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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Sharing knowledge through informal mentoring

Rozz Albon and Lina Pelliccione
Faculty of Education, Language Studies and Social Work
Curtin University of Technology

When university students are confronted with new learning environments and complex challenging concepts, sharing knowledge may be one approach to assist in finding, discussing, understanding and learning new content. How to encouraging students to reflect on what they currently know and need to know, and to take small risks to find the appropriate new information and skills is a challenge for educators. This paper reports on some of the findings related to informal mentoring, the process and the benefits to students in their learning. Informal mentoring, while it might appear unstructured, is in fact structured into two units of study and is operationalised through a reflective and flexible approach. Opportunities for students to practice reflection are embedded within informal mentoring because of the need to be reflective in a fast paced knowledge based future in which sharing knowledge will be a common feature. This study involved a cohort of first year pre-service Bachelor of Education students enrolled in a core Educational Psychology unit and an Information and Communication Technology unit. A qualitative approach was adopted with the use of various data generation tools such as observations, a questionnaire and a sociogram. Informal mentoring was a powerful medium to accelerate new and on demand learning.


The concept of mentoring originates from Greek mythology when Odysseus' son Telemachus was entrusted to his wise adviser, Mentor, to guide him in adulthood during his absence (Reilly, 1992). The application of the original concept, including apprenticeships has been widely applied in areas of education (Clifford & Green, 1996; Colton & Sparks-Langer, 1993; Elliot, 1995; Hawkey, 1997; Street, 2004). Most of these mentor programs have been guided by formal structures in which a mentor and mentee relationship is planned with reference to structure, guidelines for behaviour in both roles and learning outcomes. The utilisation of student knowledge and experience based on their level of study has been common practice in structured mentoring programs such as when first year students are mentored by second year students and third year students are mentored by professionals in the work environment.

A study by Karabenick & Newman (2004) examined pairs of low or high help seeking avoidance behaviour. They concluded that goal conditions of mastery or performance as well as ability to self regulate featured strongly in whether students would indeed ask for help from their teachers. Our study has heeded these results and not paired low avoidance seek helping students with each other or high avoidance seek helping students with each other but encouraged them as individuals or as a group to seek assistance in accordance with the group or individual needs. They urged teachers to pay more attention to factors which affect decisions to seek help from external as well as internal sources. In our study particular structures have been factored in and the extent of help seeking in both the internal university environment and external to the university environment, have not only been encouraged but expected and are the focus of this paper. This expectation is based on the concept of community of learners and lifelong learning, and the encouragement to function as a team.

Vygotsky's (1962, 1978) sociocultural theory purports that human learning is intrinsically social and interactive. It is the glue which enables the guiding and nurturing processes inherent in learning to operate. Thus, it would appear that socialisation is central to mentoring. So central is the relationship issue that a breakdown not only impacts on the quality of mentoring and therefore learning, but can lead to failure. Social relationships, while limited to membership of a particular group, usually flourish because of freedom to choose who one interacts with. When a formal arrangement is made, that is, one where some deliberate matching has been made based on a list of criteria, then it is inadvertently set up for possible failure. One of the criticisms of mentoring is the resources it takes to find the 'match' in order that mentoring can be successful.

Given that there will be different social and cultural experiences owned by all members of the same cohort then it seems logical that perhaps creating an environment to enable students to fulfil the roles of mentor and mentee may be more beneficial to students' learning. The environment created in this current study has planned for these roles to be filled by choice and addresses the issue of simultaneity. That is, a student can be mentor to another student or group of students in one matter/area and at the same time be a mentee in another and different matter or area. Structuring an enabling environment circumvents the shortcomings of formal mentor programs. When socialisation is considered part of learning then a community of practice or a community of learners is supported. Informal mentoring utilises both of these wider approaches to enhance learning. The support offered to each other through informal mentoring may be even more significant when students are experiencing high levels of challenge (Woolfolk, 2003).

Students enrolled in the two units (Educational Psychology and Information and Communication Technology) simultaneously as well as those enrolled only in Educational Psychology were motivated to pass both units and to do this they had to complete assessment tasks to a minimum of a pass level. The theoretical motivation applied in this paper is experienced as: students realise they are not able to firstly meet the assessment requirements as they do not have the knowledge and skills to do so and secondly, they cannot complete the tasks in several 'late nights', as is possible with many essay or written tasks. Students realise early in the semester they do not currently have the where-with-all to earn a passing grade. Experiencing this state psychologically creates motivation to learn and acquire skills and knowledge in order to achieve and therefore pass the units. In this paper, the task of creating a website, one of the assessment tasks, required skills that not all students possessed. However students in the Technology unit learnt new skills that were needed in the Psychology unit. The lecturers inferred that students had the intelligence to achieve high grades but they required assistance, help, support and mediation in order to complete the challenging task. Thus, informal mentoring was posited as the vehicle which would enable students to achieve.

