What are you talking about?!: New study links conversation topics to outcomes in mentoring programs.

By Jean Rhodes

In their latest study (excerpted below), research Michael Lyons and his colleagues have taken an important step forward toward shedding light on the so-called “black box” of mentoring programs.

As Lyons, the PI, recent told the Chronicle, “This study was led by one of our fantastic doc students, Noor Alwani (who is also a student member of the national mentoring resource center’s research board) and I think the results make an important contribution in at least two ways.

First, from a prevention perspective, it does appear that mentors may be able to flexibly support youth needs and strengths given that variety of topics mentors and mentees discussed over the course of the school year.

Second, results suggest that mentors may have differential impacts on outcomes depending on what is discussed during the relationship. This finding is important for those evaluating mentoring programs because it suggests that the question “did the mentoring program work (or not)” is not sufficient. Instead, we must be asking questions like “what are the intended outcomes of the mentoring program” and “what are mentors (or the program) doing during their time together to have these intended effects”.

In this study, the team build from the assumption that the most effective relationships strike a balance between providing emotional support and guidance. “Dyads whose relationships were primarily based on either academic support or mutual sharing (e.g., a friendship relational style), as well as those who were disconnected in their relationships showed poorer outcomes than those who experienced a combination of emotional support and other forms of guidance (Drew & Spencer, 2021; Keller & Pryce, 2012)…Therefore [programs need to take into] “consideration how dyads spend their time, and the impact that those interactions have on the overall quality and impact of the mentoring relationship (Drew & Spencer, 2021; Keller & Pryce, 2012; Pryce, 2012).By meticulously coding the precise topics of conversations between mentors and their mentees, their work advances our understanding of how inputs relate to outcomes.

Below, I expert the highlights of this work, adding a bolded headings.

[PDF] Examining heterogeneity in mentoring: Associations between mentoring discussion topics and youth outcomes NA Alwani, MD Lyons, KD Edwards – Journal of Community Psychology, 2022

Overview: This study examines the impact of session content on a number of behavioral, academic, and social-emotional outcomes to shed light on the possible associations between mentor−mentee discussions during unstructured one-on-one meetings, and changes in mentee social-emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning at the end of the intervention year. Specifically, we examined the associations between

  • eight common topics discussed among mentors and mentees (relationships with friends, family, teachers, and romantic relationships, as well as goals, academic skills, academic problems, and hopes for the future)
  • and 11 outcomes often targeted within mentoring programs (self‐esteem, behavioral engagement, metacognitive awareness, school bonding, future aspirations, relevance of school, family support for learning, extrinsic motivation, peer support for learning, teacher−student relationship, and life satisfaction).

Research Questions: we would like to understand if patterns exist in the data connecting mentee outcomes at the end of the intervention year with mentor and mentee discussions during weekly one-on-one sessions. Though the conclusiveness of findings in this type of exploratory study are limited, particularly when looking at such a large number of associations, the impetus for this study is to better understand the role of the conversations that take place during mentoring sessions in facilitating improvements or declines in youth outcomes by addressing three research questions:

  • First, what do mentors actually discuss with their mentees during a typical mentoring session, and are there meaningful differences among dyads in the time they spend discussing particular topics?
  • Second, if there are differences among dyads in their emphasis on different topics, are these differences associated with relevant youth outcomes that align with session content?

Program The Young Yomen Leaders Program (YWLP) YWLP is an SBM program for girls that takes place during the academic year. College women participating in YWLP are paired with middle school girls in the community who have been referred to the program.  College-aged mentors implement the mentoring intervention for 2 h per week after school, assisted by graduate and undergraduate women facilitators who lead the group sessions.  Group sessions include structured, curriculum-based activities focused on developing the young women’s positive self-concept, as well as developing their leadership qualities. Individual mentor−mentee sessions are led exclusively by the college women mentors, and sometimes involve an unstructured “Sister time” primarily dedicated to both building rapport and meeting mentees’ individualized needs.

The authors were interested in responding to the following questions:

What do dyads discuss over the course of the intervention year during their unstructured one‐ on‐one time, and are there meaningful differences in discussion topic selection and frequency among dyads?

Most importantly, are differences in selection and frequency of discussion topics associated with changes in youth academic, social‐emotional, and behavioral outcomes?


Overall, the four relationship-oriented discussion topics (e.g., romantic relationships and relationships with family, teachers, and friends) were addressed more frequently than the four discussion topics related to mentees’ academics and future trajectory (e.g., academic skills, academic problems, hopes for the future, and goals).

By far the most frequently discussed topics were a mentee’s relationships with her friends (M = 11.85; SD = 4.38) and relationships with her family (M = 10.05; SD = 4.01). The frequency of conversations about family and friends aligns with the expected adolescent developmental trajectory, wherein peer relationships become increasingly important throughout adolescence, and the emphasis on family relationships may begin to decline.

