What is it? Mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising all involve a relationship between two individuals where a more experienced person provides support to a less experienced individual. This normally includes some combination of psychological/emotional support, course/career support, academic skills support, and acting as a role model.
Evidence? There is evidence from the UK to suggest that programmes involving mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising are associated with better outcomes for students in terms of attainment and retention/completion. However, the research is not ‘causal’; in other words, it can’t tell us definitively that the programmes are effective. There is some mixed evidence of impact from other countries.
Should HEPs run mentoring/counselling/coaching/advising programmes to support student success? The existing evidence suggests that mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising approaches differ substantially from programme to programme, for example in terms of focus/goals, intensity, duration and the target population. Given these are intensive interventions (both in terms of staff and student time) there is strong case for seeking more information on the efficacy versus other less intensive approaches. We recommend that HE providers seek to measure the effect of these programmes, and identify the most effective features, at a local level.
What is this intervention?
About half of the evidence used to inform this page is based on mentoring programmes and most of these are focused on a model of ‘peer mentoring’ – i.e. where students are mentored by fellow students. A small number of studies focus on programmes where more experienced graduates are drawn from the workforce to act as mentors. Four studies relate to counselling, three to coaching and two to advising. However, there is a substantial degree of overlap between the definitions of mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising used in these studies.
All these approaches involve a relationship between two individuals where a more experienced person provides support to a less experienced individual, including some combination of (Crisp et al, 2017):
- Psychological or emotional support (e.g. to help students feel a sense of belonging in HE)
- Course and career support (e.g. to help students progress on course)
- Academic knowledge support (e.g. to support academic skills development)
- Acting as a role model
The information on this page relates to formal programmes run by HE providers, as opposed to informal relationships.
What is the target group?
Most of the evidence on mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising in HE is focused on support for first year students, particularly at the point of induction. The advice on this page also draws on a small number of studies focused on certain disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, including:
- BAME students
- Mature students
- Students from lower-socioeconomic status groups
Two studies explicitly focus on students who do not meet any demographic criteria but who have been identified as at risk of failing their course based on their academic performance.
How effective is it?
There is some evidence from the UK to suggest that mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising programmes are associated with positive effects on students. This evidence is mainly drawn from quantitative studies. The studies compare participant groups with non-participant groups to show that individuals who take part in the programmes have better outcomes. Nearly all these studies suggest a positive impact on attainment, retention/completion or other outcomes (such as intention to remain on-course). However, two find mixed results: one UK study of peer mentoring suggested an effect on attainment for first year participants but not on third years (Fox et al., 2010). Another study from Australia suggests that, although peer mentoring was associated with a positive increase on some attitudes toward HE (such as concerns about belonging), it was correlated with a decline in others (such as perceiving study as a good preparation for work) (O’Brien, 2012).
We must be careful about how we interpret the evidence mentioned above. The methods used can only tell us that there seems to be a positive association or correlation between participation in such programmes and student outcomes – they cannot tell us definitively that the activities are having an impact (i.e. they cannot provide ‘causal evidence’). This is because the students who take part in these programmes are likely to be systematically different from those who don’t – for example, even if the students are demographically similar, they are likely to have different levels of motivation. So, when we compare their outcomes with those of other students, we risk overestimating the efficacy of programmes.
There is some stronger evidence of impact from studies in other countries. One randomised controlled trial (RCT) in the US tested the effect of coaching for first-year college students and found that recipients were more likely to persist to the second year with the strongest effect on male students (Bettinger & Baker, 2011). Elsewhere, a quasi-experimental study in Germany suggests a large positive impact of a mentoring programme on attainment (Sandner, 2015).
However, some of these studies find mixed results. One RCT in Canada found that first years who were randomly assigned a student support programme including mentoring did not perform better than their peers who did not receive the support; however, when this programme was combined with financial support there was a significant impact on attainment (Angrist et al., 2009). Another study from the US tested the effect of a light-touch advising programme in which whole maths classes were randomly assigned to receive support. It found an effect on uptake of student support and withdrawal rates but not on pass rates (except for part-time students) (Butcher & Visher, 2013). Another quasi-experimental study in the US found that an advising intervention for low-performing students did not have an impact on attainment for first years but did for other year groups (Bowman et al., 2020). The design of these studies could be used to inspire similar work in a UK context.
What features seem to be important?
The existing evidence suggests that mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising approaches differ substantially from programme to programme, for example in terms of focus/goals, intensity, duration and the target population (Gershenfield, 2014). It is also important to note that factors such as race, ethnicity and existing aspirations seem to play an important role in how students experience these programmes (Crisp et al., 2017). Therefore, evidence of a positive impact in one study is helpful but we shouldn’t assume that a programme can be generalised to other contexts or with other populations. We recommend that HE providers seek to identify the most effective features of mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising at an individual programme-level.
What don’t we know
All the existing causal evidence on mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising for student success is from the USA. The UK-based evidence suggests that students who participate in these programmes tend to have better outcomes in terms of attainment, retention/completion or other outcomes such as intention to remain on-course.
However, we cannot say whether this is because the programmes are effective, or because only the most motivated and/or supported students tend to attend. In fact, one study in the US showed that, among students offered mentoring, those with higher levels of parental education were more likely to meet their mentor frequently and seek their support (Hu & Ma, 2010). This casts some doubt on findings that more intense engagement leads to better outcomes (Rodrigues Ott et al, 2019), as those students who are likely to achieve better outcomes could also have higher engagement.
We are also lacking a large enough evidence-base to make claims about the relative efficacy of the different approaches (for example, mentoring versus coaching) or different modes of delivery (for example, in-person versus e-mentoring).
A recent review highlights several areas where we need more evidence on mentoring (Crisp, 2017):
- Specific activities or approaches which are most effective and how this might differ for different student groups.
- Factors that affect whether mentors and students can form a meaningful connection (for example, more information on the importance of shared ethnic background or gender).
- How institutional/departmental context shapes the mentoring relationship.
Given that these can be intensive interventions (both in terms of staff and student time), we should expect mentoring/counselling/coaching/advising to have a bigger impact than less intensive outreach approaches. Only one study compares the impact of mentoring with other approaches. It finds that mentoring appears to have a bigger positive impact on retention and graduation than financial support. However, this is focused on programmes involving faculty members as mentors rather than peer-mentoring (Sneyers & Dewitt, 2018). More evidence on the relative scale of the impact of these programmes versus other approaches would help HE providers understand how best to structure their overall student support offering.
Where does the evidence come from?
TASO’s advice on the efficacy of mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising for student success is based on evidence from five causal research studies. The studies use experimental or quasi-experimental techniques to assess the impact of this kind of support on attainment or retention/completion. The studies took place in the US, Germany and Canada.
This advice is also supported by 18 empirical studies which use data to show that participation in mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising programmes seems to be associated with positive student outcomes, either in terms of attainment, retention/completion or other outcomes such as intention to remain on-course. Eight of these studies took place in the UK, including two evaluation reports shared confidentially with TASO. The advice is supported by three reviews.
We have focused on evidence produced in the last 10 years and, in the case of UK-based evidence, since the student finance reforms were introduced in 2012. Older evidence has been included if is exceptionally relevant.
The key references are given below.
Causal studies on the impact of mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising
Angrist, J., Lang, D., & Oreopoulos, P. (2009). Incentives and Services for College Achievement: Evidence from a Randomized Trial. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(1), 136-63. doi: 10.1257/app.1.1.136
Bettinger, E., & Baker, R. (2011). The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring. NBER Working Paper No. 16881. National Bureau of Economic Research.