Mentors act as instructional models, as sources of advice, and as sounding boards for concerns or fears. They also challenge students to problem solve. Elliot and Calderhead (1993) go as far as to say that without an adequate balance of support and challenge students are unlikely to learn from the mentoring experience. The structure of the learning design from the two units ensured students were not without support of others. Informal mentoring was described as an event or interaction in which one person seeks out another for the purpose of becoming informed. The seeking out might be quite singular and bounded in purpose or it may be complex and continual.

This paper reports on the informal mentor pattern which occurred as students reflected on their knowledge and skills. Their proactive efforts in seeking mentors who could share knowledge and skills have supported a constructivist approach to learning, sometimes called on demand learning.


One core, first year unit in Educational Psychology required groups of four students to produce a website as an authentic and dynamic assessment task. At the outset students were not expected to be skilled in this area but would have some basic computer skills and have accessed many websites. They were expected, as first years dealing with complex assessment tasks to be in a state of disequilibrium or out of their depth and experiencing some state of discomfort at the challenge which lay ahead and that this state would motivate them to seek knowledge in order to be comfortable and re-establish a less anxious state. Stated another way, students were expected to feel most uncomfortable as they would be moved beyond their comfort zone and would be motivated to return to a state of comfort. This comfort was expected to be achieved through the support and mediation provided by their mentors within and external to the university.

During second semester students of a Bachelor of Education (Primary/Early Childhood) course were required to enrol in three set core units as well as an elective unit, which could be chosen from various disciplines. One of the electives offered to this same cohort of students, as well as other year groups was the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) unit. Historically over the years it has been found that students who enrolled in this unit were usually those who were genuinely interested in this field, or it was seen as on option to improve or polish existing skills and knowledge regarding the use of ICT. The enrolment numbers in electives were usually considerably lower than those found in the core units. However, a student could be enrolled in both the Educational Psychology unit at the same time as the ICT unit. In both these units the two lecturers would work closely to accommodate the needs of these students so that the task could be completed successfully. The technology lecturer structured her unit around the need for students to develop skills in web design and the psychology lecturer used the task experience to provide first hand knowledge of several learning theories including those on motivation.

It was anticipated that students enrolled in the ICT unit acquired relevant skills and knowledge to mentor their own respective group members or students from other groups who were enrolled in the Psychology unit. Although not always the expert or always the novice, students demonstrated a range of computer skills from those with expertise to those of total novice to engage in jointly constructed activities. Mentoring offers a form of scaffolding; that is, a process in which students move from dependence to independence. When a student feels they have achieved a certain level of expertise, they can operate on their own and transfer the new learning to a novel task, or mentor another group or class member independent of the first mentor's guidance. The knowing of when to transfer learning, and when to operate without the established scaffold, is left entirely to the students. Through practice and engagement with a variety of experiences in a supported environment learners become skilled practitioners within their community of learners. Such was the framework for the informal mentoring to be undertaken in the two units of study. The lecturers did not identify or categorise students according to those with more or less knowledge and expertise, or those more likely to seek assistance and those less likely to seek assistance (Karabenick & Newman, 2004), preferring students to do this in a natural way. However, Educational Psychology students were given a one hour weekly scheduled time in the computer labs in which to develop their websites, apart from their scheduled tuteshop class and private study time. This meant they were placed in close proximity to one another, which created opportunities for mentoring, in various combinations. Students mingled with each other and identified those with relevant and sufficient skills to mentor them and better meet the assessment task requirements.

Lave and Wenger's (1991) term Legitimate Peripheral participation (LPP) is relevant here because of the notion of access to performance being relative to learning. Indeed if we want students to learn, then we, the lecturers must structure the environment to provide access to practice and reflection as part of that practice, as learning is demonstrated through performance. An informal mentoring framework provides an on demand practice context for students in the ICT unit, with less practice opportunities which could be initiated by the Psychology students. Thus a community of practice is deliberately structured in which informing mentoring can thrive.

