Bayer, A., Grossman, J., & DuBois, D. L. (2015). Using volunteer mentors to improve the academic outcomes of underserved students: The role of relationships. Journal of Community Psychology.
Summarized by Jessica Cunningham, B.A., Research Associate, Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring
Many schools facing financial hardship are turning to low-cost ways of identifying and supporting students who are struggling academically. One method of addressing this difficulty in providing support is the school-based mentoring program. Such programs are popular interventions due to their low cost, ease of implementation, and quantifiable results in helping at-risk children improve their outcomes in terms of academics and behavior. However, it is unclear which mechanism, or mechanisms, are at work when school-based mentoring programs achieve positive results for their participants – whether the mentees’ improved grades are due to a close relationship with their mentor or the result of programs engaging them in academic activities. The researchers of the present study sought to bring clarity to the issue by looking at a large sample of students served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA).
The study was a randomized control trial of a school-based mentoring program run by BBBSA during the 2004-2005 school year. Participants were recruited from 10 agencies across the country in public schools located in both urban and rural settings. Each agency had four or more years of experience implementing mentoring programs. Participants (N=1,139) had to be entering grades 4-9 and were referred to the program by school staff. Roughly half of the students (N=565) were assigned to the treatment group to be matched with a mentor, and the other half (N=574) were placed on a wait list and were matched 15 months after the start of the study. Students, their mentors, and teachers completed baseline surveys in the fall of 2004, and follow-up surveys in the spring of 2005.
Over half (54%) of participants identified as female, and 63% were members of racial and ethnic minority groups. 69% received free or reduced lunch. Of those mentors who participated in the study, 72% identified as female, 77% were white, and 48% were high school students.
On average, mentors received 45 minutes of training before their initial meeting with their mentees. Forty nine percent of the school-based mentoring programs (SBM) had mentors and mentees meet only during the school day, Forty seven percent had matches meet only after school, while the remaining 4% had matches meet both during and after school. Most matches met three or four times a month for anywhere between 45-60+ minutes. The researchers defined 225 out of 265 of the programs in the study as “academically focused” because they devoted 25% or more of meeting time to academic activities. Programs that did not meet this threshold were defined as “relationship-only” programs.
The researchers measured overall academic performance of students by asking teachers to rate a student on their quality of work and completion of schoolwork. The researchers assessed a student’s quality of work by asking teachers to rate students on the correctness, neatness, and completeness of a child’s class work. The researchers assessed completion of schoolwork by averaging teachers’ responses to two items of in-class and homework assignments the student completed in the last four weeks.
The researchers assessed students’ scholastic efficacy beliefs by using a six item questionnaire asking a student to rate their ability to do their schoolwork.
Mentees’ perceptions of closeness with their mentor were assessed on a four point scale. In analysis, the pairs were dichotomized as “close” for one half of the scale or “not close” for the other.
Match length was defined as short (less than 12 weeks), medium (12-24 weeks) or long (24+ weeks). Match status was defined as intact if the match made at the beginning was still going at the end of the study, re-matched if one relationship ended and the student was assigned a new mentor, and no rematch if a new relationship was not started.
The researchers assessed students’ relationships with teachers using an 11-item questionnaire asking students to rate their connectedness with their teacher and relationship quality.
Of the students who were assigned to the treatment group, 75% rated their relationships with their mentors as “close” at the time of the follow-up survey. The researchers found students in the treatment condition had statistically significant improvements in overall academic performance, quality of work, completion of schoolwork, and scholastic efficacy beliefs. However, these improvements only occurred when they rated their relationship as “close;” these benefits disappeared when the relationship was “not close.” The researchers also found that these benefits occurred regardless of whether a student was in an academic-focused program or a relationship-focused one. Further, they found that students in matches that were intact but not close fared no better than their control group peers, but that students who were re-matched and close with their current mentor gained the same benefits as those in intact, close matches, regardless of program type. This is also the case in terms of match duration.
Conclusions and Implications:
The researchers in this study found that unless a mentorship pair had a close relationship, participating in the intervention had no effect on end-of-year academic outcomes. The researchers “posit that this relationship is the ‘active ingredient’ of this mentoring in the school setting.” It is commonly thought that it takes months for children to develop trusting relationships with non-parental adults in community mentoring programs, but in this program, most students felt fairly close to their mentors after only two to three months. The researchers hypothesize that “the school setting encourages children to trust unrelated adults more quickly, or children may have lower thresholds for close relationships with ‘school adults’ than with ‘community adults’.”
Additionally, this research questions the theory of “length equals strength” as students were still able to make statistically significant gains in schools even in relatively short rematch circumstances. It may be, though, that the “length is strength” theory applies to community based mentoring programs and not school based ones. Given that schools face increasing pressure due to decreasing budgets, the authors again reiterate the need for low-cost programs to help struggling students: “[W]e ﬁnd that a SBM program that aims to provide students with supportive relationships can improve academic outcomes. Not every volunteer can be a good tutor, but many of them could help students academically by being a caring presence.”