Guiding the Adult Student's Academic Journey: Mentoring

by Barbara Spadaro

Learning can be viewed as a complex and often convoluted process in which teachers and students struggle to reach common ground in unfamiliar territory. Students, to the frustration of their teachers, may often advance and retreat erratically in their academic progress, or fail to advance despite demonstrated ability. Often, students get sidetracked or overwhelmed by personal issues, stalling their academic careers despite the best efforts of the classroom teacher. In a new book, Mentoring Adult Learners, A Guide for Educators and Trainers, Community College of Philadelphia English professor Norman Cohen offers what may be an antidote to these academic problems by outlining the roles and behaviors of teachers and students engaged in mentor/mentee relationships.

As Cohen focuses on the adult learner, both in educational and corporate settings, his ideas hold much promise for developmental educators. He states that the interaction between the adult learner and the mentor is a partnership. Mentor and mentee make a developmental journey in which the mentee is encouraged and challenged to reach stated goals, and in which the mentor functions as a confidant and role model. Mentoring relationships, which may last as long as a year, are based on mutual consent and follow agreed upon rules and strategies to achieve specific behavioral objectives. Because these relationships are committed and ongoing, they differ from interactions with school counselors or advisors, which usually only last long enough to resolve immediate or short term difficulties.

In Cohen's model, mentoring relationships occur in distinct phases, during which specific mentor behaviors can be used to best advantage. In the early phase, trust is established as the basis for the mentor mentee relationship. As this relationship progresses, it reaches a middle phase, during which the mentor gathers information from the mentee in order to provide advice and guidance. The later phase often contains what Cohen calls "a confrontive dimension to elicit an appraisal by mentees of their own self limiting strategies and behaviors." (p. 16).

The key to establishing the first and critical period of mentoring is developing a bond of trust between the mentor and the mentee. Cohen advises mentors to be empathetic. He outlines five empathetic behaviors that mentors should employ: 1) responsive listening, 2) open ended questioning, 3) descriptive feedback, 4) perception checks, 5) nonjudgmental responses. He also notes that nonverbal cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and posture, if used correctly, can help enhance the mentee's comfort and thus foster trust.

After a safe psychological climate has been created for the mentee, he or she will begin to confide in the mentor about the fears, goals and problems that surround the task of learning. Facts uncovered at this stage will help the mentor guide the mentee during later stages, when goal setting and problem solving come to the fore.

The facilitative dimension of mentoring is the next logical step that engages mentor and mentee. Cohen suggests several ways in which a mentor may guide mentees "through a more comprehensive and reasonably substantive review of currently held views regarding their education..." (p. 61). These ways can include asking hypothetical questions and presenting multiple viewpoints. Asking the mentee "What if....?" questions can, according to Cohen, "create a simulated reality for the mentee to consider as a reference point for projecting into the future." For example, the mentor may ask an aspiring nursing school candidate to consider the options should he or she not be accepted into school. Asking such hypothetical questions can help the mentor assess how realistic the mentee is in setting goals. In addition, Cohen offers strategies for gently challenging mentees' assumptions and encouraging them to review without bias their level of commitment and their reasons for pursuing goals.

If the mentee's goals seem out of line, or if they are confounded by the mentee's unproductive behavior, a gentle but clear confrontation may be appropriate. However, Cohen warns that the mentor should be very aware of the mentee's psychological state; constructive criticism will only work if the mentee is ready to accept it. The goal of this criticism is to encourage the mentee to make behavioral changes— a difficult and sensitive task.

Another way to encourage mentee growth, says Cohen, is for the mentor to share personal experiences that may provide real life examples that pertain to the mentee's situation. This tactic will also promote trust and may encourage a faltering mentee to take necessary risks. Cohen states that "the mentor's self-disclosure contains power because of its ability to reinforce a credible competency-oriented model of continual learning —of goals pursued despite individual uncertainties, obstacles, and setbacks." (p. 98).

The process that mentor and mentee go through, while at times intense, is transitional. Its goal is similar to that of developmental education: self sufficiency for the mentee. In the last phase of the mentoring relationship, the mentor should focus on reinforcing skills and attitudes that enhance self sufficiency. In this phase, many behaviors of earlier phases may still be used, particularly the facilitative function andbehaviors that foster mentee confidence. But now, Cohen advises, the mentor should focus on the mentee's capacity to go it alone. He notesthat "an important assumption of mentoring is that a long term friendship is not the direct goal of a mentoring relationship...separation may be viewed as a natural ending to a relationship that was always about the increasing independence of the mentee."(p 120).

Mentoring for Adult Learners also provides practical ideas for implementing mentor programs and a scale for evaluating the reader's potential to function as amentor. Cohen's experience in working with underprepared students in the CAP program shows clearly in his book and offers much insight that Developmental educators will find useful.

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