The study

Ultimately this research project aimed to investigate informal peer mentoring when it is purposefully integrated across the two units for first year pre-service students. The key research question which guided the study was: Several other contributory questions aided the investigation:
  1. At which stages of the unit does the informal mentoring occur?
  2. Which modes (face to face; online) are being used to assist the informal mentoring process?
  3. What are student's perceptions of this experience within their concept of learning?
  4. How many people are involved in the informal mentoring process? Are these people university students or members of a larger community?
This paper concentrates on question four. Both units embrace flexible delivery principles through the online course management system of WebCT. The WebCT environment is used for general communication via discussion boards and emails, communication tasks, sharing of resources, and administration details. In the ICT unit students are required to investigate effective web design and apply this information to create a website 'shell' for future integration of technology into teaching. The Educational Psychology unit culminated in the production of a website to synthesise and explain the various practical components of their assessment tasks to theories of learning. Together the delivery and learning in the units and WebCT provided an easy and accessible approach for online mentoring. Both lecturers were able to monitor the informal mentoring and support students as either mentors or mentees.


The study involved 85 first year pre-service teachers enrolled in a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood/Primary) Course. All of these students were enrolled in the core Educational Psychology unit and a total of 22 of this cohort enrolled in the elective ICT unit. As identified earlier, students who enrolled in the ICT unit ranged from those who were interested in technology to those who were concerned that they did not have the necessary skills required to survive in our technology rich society. Thus, the skills of this group of students ranged considerably. All students had basic computer skills as this particular elective followed a prerequisite unit which covered a range of skills; however only a few of them were familiar with basic web design.

Data generation and analysis

A qualitative research method was used in this investigation as it called for in depth documentation of experiences, feedback, responses and demonstrations to create a rich picture of the informal mentoring enabled by a specific environmental design. Understanding the contributing factors in the functionality of informal mentoring and the reflective nature of initiating mentoring also called for a bottom up and qualitative method. The investigation was collaborative and was carried out over the first ten weeks of a semester. Data was collected through observations by two lecturers, a student questionnaire and a sociogram. The questionnaire titled, Student Informal Mentoring Scheme (SIMS), was administered at the end of the 10 week period. Table 1 provides a summary of the data generation tools and the method of analysis.

Table 1: Summary of data generation and analysis

Guiding QuestionsInstrumentAnalysis
What is the nature of the mentoring experience when it is built into and across the structure of two parallel units from different disciplines, but not formalised?WebCT
Content Analysis
  • Mentoring others/Being mentored
  • Relationship
  • Initiation
  • Time Frame
  • Context
At which stages of the unit does the informal mentoring occur?WebCTContent Analysis
When did the mentoring/being mentored occur?
Which modes (face to face, online) are being used to assist the informal mentoring process?Questionnaire
Discussion board
Content Analysis
What forms were most/least common?
How deep is the learning?QuestionnaireStudent's perceptions about replicating the learning.
Number of times they:
  • Demonstrated
  • Problem solved
  • Solved errors (own group and others).
How interchangeable are the roles of mentor and mentees in the informal mentoring process?Questionnaire
Identify the people you assisted/assisted you in some way with their website:
Within your group, class, outside your class...

Summary of results

This paper reports on some of the preliminary findings of this study, but in particular those relating to question four. Data from the sociograms identified several patterns but also raised more questions.

Key research question: The nature of informal mentoring

Informal mentoring, while diverse, also shared commonalities. The initial concepts of support and challenge played a significant part in the roles of mentors as indicated by students. For example, as students, particularly those with some computer competence, made attempts to create a website they were supported by the mentors. Mentors were eager to have other students achieve as this affirmed they knew their work and therefore felt confident and proud of their teaching impact. As students gained confidence they were more prepared to debate and argue about procedures and seek reasons for certain decisions in web design. Intended casual conversations often evolved into deep engagement in which mentor and mentee were challenged and supported.

Social support provided a life line to students who were in disequilibrium. The interactions between mentors and mentees further illustrated other outcomes such as the assistance in time management, learning how to collaborate and cooperate effectively within the group, deal with inner group conflict, maintenance of friendships, accommodation of individual differences, and adapting to different learning styles. Students were involved in deep constructivist strategies, as well as just in time learning.

Students noted and appreciated the freedom to choose mentors. This meant they could identify for themselves the 'best' mentor for them and the 'best mentor' in relation to their needs without a fixed relationship as occurs with most mentoring programs. Students were empowered to set up their own unwritten mentor relationship.

Often mentor relationships were established with students whose communication skills indicated an openness and willingness to assist and advise others. Students with closed communication strategies were not sought after to the same extent. Successful mentoring occurred because of connectedness. Students indicated that connectedness was formed by acknowledging another's problem and an ability to foresee not only the problem but strategies to solve it in a way they understood. Knowing other students were also experiencing the same degree of difficulty and challenge enabled them to confide in their mentors. Many students at times felt overwhelmed and shared their feelings with their mentor who empathised with their limited technical knowledge. Students felt the act of empathising enabled them to cope emotionally when out of their comfort zone.

