New study explores how online mentoring can benefit young professors’ professional growth

Dorner, H., Misic, G., & Rymarenko, M. (2021). Online mentoring for academic practice:  Strategies, implications, and innovations. Annals of the New York Academy of  Sciences, 1483(1), 98–111.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • There is a need for higher education institutions to utilize new strategies to help young faculty members adapt to their respective academic environments and develop better teaching skills. 
  • This study examines how online mentoring can support young professors who hold teaching positions in far away universities/colleges. 
  • Qualitative findings indicate that mentees (young faculty members) have their own ways of conceptualizing the mentoring process, the role of the mentor, and the potential benefits of having a mentor. 
  • The researchers produced a model that describes how professional development in an online faculty mentoring program can evolve. 
  • It’s recommended for new faculty members to get matched with senior faculty members who have similar teaching experiences &/or who work at similar institutions. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Our study explores online international mentoring that supports novice faculty at geographically distant universities. Interview data with 30 mentees were analyzed using an inductive analysis method to describe how online mentoring supports young academics in their development as novice teachers, and to identify how they perceive this transformative experience in their own professional contexts and how an online setting may provide a context for the mentoring experience. Analyses showed that mentees have qualitatively different conceptualizations of the mentoring process, the role of the mentor, and the transformative potential of these professional relationships. A model of transformative experiences was thus created to describe the various cycles through which professional development in an online faculty mentoring program may evolve. Beyond generic implications, the particular dimension of how physical distance impedes mentors’ authenticity in mentoring has been identified.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

A model of transformative experiences in an online faculty mentoring program

A model that describes the transformative potential of the online faculty mentoring experience emerged from the interview analysis (Fig. 1). The figure shows the three stages of transformative experiences. Novice teachers can develop within the stage at which they enter the mentoring relationship, that is, they acquire tricks to solve problems, acquire teaching strategies tailored to the audience, or develop as a reflective teacher. The learning process can move forward following the cycle. However, depending on the immediate teaching experience of novice teachers, they can also revert to any of the previous stages.

The cycle encompasses three qualitatively different variations in transformation in professional development that are in line with previous research on how academics develop over time. Much like these suggest, transformative experiences of novice faculty evolve from a less cohesive understanding of the profession, which may be characterized by an externally driven focus on performance, assessment, and achievement and by the need for acquiring teaching tricks, toward a more integrative conceptualization that encompasses cycles of acquiring strategies to teach for student learning and of becoming a reflective teacher. This latter cycle is underpinned by reflective processes of discovering an authentic voice and a growing interest in self‐growth and professional development. However, our model also reveals that the transformative experience in mentoring may be circular and can revert, particularly in academic contexts that require considerable adjustment on behalf of new faculty. Hence, novice teachers can enter the mentoring process by going through any of the stages (driven by motivations such as those discussed above), but advancement, as we assume, moves forward in a cyclical manner. This means that depending on the immediate teaching situation of novice teachers and thus the specific need for being mentored (e.g., relocation, a new course, a culturally diverse class, etc.), they may also revert to living through previous stages. Put differently, in a “crisis situation,” a highly reflective faculty may turn to a mentor seeking for tricks to solve an immediate teaching challenge. Nevertheless, faculty mentoring programs need to consider this, and (online) mentors should provide the necessary scaffolding.

General implications for mentoring programs

This study explored online faculty mentoring; however, our findings also have implications for generic mentoring practices. As demonstrated in previous research, novice faculty are more likely to experience the transformative potential of an online faculty mentoring program if it is tailored to their immediate needs. In this respect, novice faculty in a mentoring program show similarities with adult learners and thus want to solve real‐life dilemmas and apply the knowledge and skills they acquired to their professional life; therefore, mentors should consciously integrate strategies that specifically consider adult learning theories. Furthermore, to leverage the online faculty mentoring relationship, mentors should adapt the mentoring approach according to novices’ reflective skills, teaching experience, and prior preparation for teaching methods. Mentoring is a reflective dialog through which learning and transformation evolve. Hence, mentors should be able to detect the qualitatively different levels of reflectivity of mentees and use facilitation strategies that accommodate these differences and aim to scaffold individual development accordingly. Finally, novice faculty’s conceptualization of the mentoring process and the mentor, and their reflections on the transformative potential of mentoring revealed similarities. Namely, they adopted qualitatively different conceptions and approaches to their engagement in the mentoring process, which is assumed to be reflected in qualitatively different cycles of transformation in terms of professional development. This finding resonates with research on students’ approach to learning, that is, students’ conception of and approach to teaching affects the quality of their learning. Therefore, self‐evaluation and ongoing formative assessment for continuous improvement should constitute faculty mentoring strategies.

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