Defining Mentoring Relationships

A Definition Package

The Research Working Group, including Jessie Moore, Tim Peeples, Joan Ruelle, and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, was charged with defining mentoring in the Elon context. The “definition package” comprises an interrelated set of materials that offer context for the conceptual framework of mentoring constellations. Considering each of the materials in relation to the other components of the definition package is critical for developing a full picture of mentoring at Elon.


We began by identifying and reviewing a core set of resources on mentoring, focusing on comprehensive literature reviews of definitions, conceptual frameworks, characteristics and functions of mentoring and other developmental relationships, and studies in higher education. After a collective review of the core resources, all of which conclude that there is not one accepted definition of mentoring, we each began drafting a definition to fit Elon’s context. We engaged two students as partners in this work, Alanis Camacho-Narvaez and Jordan Young, who also reviewed core resources and wrote definitions. We compared our definitions, scrutinized them against the literature to identify overlaps and omissions, and spent the next few months reviewing and refining a short definition as well as accompanying materials in this definition package. We obtained extensive feedback in multiple meetings with others in the campus community (including a campus-wide conversation) and revised accordingly.

The definition package developed by the Research Working Group includes the following (described in more detail in the final report on pages 35-50):

  • A Definition of Mentoring Relationships in the Elon Context
  • An Overview of Relevant Research
  • An Annotated Definition
  • A Relationship-rich Map of Mentoring
  • Composites and Maps of Undergraduate Students’ Mentoring Relationships

A Definition of Mentoring Relationships in the Elon Context

Mentoring relationships are fundamentally developmental and learner-centered. Within Elon’s relationship-rich campus environment, mentoring relationships are distinct from other meaningful relationships[1] in that they:

  • promote academic, social, personal, cultural, and career-focused learning and development[2] in intentional, sustained, and integrative ways;
  • evolve over time, becoming more reciprocal and mutually beneficial[3]; and
  • are individualized, attending to mentees’ developing strengths and shifting needs, mentors’ expertise, and all members’ identities.

Although mentoring sometimes is conceptualized as a one-to-one hierarchical relationship, mentoring relationships function within a broader set of relationships known as a mentoring constellation[4]. The number and nature of specific relationships within these mentoring constellations vary across individuals, time, and contexts, with different mentors and peer mentors offering varied forms of support and expertise. As a result, mentors play significant roles serving one or more mentoring functions, though few mentors will serve all mentoring functions.


  1. Other meaningful relationships include teaching, supervising, coaching, and advising. These relationships can evolve to become mentoring relationships but they are not inherently mentoring (e.g., Mullen & Klimaitis, 2021).
  2. These functions align with prior scholarship on mentoring (e.g., Kram, 1988; Crisp et al., 2017) and were identified by interview and survey participants as outcomes of their mentoring relationships at Elon.
  3. Reaffirming prior scholarship on mentoring (e.g., Fletcher & Ragins, 2007; Ketcham et al., 2018), interview participants emphasized that mentoring becomes reciprocal and mutually beneficial, thought what that reciprocity looks like varies by context.
  4. Interview and survey research illustrated that, within their mentoring constellations (Sorcinelli & Yun, 2007), students turn to different mentors for different support functions.

Brief Overview of Research

Mentoring has gained prominence in higher education as a critical component of student success during and after college. Benefits of mentoring relationships include enhanced personal and professional learning and development, as well as greater engagement at work and increased well-being post-graduation (Gallup Inc., 2014; Vandermaas-Peeler et al., 2018). The role of effective, high-quality mentoring has received significant attention with the increasing emphasis on students’ participation in high-impact practices designed to facilitate cumulative learning and engagement. Mentoring has been linked to a variety of academic outcomes such as persistence and grades, as well as developmental outcomes contributing to students’ academic success such as college adjustment (Crisp et al., 2017). Although seldom studied, there are also benefits for mentors in higher education, including personal satisfaction and fulfillment, professional rejuvenation, and networking (Johnson, 2016). Eby et al. (2008) suggest a developmental lifespan approach to the study of why mentoring matters, to understand the full breadth of mentoring benefits.

What, exactly, does high-quality mentoring entail? Despite over four decades of research on mentoring, there is no universally accepted definition (Mullen & Klimaitis, 2021). Ubiquitous use of the term has not only created definitional and conceptual confusion, but also an “intuitive belief” that mentoring is a panacea for a wide array of personal and professional challenges in a multitude of settings (Eby et al., 2010, p. 7). Without a clear definition, our understanding of what it means to be a mentor becomes obfuscated.

The lack of clarity about the definition and key characteristics of mentoring stems in part from the complex and overlapping nature of developmental relationships in higher education. Indeed, being a mentor is often conflated with other student- and learning-centered relationships such as advising, coaching, tutoring, and supervising, among other roles. To avoid this confusion, Johnson (2016) suggested that mentoring relationships be considered along a continuum rather than as a distinctive category. He encouraged a shift in thinking about mentoring such that “Mentoring is not defined in terms of a formal role assignment, but in terms of the character and quality of the relationship and in terms of the specific functions provided by the mentor” (p. 28).

A constellation model, in which students have multiple meaningful relationships, including 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. In order to support high-quality mentoring relationships at Elon University and enact a strategic plan with the ambitious aim for all students to build mentoring constellations, we must elucidate the critical functions and characteristics along the continuum of mentoring as a developmental relationship (Vandermaas-Peeler, 2021).

Relationship-rich Mentoring Map

The graphic depicts three kinds of valued relationship spaces (mentoring relationships, other meaningful relationships, and supportive context) defined by a set of relational measures (mentoring characteristics and functions), each depicted on a sliding scale from less to greater.

  1. The upper-right of the graphic marks the space of mentoring relationships. In that space, there could be a variety of relationships, but all would be marked by individual relational measures that tended, in general, towards the “greater” end of the scale.
  2. Moving toward the bottom-left away from the mentoring relationship space, the graphic marks the spaces of other meaningful relationships. These spaces recognize a variety of other important relationships within the relationship-rich educational environment that aid student development and offer important forms of support.
  3. Finally, the bottom-left of the graphic marks relationships that may be less significant independently but are part of a broader, supportive context. Much of the literature on mentors and mentoring addresses the value of (a) a broader institutional culture that values relationships, (b) the individuals that make up and activate those cultures, and (c) the opportunities for and development of the individuals within, as well as the institution as a whole. This third relationship space may include less well-developed relationships, but as in the case of a residence hall, they can provide a broad supportive context.

Relationships matter, across the board. The Relationship-rich Mentoring Map helps us understand, value, and differentiate the wide range of meaningful relationships that characterize a relationship-rich educational environment, while also distinguishing mentoring relationships as special and significant among other meaningful relationships.