The informal mentoring process: Who were mentors and mentees?

The data identified in the sociogram revealed that there were many layers of mentoring which crossed various boundaries. Students were asked to nominate peers or others they mentored within the university environment and external to this same environment. An example of a sociogram was provided through WebCT. Students downloaded this to map their own mentoring relationships. It was found the mentors from the ICT unit mentored across many boundaries. For instance, their sociograms revealed that they mentored other students within their ICT class (on average two students), their immediate group (this was not as common with the ICT group as certain people were assigned specific roles and they were obviously assigned the role of website designer and developer), their friends; other less known colleagues within their laboratory time, other groups outside of their laboratory time, and they also responded to requests for help through the discussion board and email on WebCT. An example is provided below by one student. This example not only demonstrates mentoring using online facilities but illustrates the warmth and support for peers and an understanding of the need for support when challenges are encountered. On a number of occasions the ICT mentors were assisted by their colleagues within the ICT cohort thus, making them mentees.
Message no. 2753
Author: Student A
Date: Thursday, October 14, 2004 3:34pm

Please Please Please can somebody help us! When we put our website up, for some reason we lost some of the pictures. If anyone can tell us how to get them back and never lose them again you can be my new best friend.

Message no. 2755
Author: Student B
Date: Thursday, October 14, 2004 4:06pm

Where did you get the pictures from when you put them in the webpage? If they are from the clipart thingo, you might need to copy the actual picture file into the same folder as your webpage and then put them in your webpage. If you open the webpage in whatever program you use to make it, and right-click the picture, there should be a properties thing you can select. In there somewhere should be the location of the file. Check that the file is in the WWW folder, or whatever folder the rest of your webpage is in. If it's not, you will have to go to the folder it says the picture is in in My Computer (probably C: -> Program Files ->Microsoft Office -> Clipart -> 'xyz' -> filename.bmp(or.jpg or .gif, etc.), and copy that file to the webpage folder (WWW). Once you have made sure it is in the right folder, you will probably have to replace the 'old' picture with the new one you just put in you web folder. So delete the old one, and go to Insert -> Picture -> from File, find the file you just copied into your web folder and place it in your document.

That's the only thing I can think of. If the pictures point to the right places, and you copied the whole lot into your WWW folder, it should work.

Hope this helps...

That's it. Song lyrics are going to start going into these posts when I can think of one with a mentioned word in it.

"Help me if you can, I'm feeling down.
And I do appreciate you, being 'round.
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down.
So wont you please, please, please he-e-e-lp mee-eeee..."

It was also interesting to note that the ICT students began to anticipate issues and concerns their colleagues would perhaps experience in the near future and attempted to assist them by posting relevant messages on the bulletin board. They were also willing to share resources as well as relevant information (for example, important copyright details).

The sociogram also revealed that as time progressed and the Education Psychology students became more confident with the design process and the technology itself some students also became mentors in the technical issues even though they were not part of the ICT cohort. Thus, these students diversified their role from only mentee at the beginning of the semester to being both mentee and mentor at the conclusion of the semester.

The context demanded peer marking for the final website to be presented to the Educational Psychology lecturer. This meant that each website was to be 'on show' or available to all groups but was officially assessed by two other groups. It appeared that this assessment demand and showcasing contributed to students seeking mentors in order that their finished product was polished and professional and met the perceived 'normed' standard. Previous evaluations of the unit indicated this as a strength in creating high standards of work and was therefore embedded in the design as part of the challenge and motivation for students to a final state of comfort. What remains elusive at this stage is why students were so willing to mentor peers and groups in order to make their websites more successful when in fact they were competing for a high grade. That students are not graded in accordance with a normal curve distribution, but on meeting the unit objectives and criteria description for each grade may offer some insight, but this is to be further explored.

Several specific patterns emerged. The number of students who claimed to have mentored others within the university environment was reported as an average of 2.7 persons per student. In reality students mentored between one and six other students with the mode being three students. The number dropped considerably in the environment external to the university with approximately 0.5 persons per student being mentored by them, but again in reality the students mentored between one and six people, with mentoring occurring more often for only one or two people.

A similar pattern was evident in the claims students made as to whom they received some form of mentoring from, although some doubts have been cast on the extent of the data related to the time of collection. Students claimed they were mentored internally by their peers on average by three others with a range of between 1 and 12. In the external environment the range was between 1 and 6 with most people being mentored by only one other. Data submitted by two students who had tracked the mentoring process over 4 weeks indicated the highest number of mentoring relationships, opening up the possibility that more mentoring was in practice than the current data is indicating.

An anomaly was found in the data. Those claiming to have been mentored did not match those who were the mentees. Further and specific monitored data collection is needed to address this anomaly. However a reason posited to explain this may be that some students didn't actually perceive themselves as being of assistance and therefore a mentor.

The relationships within the mentoring and menteeing were similar. Students were mentees of:

and were mentored by: Most mentoring relationships occurred within the same cohort of peers: 85% of the students believed they were mentees while 47% believed they did the mentoring of others.

Discussion, implications and conclusion

Students appeared to be discerning in selecting an appropriate person to mentor them or selected others who had a mentoring need. Most of the mentoring occurred within the internal university environment, as was expected. It was useful to know that students sought assistance from other lecturers, as this indicated the preparedness of students to seek the best or most appropriate help. It also indicated the confidence students had in doing so. However, the selection of lecturers was only small as was the selection of librarians.

It was also found that the data was more extensive when it was completed at regular intervals. Several mature and very dedicated students completed the sociogram over several weeks and the number of mentors and mentees exceeded all other students up to six fold. Males did less mentoring of others, than females generally although there were some exceptions.

Beyond the investigation of the predetermined research question other themes emerged: factors in mentoring; strategies used in the informal mentoring practices; reciprocity and transfer boundaries. For example, the benefits of informal mentoring in which freedom and choice were important were borne out in this investigation. Students used the WebCT environment to ask for assistance and others willingly provided quality responses as indicated earlier.

Interestingly, another strategy adopted by some groups was the assigning of specific roles. One person was responsible for the design and creation of the website while others were assigned different tasks such as interviewing, video interpretation and quiz construction, which focused purely on the content base of the website.

An investigation was made where less mentoring occurred. It was found that the students who chose not to participate in the more technical aspects design of web sites simply remained in their comfort zone. They seemed to tolerate the extent of each other's knowledge or were not willing to disclose their incompetence to others. In their words they said: "I didn't need any help".

The informal mentoring provided the ICT students with the opportunity to become skilled practitioners. Those students motivated by competence readily responded to the challenge of mentoring and transferring their knowledge. Not only did they provide support to mentees they also supported each other in how to transfer their knowledge and skills in ICT. This reinforced the relevance of the ICT unit content and the usefulness of using a variety of web authoring software such as Frontpage, MS Word and Dreamweaver. Participating at such a challenging level provided additional self worth and confidence, factors rarely considered when assessing students. It was concluded that this informal mentoring enabled students to participate and achieve university graduate attributes and more importantly, at such an early stage of their four year degree. The extent of informal mentoring actually surprised many students. The total experience also enabled them to map their movement from fear of the unknown, trepidation and challenge to a more comfortable place of having learned. Many members reflected they had learnt more about the process, considerations and time it takes to develop a web site, than acquiring the actual technical skills to mount a website themselves.

Establishing a constructive relationship was assisted by modelling. Students indicated they modelled or adopted strategies provided by their lecturers. The two lectures had implemented a mediated approach to learning (Albon, 2002; Feuerstein, 1980) as a support strategy to all students in both units. Both lecturers believed the modelling of mediation was evident in the willingness of students to assist each other despite the common goal of achieving in a mark driven context.

As reported in other studies (Clifford & Green, 1996; Elliot & Calderhead, 1993; Hawkey, 1997; Street, 2004) most students not only highlighted the productive mentoring strategies but nominated sharing of concerns, joys and disappointments, building teamwork and establishing trust as significant other outcomes to the informal mentoring structure. They concluded that their mentors helped them re-establish the comfort zone. It was concluded that a balance of support and challenge had been provided.

In conclusion, students who participated in the informal mentoring, have reported that the informal mentoring experience with such a challenging task was valuable and provided another pedagogical practice. They believed their learning was deeper, richer and stronger as a result. In the words of one student, who reflected on the interaction of the complex task and the informal mentoring relationship: "It was frustrating, challenging, and took a huge amount of time, but I gained a great deal of knowledge and technical skills" (ICT/Ed Psych, 2004).


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Authors: Dr Rozz Albon and Dr Lina Pelliccione
Faculty of Education, Language Studies and Social Work
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845, Australia
Email: R.Albon@curtin.edu.au, L.Pelliccione@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Albon, R. and Pelliccione, L. (2005). Sharing knowledge through informal mentoring. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/albon.html

Copyright 2005 Rozz Albon and Lina Pelliccione. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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