Peer Mentors to Improve Outcomes in the Online Classroom

The terms “mentor” and “tutor” are commonly interchanged in this regard. Sometimes online peer mentoring refers to faculty-to-faculty mentoring, as in this program at UMUC, but, of course, that is not what we are talking about. In our case, peer mentoring refers to a student modeling the role of the successful online student.


About Peer Mentors at UIS (from Educause Review**)

“Faculty members teaching online spend significant time acclimating students to the rhythms, routines, and expectations of an online course. Though time-consuming, this support is often critical to their students’ success. To fill this gap in the online classroom, UIS implemented an online peer mentoring program in 2002.

The concept of online student peer mentoring was pioneered by the Online Campus, originally called “Wizards,” at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 2000. The school received the 2002 Sloan Consortium award for “Online Learning Effectiveness” for their work in this area. The concept of the online peer mentor is straightforward and easily adapted to many courses, teaching methods, and learning styles.1

Online peer mentors are experienced online students. Their duties include:

  • Facilitating discussions
  • Tracking participation
  • Training on classroom technologies
  • Answering questions about the course

Most importantly, though, they model the behavior of the successful online student. Less-experienced students observe the importance of logging in to the course frequently, engaging in class discussions, and writing in an academic style. Students become more self-directed learners, freeing the instructor to focus on course content and facilitation rather than routine tasks.

In 2007, UIS partnered with the Illinois Community Colleges Online (ILCCO) to study the effect of peer mentors on student retention. Seven Illinois community colleges each identified two “problem” online courses in which student completion rates were low. These instructors then selected former students to become peer mentors in their courses. Prior to the program’s implementation in the spring 2008 semester, both instructors and mentors participated in UIS-led training on the role of peer mentors and methods for incorporating them into courses. The non-completion rate in these courses was reduced by 3.48 percent in one semester. More significantly, though, student success improved. The number of failures was reduced by 3.28 percent, while the number of A and B grades increased by 7.20 percent.”

**Boles, E., Cass, B., Levin, C., Schroeder, R., & Smith, S. (2010). Sustaining Students: Retention Strategies in an Online Program. Educause Quarterly, 33(4), n4.

ILCCO Colleges Participating in the Research

  • Black Hawk College
  • Elgin Community College
  • Illinois Community College Board
  • Lake Land College
  • Moraine Valley Community College
  • Triton College
  • University of Illinois at Springfield
  • Waubonsee Community College
  • William Rainey Harper College

Study Results


Tips for Peer Mentors

The ABC’s of successful online peer tutor/mentoring:

  • Accesibility/Accountability
  • Be encouraging/ Be informative
  • Clarify
  • Discussion board facilitation

Excerpt from Tutoring Matters: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About How to Tutor by Jerome Rabow, Tiffani Chin, Nima Fahimian. Modified for online peer mentors.**

  • Treat your online tutees as equals.
  • Don’t worry about mistakes – they provide the best opportunity for teaching and learning.
  • Don’t be critical of your tutees.
  • Recognize differences in learning styles, a vital step to building a tutoring/mentoring relationship.
  • Recognize your commonalties, a vital step to building a tutoring/mentoring relationship.
  • Be supportive of tutees’ efforts as well as their accomplishments.
  • Be hopeful.
  • Make online learning engaging.
  • Keep your eye on the significance of your effort in your tutees’ lives.
  • Do not use bribes or gifts to motivate your tutee.
  • Be willing to share your experience when you think it’s appropriate.
  • Don’t make empty promises.
  • Don’t forget how important you are – your tutee depends on you.
  • Be prompt.
  • Use differences between you and your tutee to open up honest conversations.
  • Forgive your errors and those of your tutee-they were unintentional.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Be empathetic toward your online students and their experiences.
  • Be observant and pay attention to what your tutees enjoy and how they learn.
  • Incorporate tutee interests into your activities and assignments.
  • Be creative.
  • Help your students reach their learning objectives.
  • Be respectful.

**Rabow, J., Chin, T., & Fahimian, N. (1999). Tutoring matters: Everything you always wanted to know about how to tutor. Temple University Press.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is an online peer mentor?

An online peer mentor is a successful student, who is placed in a course that he or she had completed, to serve as a guide for others. The duties of online peer mentors include tutoring students, facilitating discussion, and locating resources, but their most essential function is to model the role of a successful student.

How is an online peer mentor different from an online supplemental instructor?

Online peer mentors are not simply representatives of the instructor but play a very distinctive role as peer mentors in classroom activities, sharing their experience, fostering discussion, and modeling the role of a successful student. In addition, they are asked not to perform any activities pertaining to grading.

Why do online peer mentors not help with grading?

The online peer mentors rely on the special trust that they enjoy in the classroom as peers of the students. Participation in grading would add an unwanted element of tension in their relations with other students. top

What training do online peer mentors have?

Online peer mentors are generally given training in online communication, learning software, and pedagogical technique. Some of them eventually become very expert in understanding the dynamics of online education.

