What Role Can Questioning Play in Mentorship?

Patricia Chrosniak, Bradley University
Edwin G. Ralph, University of Saskatchewan
Keith D. Walker, University of Saskatchewan


In this conceptual article, the authors explore how advisers’ and advisees’ use of questioning can enhance the mentoring process. The authors frame this discussion within one developmental mentoring model, Adaptive Mentorship © (AM), which they have designed, researched, and refined. They contend that AM has relevance for mentoring in its broadest sense across all disciplines, including academic advising. The authors illustrate how participants using the AM model would typically pose questions to enhance the professional development of protégés and mentors, alike; and they emphasize that appropriate questioning within the mentorship process will promote professional learning.


Whether one sees academic advising as a unique professional discipline in its own right, or as an embedded portion of the assigned duties of all instructional personnel (Lowenstein, 2011), there is widespread agreement that mentorship is integral with advising (Noll, 2011). Educators typically conceptualize mentorship as a developmental process, whereby individuals who possess more knowledge, skills, and experience in a particular field (i.e., mentors) assist individuals possessing less of those elements (i.e., protégés) to acquire and/or refine them, in terms of the latter’s psychosocial and technical functions within particular professional disciplines (Ragins & Kram, 2007).

A plethora of definitions and approaches to mentorship exist across the educational and professional landscape (Allen & Eby, 2007), and protégés within every field reflect a wide range of task-specific developmental stages. Despite these contextual complexities, mentors endeavor to meet protégés’ diverse professional-development needs (Desselles & Livingston, 2011). If this individualization process is to be successful, participants must ensure that mentorship is rooted in effective communication practice (Alvarez, 2010), which often includes the use of questioning to stimulate protégé thinking (Parks Daloz, 2005). Considerable research has emerged regarding the use of questioning within the teaching/learning process (Wilen, 1987; McKeachie, 1986), and Mezirow and Taylor’s (2009) work on transformative learning has also contributed to shaping how questioning might be utilized to enhance mentorship in adult education.

Our purpose in this article is to illustrate questioning within one developmental model, Adaptive Mentorship© (Ralph & Walker, 2011a, 2011b), previously Contextual Supervision (Ralph, 1998, 2004), within which one could utilize questioning.

Adaptive Mentorship

We developed AM to serve as an interdisciplinary mentoring approach to enhance advising/mentoring practice in any field (Ralph & Walker, 2010, 2011a, 2011b). We derived it from contingency-leadership approaches (Ralph, 1998) and have witnessed its transferability to various professional disciplines and cultures (Johansson-Fua, Sanga, Walker, & Ralph, 2011). We represent the model in Figure 1.

Adaptive Mentorship Diagram

In Figure 1, we illustrate AM operating within the confines of a specific context consisting of the situational elements unique to each setting. These contextual variables cannot be easily changed by mentors or protégés (e.g., participants’ cultural backgrounds, individuals’ personalities, organizational procedures, or workplace conditions). In fact, within such contexts the only factor that mentorship dyads would have power to control is their own behavior: protégés could change their performance, and mentors could adjust their leadership actions. In Figure 1, we depict this activity by two face-to-face windows, using the glass metaphor to emphasize transparency, upon which all successful relationships are based (Armstrong, 2012; Parsloe & Leedham, 2009).

The D-grid in Figure 1 represents the protégé and his/her task-specific, time-specific developmental level, while the A-grid represents the mentor’s adaptive response matched to the protégé’s then-existing developmental stage for the skill set in question. The key principle underlying the AM model is that the mentor must adjust his/her mentoring response to align with the protégé’s performance level. An A-response that mismatches the D-level will typically spawn confusion, frustration, anger, and/or resentment between partners (Ralph, 1998, 2005). Ideally, as the protégé develops his/her skills/knowledge, the mentor will make corresponding adaptations in his/her leadership style. The application of AM consists of four phases:

1. Decide on the knowledge/skills being developed
Each profession/discipline has specific bodies of knowledge, competencies, and values that characterize proficient practitioners. In the case of student advising, a major goal is for students to make optimal decisions regarding their academic courses/programs, and to extend this ability to make sound career decisions in their future (Parks Daloz, 2005).

