The challenges for faculty working with students in the 21st century are rising. How can faculty meet the many challenges facing higher education? In the past, faculty could stand objectively in front of the class and provide didactic information to students via lecture. Students came to the classroom expecting information from a book and verbal lecture covering the content. Over time, student expectations and readiness have changed. Students in the 21st century enter the classroom armed with a vast array of knowledge just a swipe away on various digital devices. In addition, they have access to instant entertainment and innovative instruction on various websites, social media, and podcasts. Unfortunately, nationwide scores in math and reading are on the decline—these students often lack the skills to succeed in higher education. The challenge of identifying the best approach to educating these digital natives is on the mind of educators across the country.
Instructors often turn to flipped classrooms as a method to engage learners but run into unexpected barriers. The classroom may not be the issue, but a more significant problem may be the role of the traditional classroom faculty. Many faculty have transitioned from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” This transition requires educators to move away from traditional lectures and incorporate active teaching strategies to engage learners. These efforts resulted in a vast array of innovative teaching methodologies, yet many students need help to develop the necessary knowledge to succeed academically. Unfortunately, the “guide on the side” mentality continues to divide faculty and students. Faculty members have shifted their location in the classroom from behind the lectern to the room’s periphery. While this is a positive evolution, it fails to recognize the importance of building a positive relationship with students and creating a pathway for two-way communication between the student and instructor. The challenge exists to evolve from the “guide on the side” to the “mentor in the center.” The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a mentor as an individual with expertise who can help develop a mentee’s career (2022). This definition describes the role of the mentor/mentee relationship in the workplace but needs to define the role in education. As we see a new generation of students in the classroom, we as educators need to adapt to meet the needs of students who are not academically or socially prepared for the academic setting.
Faculty who choose to evolve into classroom mentors will develop relationships with students to identify barriers that often go unnoticed in the classroom. After identifying the barrier to learning, the faculty mentor assists in directing the student to available resources. These barriers, if not addressed, will often lead to academic failure. Students experiencing economic, social, and emotional barriers need to be aware of the resource or how to access available resources. Faculty members who engage in meaningful conversations with students are not required to solve these barriers but rather work alongside students to facilitate access and provide support for potential resolutions. Developing these relationships may be uncomfortable for many faculty. Past practice has encouraged many faculty to maintain professional distance between students to maintain objectivity. This distance prevents many students from seeking help from the classroom “expert,” the faculty member, and instead turn toward peers or online resources. In addition, the resources often contain misinformation and may lead to a delay in aid. So how do faculty transition into the “mentor in the center”?
Developing mentoring in education can seem overwhelming. The mentoring dynamic framework described by Rolfe (2020) can be used as to guide for faculty. This dynamic describes four components of mentoring: challenge, elicit, support, and impart. Faculty should develop a mentoring relationship that seeks information from students by asking questions and listening. This information may be factual knowledge regarding the content or may involve asking questions about barriers impeding academic success. Listen to students as they describe challenges and barriers and provide access to resources that may provide support. If the student does not need outside resources, be prepared to share knowledge, and experience and provide alternative solutions to students. Faculty who mentor can challenge students to adopt alternative study tools to overcome bad habits. Mentoring in education will enhance the learner-centered approach and may lead to enhanced academic success for students. This approach may be challenging for faculty who have historically maintained an objective relationship with students but the benefit of developing these relationships outweigh the risks.
It is not too late to become the “mentor in the center.” Try incorporating the following steps in the classroom to develop a safe mentoring classroom environment.
- Encourage a positive mindset with students. Help students develop realistic classroom expectations, build a growth mindset, and a desire to learn. Students who develop a growth mindset identify the faculty as a resource for learning.
- Help students focus by identifying specific learning outcomes/objectives prior to class. Providing objectives/outcomes before class allows students to study the correct information and come to class prepared to apply the material. In addition, providing students with this knowledge before class will assist in building confidence and empowering success.
- Create positive collaborative learning environments. Collaborate with students by creating engaging learning activities. An engaging classroom environment will help build rapport between the faculty member and students. Students are more likely to seek help from a faculty member when participating in a positive environment.
Erica Blumenstock, RN, DNP, is an assistant professor in nursing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She is dedicated to developing positive classroom environments for students and working on flipped classroom design. Her past employment has provided opportunities to develop skills to aid in mentoring students.
American Psychological Association. (2022). Introduction to mentoring: A guide for mentors and mentees. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/education-career/grad/mentoring
Rolfe, A. (2020). Mentoring mindset, skills and tools (4th edition). Mentoring Works.