66. Mentorship and Mentoring Practices

Proximal-mentoring: Creation and effects of a peer-tutoring-apprenticeship-mentoring process modeled with a Vygotskian ZPD Theoretical Framework with scaffolding

Five doctoral students participated in the creation of a proximal-mentoring program within the three new doctoral program offerings in a Department of Educational Psychology. The first goal was to document the expectations and experiences of these students as they co-created the first step in the proximal-mentoring structure from defining the role of proximal-mentors through assessing first-year student’s gains in learning. The second goal was to test Vygotsky's (1962, 1971, 1978, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 2004) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as a model for proximal-mentoring relationships in these programs. Authentic assessments of course materials were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the proximal-mentors. Student results were compared to students in the previous year’s course (the control).

Hager (2003) notes there is a dearth of research on the doctoral mentoring process. Hager used Lave and Wenger’s (1991) Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) theory to analyze the mentor/mentee relationship through extensive interviews of mentors labeled as ‘exemplars’ and their mentees. Hager found the LPP theory did not account for the difficulties experienced by the participants in the mentoring program (p. 134). While Hager found that mentors provide professional socialization, collaborative participation in practices, professional communication, and guidance in becoming a successful member of the community, it is important to note that there were attributes found to be lacking in the mentoring process. These attributes include mentor availability (time), mismatched research interests and/or mismatched skills.

Of the attributes found to be lacking in mentoring that of mentor availability is one that continues to be problematic as enrollment and class sizes continue to increase without a proportionate increase in faculty in all aspects of education across the country. This is especially noticeable in new doctoral programs where admissions to the program outpace addition of new faculty. The question under these circumstances becomes “How can we continue to provide exemplary mentoring to our doctoral students when the mentor’s time is reduced while the mentoring workload of students continues increase?” The answer is: Proximal-mentors. Proximal-mentors combine the attributes of peer-tutoring with the apprenticeship concept of mentoring to provide scaffolded mentoring from new doctoral student to doctoral candidate.

In peer-tutoring, a peer becomes the ‘teacher’ in assisting a fellow student to learn materials the peer-tutor is also just learning. Peer-tutoring models have included models such as “Big Buddy Little Buddy” (Brenno & Teaff 1997), ClassWide Peer Tutoring ( Greenwood, 1997), Academic Engagement Enhancement (Gut, Farmer, Bishop-Goforth, Hives, Aaron, & Jackson, 2004), and Cross-Age Tutoring (Thrope & Wood, 2000). In general, when one thinks of ‘tutor’ one thinks of ‘junior teacher’ – someone who helps a less knowledgeable person with learning content in a particular academic area. Walker and Avis (1999) identify eight reasons why peer-tutoring fails. Those reasons are: lack of clear aims and objectives, inconsistency between design and environment, lack of investment, lack of understanding of the complexity involved, inadequate training and support, lack of clarity, and failure to secure support (p. 573-576).

In mentoring, an expert other assists the novice in incorporating the ‘ways of being’ in their chosen field or discipline (Hager, 2003). As Hager notes, the majority of literature regarding mentoring is found in the area of business (see Hager, 2003 for a review of the mentoring literature). In general, when one thinks of ‘mentor’ one thinks of an apprenticeship where an experienced or expert other assists a novice with learning the ins and outs of a particular discipline or field. However, as Hager (2003) notes, if the distance between the mentor and novice is too great, the mentoring relationship is less than optimal.

The purpose of this research was to document the first semester in the creation of a scaffolded model of proximal-mentoring within three new doctoral programs using Vygotsky’s (1962, 1971, 1978, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 2004) ZPD as the theoretical framework. The proximal-mentor has already experienced the materials to which new students are being exposed as well as has some experience in the ways of being for the discipline. The primary role of proximal-mentor is service of the public good through assisting fellow students in learning content as well as discipline knowledge with a secondary benefit of increasing personal knowledge for the proximal-mentor. Proximal-mentoring also assists in the preparation of students in becoming teachers, researchers, colleagues, and collaborators who perform service to the public good through working in the public interest.