How are online peer mentors chosen?

Most of the time, an instructor will chose a student that has been especially successful to be his/her online peer mentor in the coming semester.

What qualities make for a good online peer mentor?

In addition to having a good knowledge of the course material, an online peer mentor should be comfortable online. He or she will need verbal skills and social sensitivity.

How do the online peer mentor and the instructor coordinate their efforts?

The online peer mentor and instructor generally work very closely, so good communication between them is essential. At the beginning of a course, they should agree on a division of labor. After that, they should be in touch at least once a week for the duration of the course.

How are online peer mentors paid?

Online peer mentors are generally paid by the course. Other benefits of the job include an educational experience, an opportunity for greater camaraderie with other students, a chance to get to know the professor, participation in a vital community, and access to job/career opportunities.

What are the advantages to a faculty member of having an online peer mentor?

An online peer mentor can obviously save a faculty member a lot of time by taking on tasks such as tutoring individual students and monitoring the class for students who fall behind. If a faculty member is new to online education, an online peer mentor can often help with technical problems. In addition, a course having an online peer mentor in the class can relieve the feelings of isolation that faculty members sometimes feel in an online classroom.

What are the advantages to students of having an online peer mentor in the class?

An online peer mentor can help students in several ways including academic assistance, technical assistance, time management, and advising. In questionnaires, students have emphasized the confidence that comes simply with knowing that somebody available if there are difficulties.


