I gained insight into my abilities to work with less experienced students and communicate complex ideas in an understanding way.
Personal and/or professional development in particular skill areas
  • I find that the relationship is helping me with my communication skills and self-development.
  • I have developed professionally - I am learning to facilitate.

Benefits of simultaneously being both a mentee and mentor

Of particular interest in the current study was whether the experience of being involved in one tier of the mentoring relationship enhanced the experience of being involved in the other tier. Indeed, results indicated that this was the case. Participants, who were simultaneously involved as mentees and mentors in the program, reported a range of knowledge, skills, and abilities that they perceived were transferred from one relationship to the other. Interestingly, the transfer was both ways, that is, not only did the experience of being a mentee enhance being a mentor, but the experience of being a mentor also enhanced being a mentee.

In regard to their experience of being a mentee enhancing the role of mentor, it was clear that students were consciously aware of modelling and transferring many of the behaviours and values that their professional mentors displayed. One participant summed up this awareness with her comment that "I felt that I modelled my mentor when I was with my mentee and I mean by just the way my mentor conducted the relationship, by being helpful, engaging, sharing info willingly and giving affirmations. I felt she demonstrated skills of what I evaluated as an effective mentor and I tried to model that...". Many comments were made that provided specific examples of skills, behaviours, and attitudes that were transferred to the role of mentor. Sample comments are provided below.

I was self-conscious at the start about asking my mentor questions and, realising my discomfort, I tried to make my mentee comfortable about asking questions. My mentor made me feel comfortable and I was consciously trying to do the same for my mentee... it trickled down from my mentor.

In being a mentee, I set the agenda and structure of our meetings, to determine what it was that I wanted to achieve from our meetings. I was conscious in my role as a mentor, to allow my mentee to set the agenda and structure of our meetings. This allowed my mentee to take ownership and responsibility for what was to be achieved in our meetings.

My mentor showed respect for the knowledge and experience that I had... and I adopted that same attitude in my role of mentor. I achieved this by understanding that my mentee had experiences and knowledge that could contribute and enhance our meetings by being encouraged to do so.

The 'professional air' in my relationship with my mentor rubbed off on my relationship with my mentee - before I met with my professional mentor, my relationship had been more casual. I then realised it was important for both of us for the relationship to be more professional. The relationship became more focussed than it would have been, there was less chit-chat and more focussed conversation.

I was able to share a broader knowledge base with my mentee - she asked questions about the future and the profession and I put them to my mentor and came back to my mentee with her responses - that way we were both learning from my mentor.

It is not surprising that students drew on their experiences as a mentee to enhance their role as mentor. Arguably, this could be an expected outcome of the inter-generational process of mentoring where successful experience as a mentee influences the future role of mentor (Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). What may be less expected, however, is the strong influence that being a mentor had on being a mentee. Nevertheless, several of the upper year level students commented that they were able to transfer learning from their experience as a mentor to enhance their experience of being a mentee. Several student comments in this regard are provided below.
As a mentor, I did not take control of the process or content of my meetings with my mentee. I believed that my mentee should have control of the process and content to enhance her learning objectives. I carried this concept into my role as a mentee, and I believe this was a much more rewarding experience for me, in achieving my goals.

My mentee regularly thanked me for my time, which made me feel as though she appreciated the time I was offering. This in turn made me feel appreciation for the time my mentor was offering me, so I was conscious to arrive on time, send confirmation of my visits, etc.

I made sure I was prepared for meetings with a list of topics to discuss, an agenda - I expected, as a mentor, my mentee to be prepared, so I did the same with my mentor - I made sure that the expectations I had as a mentor, were met by me for my mentor.

As a mentee, I felt obligated - I made sure I e-mailed my mentor because she was giving her time. I wanted to do the right thing by my mentor. I realised the mentor was putting themselves out for me. I realised that I was giving my time up for my mentee and putting myself out - so I then made sure I did the right thing by my mentor and respected her time.


Participants in this study identified a range of benefits from involvement in student mentoring programs. As expected, the upper year level students involved in the TMP reported gaining many benefits from their role as a mentee. Arguably, these benefits are all considered components that enhance students' professional identity and their opportunity for employment after graduation. Importantly, these results support and extend those reported regarding other student mentoring programs.

