Can grades, attendance, and life satisfaction change after just 8 sessions of school-based mentoring?: Yes!!

McQuillin S. & Lyons, D. (2016). Brief instrumental school-based mentoring for middle school students: theory and impact.  Advances in School Mental Health Promotion,  9, 2, 73–89.

(reprinted from Abstract) This study evaluated the efficacy of an intentionally brief school-based mentoring program. This academic goal-focused mentoring program was developed through a series of iterative randomized controlled trials, and is informed by research in social cognitive theory, cognitive dissonance theory, motivational interviewing, and research in academic enablers.In previous research, the program was found to produce effects on students’ math grades, life satisfaction,and disruptive behavior. In the current study, a revised version of the program was tested in a randomized controlled trial, wherein 72 middle school students were randomly assigned to receive an eight-week mentoring curriculum, or to a no-treatment control. Following the treatment, middle school students who participated in the mentoring curriculum had statistically significantly higher math grades (d = .42), English grades (d = .59), life satisfaction (d = .49), and .82 fewer absences. Small, but not statistically significant effects were also found for science (d = .25) and history (d = .15). Near zero effects were found for behavioral infractions.

(reprinted and shortened from Discussion) We found that after eight sessions of mentoring, over the course of 12-weeks, this mentoring program produced moderate positive effects on students’ math and English grades, life satisfaction, and absences. The positive impact of the intervention on life satisfaction and math grades is consistent with a previous evaluation of an earlier version of this intervention (McQuillin et al., 2015), and the extension of these effects following program revisions to English grades and absences is encouraging. The effect sizes obtained in this trial (i.e. Cohen’s d from .15 to .59) are similar to rigorously evaluated social emotional learning programs widely used in schools. For example, Payton et al., 2008 , found that the average Cohen’s d effect sizes of these programs on social–emotional and academic outcomes ranged from .23 to .60. This study provides promisingevidence that brief, instrumental mentoring programs can improve school-relevant outcomes for middle school students. We encourage researchers to continue experimentation with brief models of SBM that have clearly articulated theories and practices.

One persistent problem in SBM intervention research is the confusion surrounding what occurs in mentoring interactions and relationships. From a methodological perspective, the construct validity of SBM in recent large-scale evaluations is indeterminate because the question ‘What do mentors do with mentees?’ is unanswerable. Thus, inferences about the generalizable effects of specific SBM programs are questionable. Clear explication of theory and practices will aid researchers in testing and replicating specific program effects, and, eventually, disseminating mentoring interventions that are found to be effective. Without clearly operationalized constructs, it is impossible to replicate experiments, generalize results, and disseminate specific intervention programs.

This study extends previous work using a scientifically informed theory to guide-specific program procedures and practices that target-specific psychological and behavioral mechanisms (e.g. self-efficacy, motivation), which are malleable and associated with a range of positive student behaviors. Consistent with best practices in prevention science, the theoretical model was proposed and then refined after previous randomized controlled trials (e.g. McQuillin et al., 2011, 2015 ). We hope that by clearly articulating the theory and program practices, other researchers will replicate, extend, and test various aspects of program practices in order to refine and enhance the program’s effects.

Notably, instrumental models of mentoring do not prohibit activities that are traditionally associated with developmental models of mentoring, such as activities designed to develop a close, lasting relationship. In fact, the SBM program described in this study includes a variety of activities designed to promote a close relationship between the mentor and mentee because the quality of the mentoring relationship is theorized to be critical for helping mentees achieve their goals. Within an SBM context, brief effective instrumental models of mentoring that also include activities to develop close relationships may be an ideal ‘launch-pad’ for SBM programs with a developmental model to extend the period of the brief mentoring beyond the brief of mentoring.

SBM has seen unprecedented growth over the past 20 years; however, the growth in program dissemination efforts has preceded the establishment of a strong evidence base for this service (Cavell & Elledge, 2013). This presents mentoring researchers and policy-makers with the challenge of developing effective programs that can accommodate existing service characteristics. We believe that one way to address this challenge is by developing models of mentoring that are brief, effective, and reproducible.