Resources for Online Peer Mentoring

  • Another updated source of good info Papers and Articles Available Online about Mentoring
  • Establishing a Mentoring Plan for Improving Retention in Online Graduate Degree Programs – Janet Truluck, OJDLA
    As online distance education courses continue to increase in popularity for graduate programs it is becoming evident that retention issues are much greater in this format than in traditional face to face classes. Maintaining contact with students and overcoming feelings of isolation can be a major challenge for instructors and program coordinators. This paper describes an e-mentoring plan established for students in a Master’s of Adult Education degree program with the purpose of maintaining enrollment while supporting students throughout their experience. The steps of the plan are described along with the rationale for each.
  • Online mentoring and peer support: – Lockyer L.; Patterson J.; Rowland G.; Hearne D.: Alt-J – Association for Learning Technology Journal
    A vital aspect of any professional education is the opportunity for students to engage in meaningful practical experiences. In pre-service teacher education in Australia, this vital teaching practice component has undergone challenges in recent years due to increasing student numbers (linked to the increasing demand for new teachers) and limited resources in university and school sectors. As such, initiatives to enhance the practical component of this professional degree have been sought. This paper details the methodology and outcomes associated with a pilot project that utilized asynchronous Web-based communication tools to facilitate mentoring and peer support through the teaching practice experience. Analysis of the online discussions and interviews with participants provides an indication of the nature of the interactions and the perceived value of the intervention, and informs the potential for larger-scale implementation.
  • The Role of Tutors as an Integral Part of Online Learning Support – McPherson and Nunes, EURODL
    This paper discusses the changing roles of tutors when engaging with e-learning. Understanding the importance of these roles and identifying necessary tutoring skills is paramount for the success of e-learning solutions. Since online tutors play a critical role in e-learning, as the main agents responsible for the delivery of the courses and the support of the learners, they must be equipped with an appropriate set of skills and attributes in addition to subject matter expertise. This paper discusses four main types of roles (pedagogical, social, managerial and technical) and proposes Online Learning Support (OLS) as computer-mediated approaches to support and facilitate learning, using a combination of skills that encompass information and IT expertise, as well as expertise in the educational uses of online learning resources, environments and communication technologies. Therefore, the process of online tutoring is probably the most important critical success factor in learner acceptance of e-learning.
  • Ten Tips and Tricks for the Online Student – Mark Evans, TechLearning
    By In the summer of 2000 I began an online Masters program at the University of Phoenix. I wasn’t expecting too many bumps in the online road. After all, I regularly spent time on the Internet; I used chat programs and newsgroups and my job title, District Instructional Technology Coordinator, had me firmly entrenched in all that was new and cutting edge. Or so I thought. At the end of my first week “in school” I was panicked, confused and overwhelmed. It quickly became apparent that this virtual schooling was not going to be easy. To my colleagues, I am known as one of the most methodical individuals in my school district, yet in the online classroom I was disorganized.
  • The Wizards Program at Mercy College from JALN
    Mercy College has encouraged students to take a more active role in their education through the use of online teaching assistants or “course wizards.” The duties of wizards include tutoring students, facilitating discussion, and locating resources, but their most essential function is to model the role of a successful student. Having successfully confronted the challenges of a college environment, they provide peers with the benefits of their experience. The program takes advantage of the special intimacy that students share with their classmates. This article gives an outline of the wizards program, and examines it with respect to several criteria including student satisfaction, learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, and the
    satisfaction of the wizards themselves.
  • New Models for Online Learning – Carol A. Twigg, Educause Review Sept/Oct 2003
    5. On-demand help. An expanded support system enables students to receive assistance from a variety of different people. Helping students feel that they are a part of a learning community is critical to persistence, learning, and satisfaction. Many projects replace lecture time with individual and small-group activities that take place either in computer labs —staffed by faculty, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), and/or peer tutors—or online, enabling students to have more one-on-one assistance.
    6. Alternative staffing. By constructing support systems consisting of various kinds of instructional personnel, the projects apply the right level of human intervention to particular student problems. Not all tasks associated with a course require highly trained, expert faculty. By replacing expensive labor (faculty and graduate students) with relatively inexpensive labor (undergraduate peer mentors and course
    assistants) where appropriate, the projects increase the person-hours devoted to the course and free faculty to concentrate on academic rather than logistical tasks.
  • Illinois Online Network: Instructional Strategies for Online Courses
    The aim of mentorship is to promote learner development drawing out and giving form to what the student already knows. A mentor serves as a guide rather than a provider of knowledge and serves the function of introducing students to the new world, interpreting it for them, and helping them to learn what they need to know to function in it. Mentors in education teach by interpreting the environment and modeling expected behaviors. They also support, challenge, and provide vision for their students.A major benefit to online mentorship is the opportunity for frequent, convenient communication between mentor and student. Weekly or even daily journals and communications can be sent between mentor and student via e-mail, providing an ongoing “dialogue” which supports the development of the mentor relationship and offers numerous opportunities for timely feedback on student questions, concerns and issues.
  • Brief report: new roles for tutors in an online classroom – Boria Sax, Journal of College Reading and Learning
    This article discusses the use of online teaching assistants or “course wizards,” employed at Mercy College not only to tutor students who are experiencing difficulty but also to facilitate discussion and to model the role of a successful student. It begins with a brief summary of the vocation of tutor as it has changed and developed from ancient times to the present. It continues with a discussion of the current crisis in higher education in America and of how online education brings new possibilities and challenges. Wizards not only help students who are at risk but also facilitate discussion and, most importantly, model the role of a successful student.
  • OLC Effective Practice: Florida State University’s Online Mentors
    Florida State University’s Office of Distributed and Distance Learning (ODDL) created a mentor program to provide more effective student support services. The program was created in response to unacceptably high withdrawal rates in distance learning courses due to students ’ feelings of isolation, and to online faculty fears that there were too many students for them to handle preparation, instruction, monitoring, communication, and evaluation effectively.FSU’s ODDL believed that mentors would provide an appropriate level of distance and detachment from the institution, the instructor, and coursemates. Additionally, mentors would be better able to relate to the online learning population with its different demographic characteristics.
  • Agencies and Initiatives in Online Volunteer Mentors
    Agencies and initiatives that involve online volunteers as mentors or tutors (e-mentoring, e-mail mentoring, telementoring, etc.). This listing is from, a project of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin, provides information on all aspects of volunteerism.
  • MentorNet
    MentorNet is the award-winning nonprofit e-mentoring network that addresses the retention and success of those in engineering, science and mathematics, particularly but not exclusively women and other underrepresented groups. Founded in 1997, MentorNet provides highly motivated protégés from many of the world’s top colleges and universities with positive, one-on-one, email-based mentoring relationships with mentors from industry and academia. In addition, the MentorNet Community provides opportunities to connect with others from around the world who are interested in diversifying engineering and science.
  • Perceptions of student peer tutors in a problem-based learning programme – Patricia Solomon, Jean Crowe, Medical Teacher
    The use of student peer tutors is an attractive and affordable alternative in a problem-based programme. Previous literature has focused on comparing the academic performance of faculty-tutored and student-tutored groups. This study used qualitative methods to examine a peer-tutoring model from the perspective of the student tutor. Students in the final semester of a two-year accelerated physiotherapy programme kept a reflective journal outlining their experiences in facilitating a group of peers from the same class. Content analysis of 56 journals indicated that the students struggled with basic facilitation skills and had difficulty separating the role of student from that of tutor. Students also developed strategies to allow them to succeed, were able to evaluate their performance in a positive light and appeared to value their tutoring experience.
  • Electronic Discussion Groups: How Initial Parameters Influence Classroom Performance – EDUCAUSE Quarterly, number 4 2002
    In future iterations of the e-discussion we hope to enlist peer mentors from the previous semester, one for each theme group, both to initiate discussion and to interact with the students currently enrolled in our classes. Indeed, Sawyer recommends using student experts both as technical assistants and as role models.
  • eArmyU: Early Lessons from a Grand Experiment in Online Learning, EDUCAUSE ECAR Research Bulletin Volume 2002, Issue 20
    Help desk services, an introduction to basic computer skills, online tutoring, peer mentors, and other services may make the difference in the success or failure of an online learner. To supplement the support services already provided to eArmyU solder-students, the Army and IBM Business Consulting Services are currently considering such services as a peer mentor program and a student success course that soldiers would be required to take before enrolling in the eArmyU.