Of the academic and future-oriented topics, mentee academic skills were discussed most often (M = 4.73; SD = 3.29), followed closely by mentee goals (M = 4.56; SD = 2.93) and hopes for the future (M = 4.27; SD = 3.48). Finally, the least frequently discussed topic was mentee academic problems (M = 3.39; SD = 2.62).

The final set of analyses were a series of 11 path models examining relations between discussion topics and each of the 11 youth outcomes at the end of their participation in a year-long SBM program, controlling for baseline assessments on each outcome, as well as intervention dosage and mentee economic disadvantage (see Table 3).

Key Findings

  • First, increases in the frequency of discussion of three of the eight topics—family relationships, academic skills, and hopes for the future—were linked to improvements at the end of the intervention. Specifically, mentees who discussed family relationships more often with their mentor showed higher levels of self-esteem, as well as higher levels of extrinsic motivation. This finding aligns with prior research on the protective influence of positive family relationships on adolescent functioning (Williams & Anthony, 2015).
  • Additionally, mentees who discussed academic skills more often with their mentor showed higher levels of life satisfaction and future aspirations.
  • Finally, when dyads discussed the mentee’s hopes for the future more often, youth showed higher levels of school bonding, or attachment to their school, and higher levels of extrinsic motivation.
  • Unfortunately, there were also several significant findings indicating decline in youth developmental outcomes over the course of the intervention year. Specifically, increased discussion of romantic relationships among dyads was associated with declines in life satisfaction, extrinsic motivation, and peer support for learning over the course of the school year.  Additionally, increased discussions of family relationships were linked to lower self-reported school bonding or attachment to school. Furthermore, increased discussion of relationships with teachers was linked to declines in self-esteem and extrinsic motivation.
  • Similarly, increased discussions of academic problems were associated with a decline in life satisfaction, future aspirations, and peer support for learning.
  • Finally, increased discussions of academic skills were associated with lowered extrinsic motivation for learning. These findings have concerning implications as it is possible some of the unstructured conversations dyads engage in together may have harmful impacts on youth development. It is quite possible that these less frequent conversations, particularly those related to goals and academic problems, can deteriorate the quality of the mentoring relationship, and lead to worse outcomes for youth.
  • There are several possible reasons for these findings. The most prominent possibility is that these conversation topics and activities (e.g., romantic relationships, relationships with family and teachers, academic problems and skills) lend themselves to deviations from evidence-based practices.

For example, it may be more difficult to implement evidence-based and strengths-based approaches such as motivational interviewing (MI) or specific praise when discussing some of these topics, as these approaches involve both a technical component, similar to what was measured in this study, as well as an affective and relational component, sometimes referred to as the “spirit of MI,” which was not accounted for in the current study (Miller & Rollnick, 2013; p. 14). Instead, it is possible that conversations about particular topics, such as goals and academic problems, are currently (1) driven by mentors in a way that inhibits youth voice, (2) may be experienced as discouraging or aversive by a mentee, and (3) could diminish opportunities for more positive and connective interactions that align with the literature on PYD and evidence-based practices.

For that reason, it is particularly important that future studies examine both mentor training, specifically related to conversations about behavior change (e.g., goals) and current challenges (e.g., academic problems). It it also important to consider using observational data and qualitative coding of discussions among dyads to assess for alignment with the PYD framework and evidence-based practices, and to explore and document the affective component of these mentoring conversations (e.g., dyadic relationship quality, “soft skills”), as well as the extent to which those conversations promote or inhibit youth voice.


Given the heterogeneity in both mentoring practices and reasons that mentees are referred to SBM programs, it is not unusual for programs such as this one to demonstrate mixed or null findings when examining simple change over time in a variety of outcome measures…

In a recent analysis, researchers simulated parameters similar to prior RCTs of mentoring interventions, to determine if, due to the structure of these programs, studies “underestimate the true effect mentors have on youth outcomes” (Lyons & McQuillin, 2021, p. 7). The findings of that study illustrated the importance of evaluating mentoring practices rather than entire programs (Lyons & McQuillin, 2021), since programs by nature involve such varied practices for such a broad array of presenting problems.

However, when mentor practices align with mentee needs, it is possible to see significant improvements for mentees as a result of these practices (Lyons & McQuillin, 2021). In evaluating the discussion topics mentors engage in with mentees during their one-on-one sessions and linking them to mentee outcomes, the present study allowed us to examine the associations between a specific mentor practice and mentees’ change in functioning over time to better clarify for whom mentoring may be effective, and why.

This study contributes to the literature on mentoring efficacy by examining the heterogeneity in session content across mentoring pairs in an SBM intervention, and its relationship to positive youth outcomes. This study found that the discussion topics mentors and mentees engage in during their one-on-one meetings as part of a SBM intervention were significantly associated with both improvements and declines in mentee social-emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes.