Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Dr. Heidrun Stoeger on Online Mentoring for Girls in STEM, the ‘Mentoring Paradox’ and the need for Ongoing Program Evaluations

Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Dr. Heidrun Stoeger on Online Mentoring for Girls in STEM, the ‘Mentoring Paradox’ and the need for Ongoing Program Evaluations

Interviewed by Selen Amado

Dr. Heidrun Stoeger, PhD, is a full professor for educational sciences at the University of Regensburg, Germany. She is the Chair for School Research, School Development, and Evaluation, the Vice President of the International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence (IRATDE) and directs numerous grant-funded research projects. She has published more than 250 articles, chapters, and books on giftedness, self-regulated learning, motivation, fine motor skills, identification, and teacher education, and iscurrently directing three mentoring projects looking at complementary aspects of mentoring. In this interview, we asked her about insights and implications of her recent work on mentoring for girls in STEM, the ‘Mentoring Paradox’, the importance of program evaluations and the future of the mentoring field.

Chronicle: Can you tell our readers about your background?

Heidrun Stoeger: I first earned degrees in mathematics and psychology and then went on to complete my dissertation in psychology. I did all of my undergraduate and graduate work at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where I also completed my postdoctoral research accreditation or Habilitation in psychology and educational sciences, which is essentially a second PhD that researchers who intend to become professors traditionally complete in Germany. After shorter stents as postdoc at Ulm University and as professor at the University of Koblenz, I became permanent head of and full professor at the Chair for school research, school development, and evaluation at the University of Regensburg.

In the past 20 years, I’ve been able to do work on various topics in education and psychology. My key lines of inquiry are situated in self-regulated learning, STEM education, girls and STEM education, and mentoring. I am currently directing three mentoring projects looking at complementary aspects of mentoring. I am directing two of the projects with my colleague and longtime collaborator Prof. Drs. Albert Ziegler from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Chronicle: What are the mentoring projects you are currently working on?

Heidrun Stoeger: The mentoring program that Drs. Ziegler and I have been implementing and studying the longest is CyberMentor. We’ve been continuously operating the program since 2005. The program’s objective is getting girls excited about STEM. Female students aged 12 to 18 are matched with a mentor for at least one year. The mentors are women who have studied a STEM subject in college and are working in a STEM profession. As finding sufficient appropriate female mentors who live close to the girls in the program is often not possible, the mentors and the mentees interact with each other exclusively online, on our dedicated members-only mentoring platform. Each year, as many as 800 girls and 800 women from all over Germany are active in CyberMentor. In addition to the one-on-one mentoring experience, it is important to us that the participants also network. The CyberMentor platform facilitates collaborative networking interactions between all participating mentees and mentors. The combination of one-on-one mentor–mentee interaction and community activities ensures that participating girls engage with two types of role models, experienced female mentors who are successful in a STEM field and other female peers who have similar interests in STEM. In both the one-on-one mentoring and networking, the program provides the participants with activities that allow them to discuss STEM topics and work together on STEM-related projects.

We’ve taken a research-based approach to the program. My conviction has always been that the long-term quality of our program depends on our scientific evaluation of the program. While adding this layer of oversight has made implementing CyberMentor more expensive and time-consuming, it has been essential. Only with the ongoing insights of our accompanying program of scientific research have we been able to ascertain that the program is effective—our randomized control-group studies indicate that it is—and allowed us to improve on how we implement the program from year to year. I’ll provide a few examples of our research. With the help of longitudinal studies, we’ve looked at participating girls’ developmental trajectories on academic elective intentions (for future classes in school and for university studies), STEM activities outside of their classes, and STEM self-efficacy and self-concept. To find out whether the propitious changes we were seeing could be attributed to the mentoring program or were an artifact of our sample of especially interested girls in STEM, we attempted to disentangle the causality by comparing the developmental trajectories of our participants against those of girls in a randomized waitlist control group. The individuals in this group had also registered for participation and expressed the same interest in STEMM as the participants, but were only allowed to start the program one year later. We also compared the developmental trajectories of our participants and the waitlist control group with a randomly selected sample of same-age boys and girls from across Germany. We found evidence that CyberMentor was effective at getting girls excited about STEM, whether they came in with average or very high levels of STEM interests.

So those findings relate to the general effectiveness of CyberMentor. They are crucial findings for our accountability. All they tell us, however, is that our program achieves its primary objective, getting girls excited about STEM. In the past 16 years, we’ve also looked at the contributions made by various factors to mentoring success. In our studies, we’ve investigated relationship quality, how strongly participants identify with the online community, and the influence of how participants communicate and network with one another. With quantitative text and network analyses, for example, we were able to show that girls who wrote more about STEM-related topics, had larger STEM-focused networks on the platform, and held a more central position within those networks profited more from the mentoring experience in CyberMentor. We also took a close look at the different mentoring formats we’ve used in the program. Since 2005, we’ve run various versions of the program and successively employed one-on-one mentoring, group-mentoring, and hybrid-mentoring formats (i.e., combining the first two). Right now, my team and I are investigating the real-life choices made by former participants of CyberMentor. We are collecting data on how many former mentees went on to study a STEM subject at university and how many of them ended up going into a STEM profession after college.

So CyberMentor is the project that got my colleague Drs. Ziegler and I hooked on mentoring research and practice, you can say. Once we saw that CyberMentor was a viable educational tool and research opportunity, we decided it would be important to branch out and develop additional, complementary best-practice, best-research mentoring programs for other groups of students in the regular school context. Our project Individualization Through Mentoring has been running for three years now. Eighty schools from across Germany are participating. We work with the schools on implementing, scientifically monitoring, and improving their individual mentoring concepts. The project is being funded for a ten-year period by the German Federal Ministry of Research, and the long-term perspective is important in light of what we intend to accomplish. We are investigating how effective mentors are at working with their mentees to plan, implement, and continuously optimize individualized learning pathways on the basis of an extensive program of ongoing developmental diagnostics. The program for developing learning pathways is provided by us, but it is adapted to the schools’ individual needs and resources. A particularly rewarding part of this program is the close collaboration between school educators and university researchers. The teachers who are working with us are amazing. In Germany, teachers typically spend 40+ hours teaching and preparing their classes. The teachers involved in the Individualization Through Mentoring program are taking time for the program over and above their regular work commitment. They are highly motivated, effective teachers. What their schools lack nevertheless are the research and development competencies that our team brings to the table. It is a great pleasure to see the synergy arising from a room full of mentoring researchers and passionate, engaged teachers.

Chronicle: Can you tell us about the Global Talent Mentoring program that you created?

Heidrun Stoeger: Global Talent Mentoring is a worldwide online mentoring program in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the medical sciences (STEMM) catering for the world’s most outstanding, most highly motivated youths around the age of 16. Over the past four years, my team and I at the University of Regensburg conceptualized and created the program from the ground up for the program’s full sponsor and owner, the UNESCO-recognized Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation for Distinguished Academic Performance (Dubai, UAE). We work with a network of dozens of partner institutions in more than 30 countries that nominate highly promising young talents as mentees and help us recruit outstanding, inspiring STEMM experts as mentors. The nominated mentees are invited to complete a central application, and we select the most promising applicants to join Global Talent Mentoring as mentees. The mentees can remain in the program—which thanks to the Hamdan Foundation and the volunteer mentors is free—for up to a decade as they complete high school and progress through their tertiary education and towards excellence in a given STEMM domain. The program commenced operation in 2021 with a pilot round with 120 mentor–mentee dyads, which my team and I are scientifically monitoring. A key concern of the program is making optimal talent development possible independently of mentees’ cultural and financial circumstances. With this in mind, the research will assess not only success factors but also the role of cultural factors. We are very curious to see whether and, if yes, how cross-cultural matching of mentors and mentees—the rule in Global Talent Mentoring—affects mentoring outcomes.

All three mentoring programs that I’m directing stress environmental aspects. Mentoring is always contextual. While this may strike some, nowadays, as commonplace, a look at the meta-analytical literature suggests that the context specificity of mentoring has traditionally been overlooked. We are starting to understand that effective mentoring isn’t focused on the mentees, but on the mentees and their environments and how the two components coevolve. I am happy to see a reorientation towards a more holistic approach taking place in the field. In our research, we’ve seen that the social networks in which the mentees are embedded are decisive for the success (or lack thereof) of mentoring.

Chronicle: How did you get involved in the mentoring field?

Heidrun Stoeger: My entrée into mentoring research came via my research focus on gender equality in education, especially in STEM. As a young education professor in Germany in the early 2000s, I was taken aback that even when girls and young women were doing equally well or even better than their male counterparts, they often didn’t dare to choose STEM majors when they entered college or the labor force.

When it started in 2005, CyberMentor was not the first initiative seeking to give girls a leg up in STEM. Our review of the evidence at the time indicated, however, that the earlier programs were not achieving that goal. My colleague Drs. Ziegler and I realized that one factor hampering earlier programs was a tendency to oversimplify the mechanisms behind gender differences in STEM. Gender differences in STEM reflect a complex web of circumstances. They cannot meaningfully be reduced by short-term interventions (e.g., a coding summer camp for girls). Our understanding as researchers told us that effecting substantive, lasting changes in how girls think about STEM and whether they choose STEM would require long-term personalized educational interventions that target various causes for gender differences in STEM. Mentoring was an educational option that could achieve this, we felt. Our accompanying program research of the last 16 years has provided evidence to support our thinking.

I took over the helm of the Chair for School Research, School Development, and Evaluation at the University of Regensburg in 2007. By that time, I was already quite invested in my mentoring research work. For me, this was really great timing, because I wanted to understand how our society can deploy mentoring in scholastic contexts. More specifically, I wanted to investigate how pupils’ learning and motivation can be positively shaped through mentoring and how school-based mentoring can open up new pedagogical approaches to educators in schools. The remit of the chair I was asked to direct allowed me and my team there to develop a long-term program of research on mentoring and its employment in schools. This work is ongoing and closely linked to my grant-funded mentoring projects.

