What Does Research Say About Mentoring Online Students?

Illustration of two minds connected
There exists an ever growing body of research on mentoring online students. In this article we seek to answer the question: What does this research tell us about mentoring K-12 online students?

Onsite mentors, sometimes called “onsite facilitators” or simply “mentors,” are a critical support component for K-12 online students. So far, in this blog series, we’ve discussed strategies for mentoring online students, heard from mentors themselves, and talked with leading experts about the importance of mentoring.

We also know there is a wealth of research, some conducted by Michigan Virtual, on mentoring. In this article, we answer the question: What does this research say about mentoring online students? Can it inform how we prepare our mentors and how they can best serve our students? 

While it is true that mentors are not charged with teaching content, research has found that mentors often do provide instruction, particularly if the mentor is a certified teacher (de la Varre, Keane, & Irvin, 2011). 

However, as their role is defined, mentors are not expected to provide instruction, as that is the role of the online teacher. Instead, Borup (2018) suggests that mentors need to be experts in the learning process, not the content, to ensure that everything is running smoothly for the student. 

This concept of a mentor as the learning expert typically manifests in three broad facilitating responsibilities (Borup, 2018): 

  1. Nurturing the student through developing a caring relationship and building a safe learning environment. 
  2. Monitoring and motivating the student, keeping them engaged with their course, and intervening when necessary. 
  3. Encouraging communication between the student, parent, and online instructor. 

These three broad facilitating responsibilities are reflected in work by Borup, Chambers, and Stimson (2019) who, through a survey and focus group with over 100 students, found that a majority of mentor support was focused in seven areas. The seven areas fit well within the three broad facilitating responsibilities and are discussed in greater detail in the following section. 

Nurturing Students

Developing Caring Relationships 

While online students can develop close relationships with online instructors, they still benefit greatly from the physical, onsite support of a mentor. Mentors serve as the “person on the ground” for students, as someone physically present that they can turn to for help and support. 

Advising Students Regarding Course Enrollments

The field of online learning research has moved from asking if online works to asking under what conditions does online learning work. When considering this revised question,  the first important condition is often centered around online course enrollments. What course fits best with the student’s educational goals, requirements, and maturity level? Based on research from Freidhoff et al. (2015), mentors largely agree that online learning is not right for every student and would like to see students make choices more in line with their current learning strengths. 

Orienting Students to Online Learning Procedures and Expectations

Orienting students is closely related to advising as it can help prepare students who are new to online learning or who may not quite yet possess the skills necessary to learn successfully online. The mentors in the study by Freidhoff et al. (2015) also noted that for students to be successful online, some just need better preparation and a more substantial orientation to online learning than their mentors have been able to provide. 

Monitoring and Motivating

Motivating Students To More Fully Engage In Learning Activities 

A large part of the job of the online mentor is to monitor student progress through their online courses, as well as to motivate students when they are falling behind in their courses. Another important role mentors play is to ensure that students are fully engaging with the course content and not just moving quickly through the course at a surface level. 

Organizing and Managing Student Learning

Mentors frequently report that helping students with time management is a significant responsibility (Freidhoff et al., 2015). In addition to helping students with time management, mentors are often responsible for organizing the physical learning spaces where students complete their online coursework during the regular school day. 

Instructing Students Regarding Course Content

As stated previously, instructing students regarding course content is the primary responsibility of the online instructor; however, mentors frequently report providing instruction. This may be the case when learners need immediate support to keep moving forward with the content. 

Encouraging Communication

Facilitating Interaction 

Mentors frequently report helping students with effective written communication, specifically helping students learn to convey questions or concerns to their teacher (Freidhoff, et al., 2015). Mentors report several strategies for this including helping students draft emails that are clear and direct in asking for help. 


Research on mentoring seems to converge on what mentors frequently report: that mentors have many responsibilities and wear many hats. Clearly, mentors play an integral role in supporting online students, particularly those who are still developing the ability to regulate their own learning. 


Borup, J. (2018). On-site and online facilitators: Current and future direction for research. In K. Kennedy and R. Ferdig (Eds.), Handbook of research on K-12 online and blended learning (2nd ed.). (pp. 423-442). ETC Press. 

Borup, J., Chambers, C.B., & Stimson, R. (2019). K-12 student perceptions of online teacher and on-site facilitator support in supplemental online courses. Online Learning, 23(4), 253- 280. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i4.1565

de la Varre, C., Keane, J., & Irvin, M. J. (2011). Dual perspectives on the contribution of on-site facilitators to teaching presence in a blended learning environment. Journal of Distance Education, 25(3). Retrieved from http://www.jofde.ca/index.php/jde/article/viewArticle/751/1285    

Freidhoff, J. R., Borup, J., Stimson, R. J., & DeBruler, K. (2015). Documenting and sharing the work of successful on-site mentors. Journal of Online Learning Research, 1(1), 107–128.

The Mentor Forum

In our Mentor Forum blog series, we discuss the role of mentors and mentoring in K-12 digital learning. Our hope with this series is to highlight the importance of mentoring, provide valuable resources, and further the discussion on best practices for mentoring online learners. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nationwide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a Research Specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators not only in Michigan, but nationwide. 

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.