Bowman, N. A., Jang, N., Kivlighan, D. M., Schneider, N., & Ye, X. (2020). The Impact of a Goal-Setting Intervention for Engineering Students on Academic Probation. Research in Higher Education, 61(1), 142-166. doi: 10.1007/s11162-019-09555-x
Butcher, K. F., & Visher, M. G. (2013). The Impact of a Classroom-Based Guidance Program on Student Performance in Community College Math Classes. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(3), 298-323. doi: 10.3102/0162373713485813
Sandner, M. (2015). The Effects of High-Quality Student Mentoring. Economics letters, 136, 227-232. doi: 10.1016/j.econlet.2015.09.043
Empirical studies on the impact of mentoring, counselling, coaching and advising
Abt Associates. (2019). Interim Report on the Impact of Success Boston’s Coaching for Completion
Collings, R., Swanson, V., & Watkins, R. (2014). The Impact of Peer Mentoring on Levels of Student Wellbeing, Integration and Retention: a Controlled Comparative Evaluation of Residential Students in UK Higher Education. Higher Education, 68(6), 927-942. doi: 10.1007/s10734-014-9752-y
Collings, R., Swanson, V., & Watkins, R. (2016). Peer Mentoring During the Transition to University: Assessing the Usage of a Formal Scheme within the UK. Studies in Higher Education, 41(11), 1995-2010. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1007939
Evans, W. N., Kearney, M. S., Perry, B. C., & Sullivan, J. X. (2017). Increasing community college completion rates among low-income students: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial evaluation of a case management intervention (No. w24150). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Fostier, M., & Carey, W. (2007, June). Exploration, experience and evaluation: Peer Assisted Study Scheme (PASS), sharing the experience of The University of Manchester. Science, Learning and Teaching Conference
Fox, A., Stevenson, L., Connelly, P., Duff, A., & Dunlop, A. (2010). Peer-mentoring undergraduate accounting students: The Influence on Approaches to Learning and Academic Performance. Active learning in higher education, 11(2), 145-156. doi: 10.1177/1469787410365650
Hryciw, D. H., Tangalakis, K., Supple, B., & Best, G. (2013). Evaluation of a Peer Mentoring Program for a Mature Cohort of First-Year Undergraduate Paramedic Students. Advances in Physiology Education, 37(1), 80-84. doi: 10.1152/advan.00129.2012.
Hu, S., & Ma, Y. (2010). Mentoring and Student Persistence in College: A Study of the Washington State Achievers Program. Innovative Higher Education, 35(5), 329-341. doi: 10.1007/s10755-010-9147-7
Kinkel, D. H. (2011). Engaging Students in Career Planning and Preparation through Ementoring. Journal of Natural Resources & Life Sciences Education, 40(1), 150-159. doi: 10.4195/jnrlse.2010.0020u
Kot, F. C. (2014). The Impact of Centralized Advising on First-Year Academic Performance and Second-Year Enrollment Behavior. Research in Higher Education, 55(6), 527–563. doi: 10.1007/s11162-013-9325-4
McDuff, N., Tatam, J., Beacock, O., & Ross, F. (2018). Closing the Attainment Gap for Students from Black and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds through Institutional Change. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 20(1), 79-101.
O’Brien, M., Llamas, M., & Stevens, E. (2012). Lessons learned from four years of peer mentoring in a tiered group program within education. Journal of the Australian & New Zealand Student Services Association, 40(1), 7-15.
Richardson, M. J., & Tate, S. (2013). Improving the Transition to University: Introducing Student Voices into the Formal Induction Process for New Geography Undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 37(4), 611-618. doi: 10.1080/03098265.2013.769092
Rodriguez Ott, N., Staklis, S., & Boyette, J. (2019). The Effectiveness of Student Coaching in Community Colleges. Community College. Journal of Research and Practice, 1-14. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2019.1621786
Scrivener, S., Weiss, M. J., Ratledge, A., Rudd, T., Sommo, C., & Fresques, H. (2015). Doubling Graduation Rates: Three‐Year Effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for Developmental Education Students. SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 2571456.
Tovar, E. (2014). The Role of Faculty, Counsellors, and Support Programs on Latino/a Community College Students’ Success and Intent to Persist. Community College Review, 43(1), 46–71. doi: 10.1177/0091552114553788
Crisp, G., Baker, V. L., Griffin, K. A., Lunsford, L. G., & Pifer, M. J. (2017). Mentoring Undergraduate Students. ASHE Higher Education Report, 43(1), 7–103. doi: 10.1002/aehe.20117
Gershenfeld, S. (2014). A Review of Undergraduate Mentoring Programs. Review of Educational Research, 84(3), 365–391. doi: 10.3102/0034654313520512
Sneyers, E., & Witte, K. D. (2017). Interventions in Higher Education and their Effect on Student Success: a Meta-Analysis. Educational Review, 70(2), 208–228. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2017.1300874