Chronicle: What do you think are the implications of your findings on group mentoring in your study of online mentoring for girls in STEM?

Heidrun Stoeger: Our findings show that the mentees in CyberMentor who participated in a hybrid mentoring format that combined one-on-one mentoring and group mentoring communicated the most on STEM topics and created more extensive STEM-related networks. Both the communication and networking behaviors influence positively the mentees’ developmental trajectories on various mentoring outcomes (e.g., academic elective intentions, certainty about career plans). The findings corroborate those published by other researchers who have shown that important success criteria for females in STEM include role models who are successful in STEM, age-similar STEM-positive role models, and the creation of STEM-focused networks with both groups.

Chronicle: What is the mentoring paradox, and why is it important to address it?

Heidrun Stoeger: The mentoring paradox is a turn of phrase that my colleague Dr. Ziegler and I recently came up with to characterize our impression of the unnecessarily large gap between the potential and reality of mentoring. We know that mentoring can be one of the most successful pedagogical tools. The rationale is strong for why close guidance given by a more experienced, trusted individual in a long-term one-on-one relationship with a learner should be effective. Moreover, research done in the 1980s by Benjamin Bloom provides empirical support for this rationale. Yet meta-analyses of studies of mentoring programs remind us that formal mentoring programs typically achieve low to moderate effect sizes. In some cases, even negative effect sizes have been documented. Should researchers or practitioners overlook the headline message of the meta-analyses—that a lot of mentoring is not very effective—I think it is quite possible that mentoring programs might be set up and implemented that are too simplistic to have a good chance of being effective. Program designers might, for example, assume that simple friendship models provide a sufficient basis for a mentoring program, which they do not. Will a series of informal chats with a well-meaning adult with no special knowledge of STEM help your daughter to develop a STEM mindset and a positive view of herself as being competent in STEM? Probably not! Making formal mentoring programs effective is complicated and expensive.

Publications such as the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring are helping to spread the word about what effective mentoring entails. Such publications help researchers, policymakers, educators, and mentoring practitioners to understand and then avoid being tricked by the mentoring paradox. You can sum this up in the following way: The idea of mentoring proposes a great solution to various educational issues such as developing talent or overcoming educational inequality; a concrete mentoring-based solution is thus a good idea, but a hard, not an easy solution to realize.

Chronicle: Why are ongoing evaluations in mentoring programs important? How can programs facilitate high-quality evaluations?

Heidrun Stoeger: Various aspects need to be considered simultaneously; I’ll just point out two here. Evaluations are a conditio sine qua non: Without a proper evaluation of a program’s effectiveness, you cannot know whether changes observed in participants were caused by the program. For a researcher, this point should be obvious. In reality, it often gets overlooked. We cannot simply assume that programs will have some nice outcomes. They sometimes even have negative outcomes! Appropriately designed control groups should be used to ascertain whether positive effects observed after a period of involvement in a mentoring program can be attributed to the program. Those positive effects might very well be reflecting other factors, for example a self-selection bias of the individuals who sign up for a given mentoring program. Ideally, waitlist control groups should be used. That way, the individuals who are randomly selected to not receive the mentoring experience (the waitlist control group) can receive and hopefully profit from the program later on. However, even if a mentoring program is effective, as with any discretionary investment of public or private funds, the size of the effect and the return on investment are  important and must be regularly re-evaluated. Should a program lead to positive effects, an ongoing program of formative process evaluation can help to continuously improve the program and increase its effectiveness even more. A formative evaluation is an excellent means of identifying a program’s strengths and weaknesses in order to build on the former and mitigate the latter.

Chronicle: Where do we go from here with mentoring research?

Heidrun Stoeger: My impression is that ever more credence is being given to research. This is good. Yet a lot of the research findings on mentoring have been generated in the context of specific mentoring programs. It is, of course, important that existing mentoring practices are carefully analyzed. We need to understand their mechanisms of action in order to build on existing practices. In my opinion, an optimal future direction for our field would be to pursue an additional, complementary approach. Mentoring research should turn its attention increasingly to developing “ideal” mentoring practices and programs. With that I mean the development of mentoring practices in light of scientific interest. In other words, I would like to see more space being created within the science of effective mentoring for a sort of blue skies research within the field. While mentoring research will always remain an area of applied research, we mentoring researchers need to remind ourselves to sometimes take a step back from our programs and funding targets and to think critically about leveraging the insights of education, psychology, and the behavioral sciences more generally to continue to work out the mechanics of the most effective means of mentoring. Such insights can help practitioners to use mentoring to its fullest extent to address developmental and learning needs that we maybe even cannot yet envision.

Dr. Stoeger’s articles featured on our website: