Preparing for Successful Telementoring Relationships

July 1, 2000

When you hear the word mentor, does an image appear in your mind? Are you reminded of specific experiences with a trusted peer, an esteemed teacher, or a senior colleague?

Despite its resonance in the minds of many people, mentoring is notoriously difficult to define (Sullivan 1992; Welch 1996). Mentoring includes a diverse range of activities and experiences, making it hard to pinpoint and measure its success and to use data to improve mentoring initiatives.

This article describes two recent telementoring projects conducted by the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) that I have worked on as a research and implementation specialist. Citing specific examples from the projects and the literature at large, this article illustrates the nature of mentoring and the ways in which success may be defined and may manifest. It also makes recommendations for increasing success in future telementoring programs.

Setting the Stage

Mentoring relationships may occur for short or long durations. It may be formally organized or come to pass spontaneously ("naturally") as people interact. In K12 educational settings, mentoring may exist one-to-one between a mentor and a student, or mentee. It also may occur between one mentor and several students, or in some cases, between one mentor and both a teacher and one or more students.

Mentoring serves many purposes. Studies have identified a multitude of roles that mentors can play in relationships, depending on the purpose of the interaction (Ganser 1994; NAS 1997; Sullivan 1992). Jacobi (1991) further catalogs a variety of mentoring functions, including the following:

  • providing acceptance, support, or encouragement
  • helping mentees to bypass bureaucracy or gain access to resources
  • providing access to new opportunities
  • helping mentees to clarify their values or goals
  • coaching
  • providing information
  • role modeling
  • socializing mentees into particular cultures
  • training or instructing

Telementoring adds one more ingredient to this mix: the Internet. Because telementoring occurs over a distance, it generally makes use of some combination of e-mail and Web-based communication systems such as chat, threaded discussions, shared resources, and whiteboards. When mentors and mentees interact without seeing each other, the relationships becomes even more complex than they are in face-to-face situations.

Defining Success Is the First Step to Achieving It

In planning for successful telementoring relationships, it is important to first know what you mean by success:

  • What is the main purpose of the mentoring relationship?
  • How are mentees expected to benefit from the experience?
  • What are the primary roles that mentors are expected to play?
  • What are students expected to bring to the relationship?
  • What roles, if any, will teachers play in mentoring activities?

The Center for Children and Technology has implemented and conducted research on two different telementoring initiatives. Success was defined somewhat differently in each of the projects.

Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing

The Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing project (described extensively in last month's article by Naomi Hupert) was designed to support young women in pursuing education and careers in scientific and technical fields. Professional women serving as online mentors in this project were paired one-to-one with high-school girls for two to six months. The mentors were expected to provide positive role modeling; to provide validation, advice, and support; to help young women work through their concerns and fears; to address the isolation that their mentees might feel in studying or excelling in science and technical fields; to assist young women in developing strategies for dealing with challenging classes or math phobia; and to provide young women with sound career advice (Bennett et al., Critical Issues, 1998).

Success in that initiative was indicated by reported satisfaction; increased interest in or curiosity about science, engineering, and computing; increased participation in informal activities (for example, watching science programs on television) and classroom-based science and technical activities; positive changes in attitude about scientists and engineers; and increased reflectiveness about, or improved strategies for, achieving success in science and technical classes and careers. Examples from the latter category ranged from developing strategies for working more effectively in groups with boys to thinking about how to balance family and romantic interests with academic goals (Bennett et al. Benefits of On-line Mentoring, 1998).


The Portals project included case studies of 12 project-based mentoring relationships that were conducted partially or entirely online. The telementoring relationships involved 40 high-school students, 5 teachers, and 12 mentors. The classes were located in Iowa and Tennessee and were part of the Adventures in Supercomputing (AiS) program, which is supported by the Department of Energy. Students participating in AiS and the Portals project worked collaboratively with other students and mentors for one to six months to develop computational science projects. See the chart below for examples of projects.

Project Topic Key Questions or Goals
Antimatter Galaxies Do antimatter galaxies exist, and how can we prove or disprove their existence?
Condors How do large birds fly? Do large birds fly more efficiently than small ones? What are condors like?
Levitrons What is the position at which the floating levitron is most stable?
Pharmacokinetics To model what happens as second-hand smoke is metabolized in the human body.
Sea Turtles To determine how, and to what extent, natural factors affect the population of endangered sea turtles.
Severe Storms To create a model to predict the likelihood of severe weather.

