Helping Online Students Be Successful: Mentor Responsibilities

Published on January 28, 2017

Modified on December 10, 2020

Written By: 

Jered BorupGeorge Mason University


Rebecca StimsonMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


In this research, we interviewed 12 online teachers and 12 on-site mentors who had high student pass rates in an attempt to identify the strategies that mentors used to improve student success in online courses. Online teachers believed that it was critical that mentors fulfilled their responsibilities and that mentors had the potential to be the deciding factor in whether students passed or failed their courses. However, in practice teachers reported that many mentors fell short and that the mentoring in their courses was just “pretty good” overall. Of the 12 mentors we identified and interviewed, 11 required the majority of their students to attend lab daily, and the remaining mentor required his students to attend lab weekly. This highlights the importance of providing students with a regular time and place to work. Mentors’ consistent proximity to students allowed them to better monitor students’ progress and time-on-task and motivate them to complete the course. Unfortunately, online teachers explained that “often mentors will just get thrown into the position” without the time, space, or professional development they need to fulfill their responsibilities effectively. As a result, online teachers found that the mentoring that their students received was “not terrible” and “not great.” As K-12 online enrollments increase, it is imperative that researchers, course providers, school administrators, online teachers, and on-site mentors work to improve the mentoring support that is provided to students. Although these efforts can be difficult, it is critical to the success of all online students.
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Jered Borup, George Mason University
Rebecca Stimson, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

  • Student attrition rates are higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses.
  • Online students not only need to learn the course content but also how to learn online.
  • While online teachers can support students and develop close caring relationships with students, their physical separation and high student loads prevent them from providing each student with the all of the types and level of support they require.
  • Local schools are increasingly providing students with on-site mentors in an attempt to ensure students receive the support they need to be successful.
  • The quality of support that on-site mentors provide varies across schools and more research is needed that examines the practices of successful on-site mentors.

Interviews were conducted with 12 highly successful on-site mentors which found that mentoring activities changed depending on the time of the semester. At the beginning of the semester, mentors were especially busy and focused their efforts on:

  • Orienting students to their online courses and establishing learning expectations.
  • Supplying students with the required technology and materials.
  • Troubleshooting technological issues.
  • Building relationships with students.

By week 3 or 4, things “really settled down” and mentors could focus on:

  • Monitoring students’ progress and levels of engagement.
  • Motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities.
  • Facilitating instructional support and collaboration.

Toward the end of the semester, mentors again shifted their focus to:

  • Closely monitoring student progress and “prodding” students to complete the course.
  • Proctoring final exams.
  • Recording students’ final grades.

When asked to name their “keys to success,” mentors most commonly believed that they were successful because they:

  • Had a dedicated time and space to mentor students.
  • Developed successful relationships with students early in the semester.
  • Had administrators with a vision for the school’s online learning program and who understood the importance of mentors in achieving that vision.

Administrators should:

  • Recognize the complexities and importance of mentoring.
  • Ensure that mentors are given the space and time to fulfill their responsibilities
  • Ensure mentors receive adequate professional development.

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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.