Published on 2014/09/08

Online Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating: Exploring the Mentoring Model

Online Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating: Exploring the Mentoring Model
The mentorship model creates a new layer of accountability for online students and has a significant impact on their academic success.
When I mention that I work for Western Governors University (WGU), an online university, many people tell me, “I tried that once but I just didn’t have the self-discipline.” Their experience with online learning included little beyondlogin information and a final deadline. Luckily, online education is progressing dramatically. By re-thinking the way we use technology, we can find the best of both worlds: all the customization of the digital experience combined with a powerful human touch.

Academic success was traditionally tied to a student’s accountability to their teacher: “The paper is due Tuesday… The test is on Thursday… See you at class next week …” and so on. That is, until online education came along.

Now, many student failures in online learning ventures can be attributed to a lack of accountability and availability of support. The computer won’t give you a lecture if you don’t show up, but failing to apply yourself to your course can easily result in wasted time and money.

Of course, some models attempt to preserve the role of the instructor.These programs are taught much like a face-to-face class, delivered through the magic of the Internet. In these courses, a professor still defines the pace of the class, requires class participation (usually in the form of class chats) and sets deadlines for assignments. Other models, like that of WGU, strive to provide accountability and support while simultaneously empowering the student to set the pace.

WGU provides online degree programs coupled with a mentoring model that ensures “online” doesn’t mean “alone.” Because WGU accepts onlydegree-seeking students, a long-term commitment is made for individual success.

Students are immersed in the mentoring program immediately upon enrollment.  Every WGU student receives a faculty mentor assigned to support the student from the beginning of the program through graduation. The mentor and student communicate by phone at least weekly in the beginning. Faculty mentors filla variety of support roles: cheerleader, accountability coach, encourager, technical support and friend.

Faculty mentors (each of whom have at least a master’s degree) are assigned a student caseload and their full-time role is to provide student support. They may use a variety of communication methods that, depending on student preferences,include calling — but also Skype, email and even snail mail for encouraging notes.

Course mentors are the second type of WGU mentor. These full-time faculty members hold their Ph.D. and serve as content experts. They are also assigned a student caseload. Responsibilities of course mentors include creating a social community among students currently enrolled in their courses and teaching webinars focused specifically on competencies students typically find difficult. Finally, they support students one-on-one based on requests from the student or referral from the student’s faculty mentor.

Neither type of mentor serves as evaluator of student competency.  At WGU, all evaluations are blind, which helps ensure the quality of education in the competency-based model.

The mentoring roles at WGU are critical to student success.

Graduating students consistently cite the relationship with their mentors as a key to their success. “I really looked forward to our weekly calls,” said recent WGU Missouri graduate Martha Jaynes. “If I had questions, my mentor helped me and was able to guide me through the courses. If I had a tough time, she was able to keep me going and encourage me.”

Mentors are trained for, and evaluated on, student success. This is borne out by WGU’s average time-to-degree completion. The average time to complete a bachelor’s degree for WGU’s most recent graduating class was two and a half years. The average time to graduation for graduate programs was a year and 10 months.

WGU is singularly focused on degree attainment for working adults, and active mentoring is central to that mission. The mentor model provides the avenue for learning to happen on the student’s schedule instead of the professor’s.

Not all adults may see themselves as natural learners, but our model, with robust mentor relationships, demonstrates that a college degree is within reach for all kinds of non-traditional students.

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Readers Comments

Linda Bars 2014/09/08 at 3:59 pm

This is interesting! I wonder how much of the advising process could be automated, though?

    Richard Choi 2014/09/08 at 4:30 pm

    I’m actually curious about where Linda Bars’ comment is coming from. If what I think she] is asking is correct, it could be really interesting. How much does it cost the institution to provide this level of service? On the flip side to that, how much ors the institution make as a result of offering this service?

Janet Bicks 2014/09/09 at 9:24 am

This is critical for online students. Online students, as a start, must be more self-driven than other students. Alone those lines, institutions need to be more committed to providing them with support to ensure they stay in their programs and succeed.

Cathy E. 2014/09/09 at 11:13 am

I have a few questions about how the mentorship program is set up; do students have any say in their mentors, are mentors paid or volunteers, etc. It would be interesting to have a more behind-the-scenes look at how this program works. Other than that, this is a fascinating piece on how WGU is making sure online students feel connected to the institution while they’re pursuing their program.

Mary Moore 2014/09/09 at 12:51 pm

Interesting to read about the rationale for having a mentorship program. I wonder, though, whether there’s sustained uptake of the program or if it’s something students are simply introduced to at the beginning but not used throughout their study term. It would also be interesting to see some data showing the direct impact of mentorship (or connectivity) on student performance/outcomes.

Alex Anderson 2014/09/12 at 7:59 pm

Having experienced working with a student mentor at WGU, I would consider it invaluable. Since the course work is on-line, minimal or no contact with university faculty is possible. The person-to-person contact with the mentor is by far the best way to maintain your motivation toward completion of the degree.

Automated? I don’t think so. I hang up on automated calls every day. Without that personal contact, it would be easy to become detached from the university, lose momentum and drift away.

I experienced on-campus classroom instruction at two major universities. The program at WGU is better than those. I learned more and progressed more quickly than I ever did in brick/mortar classrooms.

Angie Besendorfer 2014/09/15 at 9:49 am

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I can fill in a few answers. The mentoring model utilized by WGU is designed for ongoing support from the first day to graduation. Faculty mentors are required to make contact weekly through the first 6 month term and at least bi-weekly after that provided the student is making on track progress toward his/her degree. However, most mentors report students still choose weekly contact.

Faculty mentors are assigned by the university and are organized within the degree program so that a student’s mentor has experience and degrees within the field of study. Mentors are one of the most identified characteristics of the WGU model to which students attribute their success. It is so rewarding to attend commencement and observe when students and mentors meet face-to-face for the first time. After all, they have talked regularly on an ongoing basis working through problems and celebrating successes and now they are relishing in the ultimate success.

All mentors are full-time paid faculty positions. We do not use volunteers because this is an important element in the WGU design. While we know we could automate these services, we believe the personal contact is very important. Mentors are able to help students avoid issues and intervene early. Our mentors are amazing and have been credited with helping students work through many of life’s most difficult challenges from death of a family member to addiction. Changing this system to a tech enhanced system would lose the personal touch which we believe is important to success for online students. An automated phone call or email can be ignored just like the computer while a real live person who is committed to your success is hard to ignore.

The overall results for WGU’s success can be found on our website at or look specifically at our student success data in the About WGU tab or go to

The model works for students which is the ultimate goal. WGU is fulfilling its mission as a nonprofit university with affordable tuition that has not increased for 7 years. With the student success and self-sustaining on about $6,000 annual tuition, the WGU model is working.

Gary Rains 2014/09/28 at 12:25 am


I couldn’t of said it any better myself! The WGU model is working great for me……….I’ve been a student since July 2012 and attribute my success to my course mentors, which are subject experts in their professional fields. Although, I would have to say, I couldn’t do it each and every day, without my student mentor, he’s been there for me since my first week, and when things get tough; you need someone to encourage you and relieve your mental stresses each week from the endless nights of studying!

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