In the Portals research, we chose to adopt the National Academy of Science's definition of successful mentoring: the development of relationships that "advance the educational and personal growth of the student (NAS 1997)." That broad definition, which encompasses psychosocial, career, and academic functions (Jacobi 1991), best reflected the goals of the teachers in our study. Those teachers indicated that they hoped telementoring experiences would provide their students with the following:

  • access to scientific content expertise that extended beyond the teachers' own knowledge
  • experience with how real scientists make choices about research questions, methods, data presentation, and data interpretation
  • exposure to a variety of scientific careers and the personal side of science
  • opportunities to learn to communicate with adults in the real world who were not their parents or teachers

Success in the Portals project was indicated by mentors', teachers', and students' satisfaction with the mentoring relationship and by student learning. Student learningincluding content understanding, critical thinking or reflectiveness, communicative clarity, teamwork, and technical understandingwas measured by a rubric that had been developed, tested, and revised by CCT researchers and AiS teachers as part of an earlier evaluation (Honey et al. 1994; Honey et al. 1995).

Successes and Challenges in Story Format

Following are four short case stories that illustrate some of the successes and challenges that occurred in telementoring relationships in both the Portals and the Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing projects.

Success story number one. Candy, a 16-year-old student participating in the Telementoring Young Women project, was the oldest of six children and the first one in her family to consider attending college. A good student and an ambitious one, Candy hoped to become a pediatrician. However, she also was seriously involved with Jake. The two had been dating for nearly 18 months and planned to marry after they finished high school.

Candy's telementor, a software engineer and mother or stepmother of eight, did not question the young woman's attachment to her boyfriend. Instead, the two openly discussed a range of family matters, and at some point, Candy began to share her mentor's questions and comments with Jake. Gradually, the mentor began to pose questions about Candy's future, for Candy and her boyfriend to discuss together. Within the safety of this relationship, and with gentle encouragement from her mentor, Candy began to explore the possibilities of going away to college and maintaining a relationship over a long distance and throughout heavy course loads. During the telementoring relationship, in which the two e-mailed each other at least once a week, Candy received consistent support and praise from her mentor. At the end of the year, Candy wrote, "I would say that she is the greatest mentor and that she helped me to find the real me."

Success story number two. Kirsten, Luke, David, and Molly participated in the Portals research. In working on a project to determine the existence of antimatter galaxies, the team emphasized good communication among themselves. David, a junior, noted that each team member asked questions in different ways, and he recounted that Molly, a ninth grader, made especially important contributions. He said:

Like when a child gets into something new and they want to know everything about it and see it in different ways, where people who've done a lot in science overlook things, they ask different questions. So Molly was very helpful in getting us to think in different areas. . . . It gave us the opportunity to explain things to her and what this did was it kept the whole group on the same thought process.

The students located their mentor, "Dr. D.," an aerospace scientist who had conducted research on antimatter, by an extensive Web search. After exchanging a handful of introductory e-mails, the students and Dr. D. determined that they needed a telephone conversation.

The group's teacher, Ms. Albey, helped the students prepare for the telephone conference by having them rehearse the event with her. One of the things she encouraged them to do was list all the questions or ideas they were considering for their project and solicit their mentor's advice on them. Ms. Albey noted, "They had a lot of wonderful questions with antimatter, and they came up with those on their own. I didn't help them." She also commented that the opportunity to speak with their mentor over the phone compounded the students' investment in their project. It added an emotional component: the students were concerned that their mentor not perceive them as ignorant or unprepared.

During the conference call, Kirsten, Luke, David, and Molly proposed eight project topics to Dr. D. They described their ideas to him and sought his advice on choosing a specific topic. This pivotal conversation enabled the students to proceed more effectively toward the project goal that they had established jointly with Dr. D.

The students communicated at least weekly with their mentor. They e-mailed him summaries of their work and questions about their computer code. They sought help clarifying their conceptual confusions by sharing graphic illustrations of what they thought happened as antimatter and matter interacted. Furthermore, they valued each other as members of the team and built strong collaboration within the group. All of those strategies, coupled with the team's efforts, resulted in a fine project in which the students were able to thoroughly explain their methods and conclusions.

Challenge story number one. Anita was a junior in an urban New Mexico school when she joined the Telementoring Young Women project. Busy with a number of extracurricular activities, she was not particularly interested in a science or engineering career, but she was curious about what it might be like to write to a professional woman. Her teacher encouraged Anita to become part of the project, and the two selected a mentor who was a neonatal researcher and a semiprofessional swing dancer.

Without a home computer, Anita relied on the four computers in her classroom to access the Internet and her telementor. During the 45 minutes of class, however, she had to share these machines with 16 other students who were also communicating with mentors and doing research. Anita e-mailed her mentor about once a month, but the relationship failed to take root, so it did not really grow.

Anita's mentor, like approximately 23% of other mentors in the project, reported that they were dissatisfied with their telementoring relationships. They tended to cite lack of depth and infrequency of communication as primary reasons for their sentiments. Statements such as the following were common:

I feel that it could have been more productive. Our relationship was at a very shallow level, and, except for a few discussions about college and work, it was mostly a pen-pal type of relationship.

Challenge story number 2. Chloe, James, and Madison, tenth-grade students in a small Iowa town, researched the mechanics of the levitron for their project. The levitron is a small device that resembles a spinning top and pedestal. When rigged correctly (with wedges and magnets) and spun, the top appears to defy gravity by hovering above the pedestal. The team found their mentor, Professor Johnson, by an Internet search.

During the project, Professor Johnson provided information and equations explaining the device. He also encouraged the students to experiment, proposing different conditions they might investigate and posing questions about what they discovered. After protracted silences in which they did not respond to any of his questioning, the students finally told their mentor that they were unable to get the levitron to levitate. Professor Johnson recalled, "For the longest time, they were unable to get the [levitron] to work. . . .When [Chloe] finally admitted this to me, I arranged to have a very instructive videotape sent to them."

The students also never revealed to their mentor the extent to which they did not understand the formulas he had supplied. They described the equations as monsters and indicated that they learned how to code the operations but did not really know what the numbers meant. The team concealed information to preserve an image of success. Chloe commented, "We were embarrassed to admit our weaknesses to him, and we didn't want him to feel like he had to take hours off his work and explain this to us in real simple terms." James added, "I think we didn't want to let him down."

Professor Johnson fully expected the students to have questions and need assistance, but he was unprepared for their inability or unwillingness to effectively represent what they didn't understand. Nor did he anticipate a culture in which pleasing the adult could take precedence over learning. He expressed:

What [the students] should be encouraged to do, is to formulate their questions, formulate their concerns, and be quite willing to be honest and say, "We're lost" or "This is boring, and please explain why we have to do it." You know, they should be able to be a little bit more honest about what it is that is holding them up or why things aren't going they way they might want to go. Now, in direct contact, those kinds of messages are much more easily conveyed. But by e-mail, it's different. . . . It's extremely difficult.

Recommendations for Creating Success

Because of those and other similar stories, we developed a set of recommendations that may be useful in designing and planning for future telementoring experiences. Our analysis of data from the Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing project indicated that several factors were important in creating successful telementoring experiences. Among these were the following:

  • Frequent communication: Weekly communication greatly increased the likelihood that both students and mentors would be satisfied with their relationship and that students would benefit from the experience. Factors such as limited Internet access, as was the case in Anita's story, must be accounted and planned for.
  • Prepared mentors: Preparing mentors, particularly with regard to setting expectations, was crucial to success of the relationships. We found that mentors needed to be reminded that the young women with whom they were working were indeed young adults. In such, they had a number of adolescent concerns, often involving social and romantic situations that could easily take precedence over academic and career aspirations.
  • A predictable, yet flexible, telementoring structure: It is important to create supports for telementoring matches that do not work. It is also essential to establish procedures for dealing with technical difficulties.

(See last month's feature, "Telementoring: Using Online Communication for a Student Mentoring Project" [Please link here to the article] by Naomi Hupert, for a more detailed description of mentor preparation activities and other critical issues in designing telementoring environments.)

Analysis of the Portals data focused on the roles and functions that students, teachers, mentors, and technologies bring to complex, online, project-based learning experiences. From that work, we drew three major conclusions about the creation and maintenance of effective telementoring relationships.