A mixed-methods model was used within a quasi-experimental design. Data from the control group was collected the first year. Ten doctoral students were then invited to participate in the proximal-mentoring program. Of these ten students, all were interested but only five were able to fit the proximal-mentoring course into their schedule. Over the sixteen-week history and philosophy course, the proximal-mentors collectively created, defined, revised, and executed their proximal-mentoring role.

Proximal-mentors had responsibilities within the course, the first of which was to work with specific students over the semester to assist the students in expanding their critical thinking skills. The first writing assignment was used to rank then distribute new students to the proximal-mentors with each proximal-mentor receiving an equal number of high, medium, and low ranked students. Proximal-mentors worked with these same students throughout the semester providing peer-reviewed feedback for writing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and content on the weekly writing assignments. The proximal-mentor feedback was guided by a more advanced doctoral student and the course professor in providing adequate, appropriate, and thorough feedback.

Proximal-mentors also worked with groups of randomly assigned students over a two-week period, first during in-class discussion groups then using online asynchronous discussion. Proximal-mentors acted as moderators of these randomly assigned groups, keeping the discussion on-topic and interjecting appropriate comments or questions over the time the group met.

Proximal-mentors presented one fifteen- to thirty-minute segment of the course lecture. The proximal-mentors selected their topic from the list of topics to be covered in the course in an open discussion during a pre-course meeting. Proximal-mentors also re-wrote their original culminating paper to reflect their new knowledge of the content developed over the semester through their interactions as a proximal-mentor.

Data from the experimental group as well as data from the proximal-mentors was collected the second year. Data for the control and experimental groups consisted of WebCT student tracking information (accesses, discussions, emails), student surveys, discussion postings, student participation in mini in-class research projects, and student work submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the semester-long course (weekly reflection papers, group critiques, and the culminating paper). Data from the proximal-mentors consisted of meetings and interviews, discussion threads, emails, and the re-write of their first culminating paper. Data collected reflect authentic classroom practices as both the peers and the proximal-mentors received credit for their courses to be applied to their respective programs of study -- as in all doctoral-level study, failure is not an option.

Results indicate that the interaction between peers and proximal-mentors moderated the implementation of the mentoring process. The addition of proximal-mentors improved the critical thinking and writing of new doctoral students when compared with the control group. The addition of proximal-mentors increased student usage of WebCT as a tool for collaboration, discussion, and knowledge creation. The proximal-mentors helped to socialize the new students into a collaborative, collegial relationship within the doctoral programs as evidenced through continued interactions that extended beyond this one course resulting in collaborative research projects across the programs. The addition of the proximal-mentors helped to create a community of learners where new doctoral students did not experience the isolation associated with beginning a new venture as experienced by the control group. Vygotsky’s (1962, 1971, 1978, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 2004) ZPD adequately accounts for the proximal-mentor and novice student successes as compared to the control with other factors held constant.

The proximal-mentors benefited from the process of creating, defining, and executing their role. They were active participants in the research process and helped to create and define the proximal-mentoring construct. Proximal-mentors also benefited from interacting with first-year students. Their personal knowledge of the content increased as evidenced by their rewrite of the culminating paper to reflect the new level of knowledge gained. Their interactions with the novice students increased their social skills. They became more familiar with research projects of interest to the novice researchers. They also became more familiar with ongoing research projects of current faculty through the mentor/advisor relationships of novices with professors.

Educational implications of the concept of proximal-mentoring are vast. For example, programs of learning in education should consider ZPD proximal-mentoring between levels, grades, and/or years as appropriate. The results of this study indicate that new teachers might benefit from a proximal-mentoring relationship with a second- or third-year teacher in addition to the mentoring guidance from an expert teacher. Children might also benefit from receiving proximal-mentoring from the next higher year or level while also benefiting from being proximal-mentors to the next lower year or level.

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