In addition, although not designed with the primary aim of benefiting the upper year level students, the student mentors reported gaining many benefits from their relationships with the first year students. It is important to recognise that the benefits of mentoring do extend both ways, as found in the organisational literature (Fowler, 2002). The value of this finding should not be underestimated in the implementation of student mentoring programs, where it may be difficult to recruit student mentors willing to give of their time to such programs. Further value may be added by tying in the knowledge, skills and abilities obtained from mentoring to various course components (eg., assessment that involves reflection and evaluation of students' role as a mentor to first year students as part of the students' development of generic skills).

It is also clear that the experience of simultaneously being involved as a mentee and as a mentor in a tiered mentoring relationship was valuable for students. Participants were clear about the direct and immediate impact one relationship had on the other, and the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities that were transferred. This is an important aspect of mentoring that should be considered by institutions planning to implement or further develop student mentoring programs. It is possible that the nature of the 'tiered' mentoring relationship provided an experiential learning experience for students whereby they were able to immediately apply their learning from one relationship to the other. To follow Kolb's (1984) cycle, students were able to reflect on their experience of mentoring from one tier of the relationship and develop generalisations and principles about mentoring. After considering how they would implement those learning in future mentoring situations, they were provided the opportunity to immediately apply them to the other tier of the relationship.

The results and associated implications identified in this study support the development and implementation of student mentoring programs in institutions of higher education. In particular, the findings suggest there may be added value in introducing tiered mentoring programs, where students are provided the opportunity to generalise and immediately apply and transfer their mentoring experiences.


  1. Upper-level students in the School of Nursing undertook a different process. Rather than being matched individually with mentors from the field, they chose to meet as a group with six different mentors (from different areas of specialisation) over the course of the semester.


Fowler, J. L. (2002). Mentoring relationships at work: An investigation of mentoring functions, benefits and gender. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Griffith University.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kram, K. E. (1980). Mentoring processes at work: Developmental relationships in managerial careers. Dissertations Abstracts International, 41, 05B(UMI No. 8025206).

Gardner, J., Kendall, D., & Kendall, L. (1999). University of Tasmania Mentor Scheme: An evaluation. Unpublished.

Goldflam, B. (1999). Changing the culture. Student mentoring in Engineering. Paper presented at the 2nd Regional Conference on Tutoring and Mentoring, Perth, Western Australia, September 30th to October 2nd, 1999. http://about.murdoch.edu.au/star/conference_proceedings/papers/Goldflam.pdf [viewed 1 Feb 2000, verified 6 June 2004].

Mernagh, D. & Crosling, G. (1999). Review of 1999 student mentor program. http://www.buseco.monash.edu.au/Registrar/Reviews/99mentrev.html [viewed 7 Dec 1999, not found 6 June 2004].

Pike, L., Pooley, J., Young, A., Drew, N., Haunold, S., & O'Donnell, J. (2000). An evaluation of the peer mentoring program. Edith Cowan University: School of Applied Psychology.

Pope, G., & Van Dyke, M. (1999). Mentoring.... value adding to the university. Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association, 13, 15-27.

Ragins, B. R., & Cotton, J. L. (1999). Mentor functions and outcomes: A comparison of men and women in formal and informal mentoring relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 529-550.

Ragins, B. R., & Scandura, T. (1999). Burden or blessing? Expected costs and benefits of being a mentor. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20, 493-509.

Treston, H. (1999). Shifting paradigms in mentoring programmes in higher education. Paper presented at the 2nd Regional Conference on Tutoring and Mentoring, Perth, Western Australia, September 30th to October 2nd, 1999. http://about.murdoch.edu.au/star/conference_proceedings/papers/Treston.pdf [viewed 1 Feb 2000, verified 6 June 2004].

Webb, C. (1999). Academic Development Unit. The first two years. A report on activities: 1998-1999. Richmond: Academic Development Unit, Centre for Higher Education Development, University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury.

Authors: Dr Jane Fowler
Griffith Institute of Higher Education & School of Human Services
Griffith University, Nathan QLD 4111
Phone: 07 3875 6816 Fax: 07 3875 5998 Email: j.fowler@griffith.edu.au

Dr Tammy Muckert, Learning Services, Griffith University

Please cite as: Fowler, J. and Muckert, T. (2004). Tiered mentoring: Engaging students with peers and professionals. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/fowler-j.html

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