How mentoring affects academic outcomes: The role of relationship quality

airplaneBayer, A., Grossman, J. B., & DuBois, D. L. (2015). Using volunteer mentors to improve the academic outcomes of underserved students: the role of relationships. Journal of Community Psychology43(4), 408-429.

Summarized by Bridget Nestor

Introduction: School-based mentoring (SBM) refers to mentoring relationships in which mentors meet with mentees on school grounds, either during or immediately after the school day. For financially strapped school districts, SBM has the potential to provide a cost-effective way to assist and support struggling students. However, little research has been adequately conducted to understand the efficacy of SBM in improving academic outcomes, as well as the underlying mechanisms that could contribute to SBM’s effectiveness.

Rather, past research has focused mainly on community-based mentoring (CBM), or more traditional mentoring relationships that typically comprise of longer meetings between mentor and mentee and the participation in varied activities in different locations, not on school grounds. Additionally, the prior research that has been conducted on SBM has found mixed results with respect to the efficacy of SBM – some studies have found SBM to yield significantly improved outcomes for youth, while others have not. These conflicting findings are likely the result of studies with less rigorous research designs than the current study.

In the current study, Bayer, Grossman, and DuBois (2015) seek to address this gap in the literature by exploring whether SBM does yield significantly improved academic outcomes for youth, while also investigating the mediators of the effect of mentoring on youth outcomes. In doing so, the authors consider what makes for greater academic outcomes in SBM relationships – are feelings of closeness enough to produce successful academic outcomes, or do special focuses on academics within the SBM relationship lead to greater academic outcomes?

In addressing this question, the authors also strive to inform the debate between two competing perspectives in theoretical mentoring models – “mentoring-as-relationship” vs. “mentoring-as-context.” The former asserts that relationship closeness and quality are an integral precondition for positive youth outcomes in a mentoring relationship; many believe this notion to be particularly relevant for CBM, but the effects in SBM are unknown. In contrast, the “mentoring-as-context” perspective focuses more on how the mentoring relationship itself provides a space for improving skills and development while striving for specific goals, independent of the closeness within the relationship. Thus, this study measures relationship closeness and academic outcomes in SBM relationships to shed light on these points of discussion.


 Students who participated in the study were drawn from the randomized control trial of the Big Brother Big Sister Association (BBBSA) SBM program that was conducted during the 2004-2005 academic year. 1,139 students from 71 public schools in rural and urban school districts met criteria to be in the study. Half of the students were randomly assigned a mentor, while half were waitlisted to be matched with a mentor at the end of the study; there were no statistically significant differences between the two groups. 54% of the students were female and the average age of students was 11 years old. Mentors who participated in the study were also drawn from the BBBSA program. 72% of mentors were female and 48% were high school students.

Baseline surveys were administered to students, teachers, and mentors at the beginning of the school year, and follow-up surveys were also administered at the end of the school year. Measures of academic outcomes were assessed through both teacher and student ratings. Other explanatory variables were also assessed including mentee ratings of relationship closeness with their mentors, the length of the mentee/mentor match itself, and the status of the match. Match status refers to whether the original mentoring match was “intact,” the mentee had been “rematched” once a match ended, or the mentee had not been “rematched” once a match ended. 


  • Relationship closeness: only relationships which mentee rated as “somewhat close” or “very close” showed positive impacts on academic outcomes.
  • Match length: both long and close relationships as well as short and close relationships showed positive impacts on academic outcomes.
  • Match status: both intact matches and rematched students in close relationships showed positive impacts on academic outcomes. However, rematched mentees who did not feel close to their new mentors did not show positive academic outcomes.


 Above all, the findings of this study highlight the importance of relationship closeness within mentee/mentor relationships in the context of SBM. Particularly, if mentees did not find their relationship to be at least “somewhat close,” then there were no significant differences in their academic outcomes as compared to the academic outcomes of students who were not matched with mentors. Moreover, relationships closeness trumped both match status and match length as predictors of academic outcomes. Specifically, so long as relationships were deemed at least “somewhat close,” then neither the length of the match, nor the status of the match (either original match or rematch), significantly affected academic outcomes for mentees. These findings suggest that relationship closeness may be the most integral component of relationship closeness.

The current study also sheds light on the debate between the “mentoring-as-relationship” perspective vs. the “mentoring-as-context” perspective. This study found more merit in the “mentoring-as-relationship” perspective as it was relationships closeness, not a focus on academics, which led to greater academic outcomes in mentees. Future research should thus focus on how to maximize relationship closeness and how to better understand the underlying mechanisms that facilitate this closeness.

Ultimately, this study’s findings have exciting implications for schools that are looking for cost-effective ways to support struggling students. Simply by cultivating emotionally close relationships with mentees, mentors may be able to improve students’ academic outcomes. This means that volunteers need not be trained with a rigorous academic background, and that mentors might prove as beneficial as tutors to struggling students. Finally, by underscoring the efficacy of SBM, this study emphasizes the multifaceted and ever expanding effects that mentoring can have on young people.