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Mentoring and Coaching in Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently profiled how WGU changed the game by focusing on the role of mentorship and coaching. Check to see how Sagence Learning's President sees the innovation

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently profiled how WGU changed the game by focusing on the role of mentorship and coaching. 

The following is our take on the article.

Close relationships with professors or other mentors can make a big difference for students. Having a mentor in college is linked to academic success, and even predicts well-being later in life. 

This is not new, many of the best teachers have been both instructors for learning and mentors for persistence and guidance. How do you do this online? And with large numbers of students.

At the most basic level, mentorship requires interaction....research from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which has conducted national polling and examined alumni outcomes for more than 100 colleges, suggests ... Institution type didn’t correlate with the share of recent alumni who strongly agreed they’d had a mentor. ....In fact, the college that performed best on this measure was Western Governors University, which enrolls more than 67,000 undergraduates, all of them online. Sixty-nine percent of the university’s recent graduates indicated they’d had a mentor in college — more than double the share of young alumni nationally, according to Gallup polling.....Western Governors’ success suggests that mentorship — which Gallup defines as having someone who "encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams" — can be done at scale.

Competency based education is a great model for implementing mentorship into higher education programs for adult learners. To us and many practioners, and more importantly many successful learners, the success of CBE is not a surprise in the least.

The university’s success on this measure is surprising for several reasons. One is its unusual model: a nonprofit institution offering competency-based instruction — in which students move through material at their own pace — to adult learners online.

We are at a juncture, everyone recognizes there is a huge need to reimagine  the policies governing the delivery of higher education. And a huge imperative to reimagine the delivery of post secondary programs to the fastest growing student segment clamoring for more relevant and flexible options, the returning adult learner.

...the university made headlines this past fall, when an audit from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found it did not follow requirements that distance-education programs be designed to provide students with "regular and substantive interaction" with their instructors...That’s right: The same university that boasts an "off the charts" share of alumni who report having had a mentor in college...

This is innovation. There is no one to blame here but an unwillingness to acknowledge that there are successful ways to help students learn that do not mimic a traditional university course setting.

At issue is one of the key innovations of Western Governors’ approach. The university breaks the traditional work of professors into its component parts. Course instructors teach. Evaluators grade. And program mentors (previously called student mentors) guide students through their programs.

And this model is leading to enormous success for WGU. It is one of the fastest growing post secondary institutions in the United States. It gets high marks from employers who value the new skills, knowledge, attitude, abilities their employees. And it gets examplary marks from its students.

The parceling out of faculty roles also helps explain Western Governors’ high rates of mentorship. When alumni tell Gallup they’d had a mentor who "encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams" in college, they don’t indicate who fulfilled that role.

The article details how other colleges and universities might consider this model. We agree with this important conclusion.

... frequent interaction sets the model apart...Each student-mentor relationship is different, and communication can happen more often and in additional formats, like texts or email, depending on each pair’s preferences....Mentors help students make their way through WGU...breaking their ultimate goals into smaller pieces, and checking in on their progress frequently. When obstacles arise, mentors are there to remind students how a small goal fits into a larger one, and how what they’re learning connects to broader academic and professional ambitions. They can also point students to other university resources, as needed....And the model assumes that obstacles will arise for Western Governors students, who typically are balancing work and a family with their studies. 

Almost any student would welcome this kind of help. And it aligns with EVERY college and universities shared goal of student success.

Relationships aren’t the goal of the program-mentor model — it’s student success.  Talking with students regularly and recognizing they have lives outside of the classroom are examples of small things that seem to make a big difference, much the way students in a large course respond to a professor who learns each of their names.

One conclusion to which we take some exception.

While any college could probably take something away from what WGU is doing, replicating the program-mentor system is probably a nonstarter for most...colleges, of course, have structures and traditions that would make such an approach much harder to put in place.

There are structures and traditions. And this model need not be applied for every course and program at a campus. But almost every college and university should be creating new programs and student support for the needs of the majority of today's students. Those who cannot be full time students. Those seeking flexible post secondary courses and programs delivered by quality institutions and faculty. Those looking for clear career connections. And most inportantly those who will succeed given holistic support to reach their goals.

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