Mentoring and the science of wise interventions

By Jean E Rhodes

In recent years, my colleagues and I have been studying the consequences of unequal mentoring opportunities in the U.S. Drawing on large, national data sets, we have found that marginalized students are less likely to report having any kind of mentor and less likely to say that a high school teacher or coach was particularly important to them. This mentoring gap is enormously consequential—those with mentors are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and obtain a Bachelor’s degree (Raposa, et al., 2017; Hagler et al., 2017; Christiansen, et al., 2017). Likewise, we are finding that, although having a mentor in college, knowing teachers, and being engaged in faculty around shared interests is associated with later life and career satisfaction (Gallup, 2015), more marginalized students are less likely to find mentors during college (Raposa et al, 2017). Although such findings are discouraging, they also suggest a promising point of intervention. Perhaps targeting the psychological processes that prevent students from reaching out to available adults is a key lever that could help narrow educational disparities.

The Connected Scholars (CS) program, originally developed by Professor Sarah Schwartz and colleagues and extended into a  semester-long course by researchers at iRT, is a case in point. Through this intervention, disadvantaged students are provided with information about the value of mentors and a context for learning and mastering the skills for recruiting help, so as to become “mentor magnets.” A recent evaluation of an abbreviated version (four 1-hour classes) of CS among first-generation college students participating in the summer between high school and college showed significantly higher first-year college GPAs a year later, as well as closer relationships with instructors, increased networking and support-recruiting behaviors, and decreased help-seeking avoidance, relative to a comparison group ( Schwartz, 2017).1










1Schwartz, S., Kanchewa, S., Rhodes, J., Gowdy, G., Stark, A., Horn, J., Parnes, M., Spencer, R. (in press). “I’m having a little struggle with this, can you help me out?”: Examining impacts and processes of a social capital intervention for first-generation college students. American Journal of Community Psychology.

An experimental evaluation of CS is underway, and variations of this youth-initiated mentoring model  have also been shown to lead to improvements in a range of academic and career outcomes (Millenky, Schwartz, & Rhodes, 2013; Schwartz, et al., 2013; Spencer, Tugenberg, Ocean, Schwartz, & Rhodes 2014).  Given that CS is relatively short term, focused specifically on the processes thought to impede mentor access, and effective, it fits the criteria for what researchers are calling “wise interventions.” In his 2014 article, “The new science of wise psychological interventions,” Stanford researcher, Gregory Walton, described three factors that set wise interventions apart from others. This includes

  1. Wise Interventions are Psychologically Precise

“A wise intervention begins with a specific, well-founded psychological theory. This theoretical precision allows researchers to create a precise tool, often instantiated in a brief exercise, to change a specific psychological process in a real-world setting.”(Walton, 2017).

In the case of CS, researchers drew on social capital theory and the findings that marginalized students have less access to networks of helpful adults and fewer skills and expectations regarding and value of such support when they encounter difficulties.

  1. Wise Interventions target recursive processes to cause lasting change

“Wise interventions can improve outcomes for years….[they] change not a moment in time (“a snapshot) but a process that unfolds over time “a movie”” (Walton, 76)

As Walton describes, wise interventions are “recursive”–that is, they target critical processes that become self-reinforcing and strengthens with practice over time.  Consider again CS. Over the course of the 4 sessions, students learned how to identify helpful adults in their networks and practiced strategies for connecting with them through role-playing and real-world conversations. Exposure like this shifts students’ orientation from avoidant to engaged–shaping the mindset and skills that will be reinforced in each subsequent setting they encounter. In this way, CS redirects the natural proclivities that put students at a disadvantage and creates a new narrative and basis for understanding everyday struggles and solutions. These recursive psychological and social processes are amplified over time, as students gain mastery and confidence in the benefits of mentors and social networks and the skills to recruit them (Walton, 2014).

Interestingly, this notion of a recursive process has implications for the more common, short-term experience of being paired with a mentor (i.e., as in the traditional friendship model).  Traditional mentoring introduces students to a supportive adult who provides new experiences, but might only indirectly change the underlying psychological and social processes that gave rise to their disadvantages (McCord, 1978). Moreover, when the intervention is built around the experiences provided by a time-limited volunteer, there is the potential of disappointment and loss when it ends (Grossman et al., 2012). Targeted interventions like CS, are more robust because they are designed to target specific psychological processes and create recursive dynamics (Walton, 2014). Depending on the needs of the youth, other mentoring interventions that target processes (e.g., Lunch Buddies, Fostering Healthy Futures, Becoming a Man) are likely to lead to more sustained change. More generally, the mentoring field would do well to embrace and dynamically deliver several of the growing number of “wise interventions” that target underlying processes and difficulties.

3. Wise Interventions are context dependent—not silver bullets

“Because wise interventions target specific psychological processes and recursive dynamics, they will not always produce the same effects.” (Walton, 2014)

Walton notes that wise interventions, must be wise to the the population and context. This means it must matter in the setting at hand (e.g., if students already have plenty of social capital, CS will not improve their academic outcomes), and that students actively engage in and practice the skills (e.g., recruiting mentors) in the context of their specific surroundings. When delivered early, such interventions can alter recursive processes in ways that affect long-term outcomes. As mentioned, a brief exposure to CS delivered the summer before college appears to have interrupted students’ longer term cycles of risk and vulnerability.

Of course, interventions like CS also depend on resources being available in the context. As Walton concludes, “If a social-belonging intervention generates lasting gains by helping students to form better relationships, its effectiveness will depend on the possibility of forming these ties…removing psychological barriers to learning will benefit only those students with access to adequate learning opportunities.”

This, of course, underscores the need for creating relationship-rich settings and opportunities, where there are ample opportunities for students to access a network of caring adults.