The importance of proactive students. Such as with the levitron project team, our research indicated that students had a great deal of control in their telementoring relationships. Often, mentors quickly bumped into brick walls if students could not communicate online effectively or were unwilling to express their needs and weaknesses. Therefore, we recommend that students be better prepared for online mentoring relationships. Such preparation might include:

  • assuring students that, although it may contradict what they've experienced in their schooling, being open and honest with their mentors about what they do and do not understand, as well as what does and does not interest them, is essential for a successful relationship
  • providing opportunities for students to practice describing in text what they do and do not understand about a problem and letting their mentors know when they're losing steam
  • providing opportunities for students to receive feedback (for example, through peer or teacher critiques) about those communicative acts
  • educating students about the various roles or functions mentors may exercise in helping them with their projects

Additionally, our research suggested that student teams that communicated and collaborated well among themselves were able to do so more effectively with telementors. Thus, helping students to develop strong teams could improve their potential for success with online mentors.

The importance of a variety of mentor roles and functions. Our research suggested that mentors were rarely aware of the panoply of roles or functions they might employ in telementoring relationships, and that they needed to be reminded of those functions on a regular basis-not only at the onset. Particularly in online relationships, mentors sometimes forget the importance of making their own thinking transparent to the students (Tsikalas et al. forthcoming). That is important in helping students acquire not only domain knowledgeknowledge of particular content areasbut also strategic knowledge such as setting research priorities and deciding how to proceed in a task (Collins, Brown, and Newman 1989). The Portals study indicated that online mentors often made assumptions about the classroom culture and the work habits of students that failed to reflect reality.

In addressing those issues, we recommend that telementors be made better aware of their multiple roles or functions and particularly of the importance of making their thinking explicitthat is, articulating to the students their reasons behind their suggestions. Additionally, we suggest that online mentors be better informed about the students with whom, and the settings in which, the mentors will be working. That type of information and feedback might best be delivered by teachers at regular intervals in the mentoring relationship.

The importance of teachers as co-mentors. Past research has stressed the need for facilitation in telementoring relationships (Bennett et al. Critical Issues, 1998; Harris 1995), and our research indicates that teachers are especially important facilitators. Teachers tended to act as co-mentors in particularly important ways in the two projects we studied. They provided students with opportunities to be mentors themselves, helped students develop effective communication skills, and coached students about how to construct good questions, write meaningful summaries, and critique their own efforts.

Mentors seldom recognize the role of teacher as facilitator: many of the mentors in our study indicated that they did not know how the teachers contributed to the projects other than enforcing deadlines. In such, it is incumbent upon teachers to honor, and explicitly state, their own responsibilities and activities in facilitating students' learning in telementoring relationships. Similarly, the structure of online interactions and the software used should recognize and support that role of teachers.


The Internet presents exciting opportunities for people outside the classroom to become involved in the education and advisement of children. Telementoring experiences are one way to build upon those new possibilities. When you consider or create your own telementoring program, we hope that you will be well served by the lessons learned, the successes, and the challenges from CCT's Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing project and Portals project. For more information on either of those projects, please visit CCT's Web site.

Kallen Tsikalas


Bennett, D., N. Hupert, K. Tsikalas, T. Meade, and M. Honey. 1998. Critical Issues in the Design and Implementation of Telementoring Environments. New York, NY: Education Development Center, Center for Children and Technology. Also

Bennett, D., K. Tsikalas, N. Hupert, T. Meade, and M. Honey. 1998. The Benefits of On-line Mentoring for High School Girls: Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering and Computing: Year 3 Evaluation. New York, NY: Education Development Center, Center for Children and Technology. Also

Collins, A., J. S. Brown, and S. E. Newman. 1989. Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser. Edited by L. B. Resnick. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ganser, T. 1994. Metaphors for Mentoring: An Exploratory Study. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Honey, M., K. McMillan, K. Tsikalas, and C. Grimaldi. 1994. Adventures in Supercomputing 199394 Evaluation: Final Report. New York, NY: Education Development Center, Center for Children and Technology. Also

Honey, M., K. McMillan, K. Tsikalas, and D. Light. 1995. Adventures in Supercomputing 199495 Evaluation: Final Report. New York, NY: Education Development Center, Center for Children and Technology. Also

Harris, J. 1995. Organizing and facilitating telecollaborative projects. The Computing Teacher 22(5): 6669.

Jacobi, M. 1991. Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research 61(4): 505532.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 1997. Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Also

Sullivan, C. G. 1992. How to Mentor in the Midst of Change. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tsikalas, K., K. McMillan-Culp, M. Honey, and W. Friedman. Forthcoming. Portals Project Evaluation.

Welch, O. M. 1996. An Examination of Effective Mentoring Models in the Academy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.