*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the Crime Solutions website.
In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).
Can tutors serve as effective mentors as well?
The first thing that mentoring practitioners should note about Experience Corps is that it is primarily a reading intervention directed at elementary school students who are struggling with literacy and associated academic performance issues. And it does this reading-focused work very well: The evaluation cited in the review indicates that the program produces significant impacts on reading comprehension and grade-specific reading skills as rated by students’ teachers. An important question for mentoring practitioners is, how much does the relationship between the tutor/mentor and the student factor into those outcomes.
If one goes back 15 years or so in the mentoring field, there was much more conflation of mentoring and tutoring than we find today. Those terms were often used interchangeably as practitioners struggled to define the role of volunteers in programs that had a heavy academic focus, but also used a one-to-one relationship to set the stage for the more “instrumental” work of reading support, test preparation, or other targeted academic support.
Over the years, the tutoring and mentoring camps have grown further apart and are now considered by most to be separate, but potentially related, activities. Experience Corps, however, happily blurs that line. Their model emphasizes the need to create strong relationships between the volunteers and the students. Volunteers are formally trained in strategies for bonding with and engaging their students. This approach echoes the blend of instrumental and developmental relationship approaches that mentoring researchers Karcher and Nakkula have promoted, as well as the “working alliance” concepts used in other programs reviewed for the NMRC.
The Experience Corps evaluation does hint that the quality of this relationship is important in achieving the program’s targeted reading outcomes: The quality of the student-volunteer relationship, as rated by volunteers, was predictive of better student reading outcomes and were associated with gains in two of the four indicators of reading improvement. Unfortunately, the evaluation doesn’t go into much detail about the nature of these relationships, their strengths and struggles, or the amount of time spent on purely relational conversations versus direct tutoring activities. It is worth noting that nearly 1 in 5 (18%) of the relationships were rated as “low quality” by the volunteers themselves, suggesting that the program might consider offering more support to participants around the relationship aspect of the services. But, at least in the case of this program, there does seem to be some evidence that volunteers who by design have a heavily task-focused academic approach to their work can still form strong relationships with students and that those relationships can be help drive program outcomes. A key here may be that this task-focused approach is an upfront aspect of the program that is presumably understood by students from the outset. In fact, research suggests that when mentors take on a heavily academic orientation in more traditional, relationship-focused mentoring programs, the results can be counterproductive.
As with any intervention, fidelity to the model is likely to be paramount for Experience Corps achieving its intended outcomes. One of the biggest barriers to that fidelity in many programs can be simply getting mentors and mentees to meet as frequently as they are supposed to. Programs often wonder how many meetings a youth can miss before the impact of the program starts to really taper off. In the case of Experience Corps, the results of the evaluation suggested a cutoff point that will seem familiar to experienced mentoring programs: About once a week. Some students in the program met with their volunteers as many as 96 times over the course of the school year, but the estimated impact of the program really fell off if the student received fewer than 35 sessions, which worked out to about once a week on average. There were probably myriad reasons why volunteers and youth didn’t meet more frequently or regularly, but Experience Corps is now in a position to track relationships against that benchmark and offer additional support to participants who seem in danger of not meeting enough to make an impact. Even without the benefit of a random assignment evaluation, all mentoring programs are encouraged to look closely at their participation and outcome data to try and determine if they too have a minimum “dosage” that they must meet to have a chance at success.
Seniors are an underutilized resource for mentoring programs.
Perhaps the most quietly impressive aspect of Experience Corps is the tremendous investment of time and energy they get from their age 55-and-up volunteers. These volunteers work with multiple students every week and, in this evaluation at least, averaged about 15 hours a week in one-on-one tutoring and mentoring sessions. This represents a substantial amount of “people power” that they are bringing to this program. Older adults might be drawn to several aspects of the programthe modest stipend provided at some sites, the clear purpose of the work and ready-to-use materials provided by the program, the ability to team with other older adults to serve many youth in one school setting.
Unfortunately, the last major analysis of mentors in America found that older adults (specifically, those age 65 and older) are the least likely age group to mentor. Programs should consider how they can make their program model more appealing to older adults, such as perhaps by streamlining the location and methods of service delivery or by helping overcome barriers to participation with financial or logistical support. These volunteers clearly had the motivation and means to contribute to this program and the mentoring field as a whole can learn a lot from studying programs like Experience Corps that have proven strategies for engaging seniors in their work.
For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.