Within the AM model, protégés are typically at different developmental stages for their various tasks and will encounter difficulty in trying to master everything at once. Logically, the mentoring pair will divide the learning requirements into manageable portions and have the protégé focus on “bite-size chunks” of material.

2. Determine the protégé’s task-specific development level
As illustrated in the D-grid of Figure 1, a protégé’s skill-specific developmental level consists of both his/her competence and his/her confidence in performing a task at a given point in time. We defined competence as the degree of the learner’s procedural, technical, or mechanical ability to perform the skill set; and we defined confidence as the degree of inner psycho/emotional composure, self-assurance, self-efficacy, ease, or comfort that a protégé senses regarding his/her performance of that task.

A protégé could be at one of numerous positions for each skill set within the D matrix, but for analytical purposes, we identified four general positions in each grid. For instance, the D1 quadrant typifies a protégé who has “low competence” and “high confidence” in performing the task being practiced (i.e., he/she does not know exactly how to perform it with technical prowess but feels self-assured, willing, and eager to do so). A protégé at D2 is low on both competence and confidence, a protégé at D3 shows high competence in the skill but has low confidence, while a protégé at D4 ranks high on both dimensions.

A protégé’s developmental level for each skill set may be ascertained in three ways: (a) by the mentor’s formal and informal observations of the protégé’s actual performance of it, (b) by the pairs’ informal conversations about the protégé’s specific progress, and (c) by the protégé’s answers to direct questions regarding his/her competence and confidence in the task. We re-emphasize that these D-levels are skill-specific, they are changeable over time, and they are not permanent labels of protégés’ progress.

3. Synchronize mentor response
The mentor must subsequently adapt his/her mentorship response to correspond to the protégé’s existing D-level. This matching process represents the essence of AM and is depicted in Figure 1 by the large arrows connecting similarly numbered quadrants: A1 with D1, A2 with D2, and so on.

As we illustrate in the A-grid (representing mentors’ adaptive style), their response has two dimensions: the amount of support the mentor provides the protégé (i.e., the encouragement, positive reinforcement, praise, and psychological/emotional inversely related to the protégé’s confidence level). It consists of positive words, facial expressions, gestures, and body language that the mentor provides.

The other response-component on the A-grid is the task continuum (i.e., the amount of mentor “directedness” regarding the protégé’s existing technical or mechanical performance of the specific skill set). The mentor’s task response varies along a continuum from lesser to greater amounts of directive guidance, or specific technical advice regarding the protégé’s “technique” or performance. This task-dimension involves mentor behaviors ranging (at the high end) from telling, directing, prescribing, recommending, and suggesting; to less directive action (at the medium range), such as advising, guiding, showing, demonstrating, or asking questions; to the least task-oriented response (at the lower range), typified by mutual discussion, sharing, or delegating by the mentor.

The key principle in correctly matching the A and D quadrants is that the mentor’s task response must be inversely proportional to the extent of the protégé’s competence level. That is, low protégé competence requires mentors’ high task-orientation or attention to direction, because the protégé does not know how to execute the strategy and needs to know. On the other hand, high protégé competence calls for low task-direction from the mentor, because the former already knows how to perform it. Similarly, the extent of the mentor’s support is inversely proportional to the novice’s level of confidence. Low protégé confidence requires high mentor support, while high confidence solicits low support, because the protégé’s already elevated confidence does not need bolstering.

4. Observe and continually adapt mentor response
The mentorship dyad must monitor the protégé’s changing level of development for each element, and the mentor will accordingly adapt his/her response to synchronize, in opposite degrees, with the protégé’s development level(s). Our research (Ralph, 1998, 2004, 2005; Ralph & Walker, 2010, 2011a, 2011b) has consistently shown that (a) protégés do not always progress numerically from D1 to D4; (b) they can begin at, and change to, different levels on the D-grid, but typically conclude at D4; and (c) effective mentors appropriately synchronize the A with D quadrants.

Posing Questions within the AM Model

We illustrate how mentors employ questioning strategies within AM to promote pairs’ reflection, strengthen their decision making, enhance the mentorship process, and advance their mutual learning.

The program leader first describes AM to all participants, and then advises the pairs how to implement it. During this initial AM orientation, the leader gives two grid-sheets to each partner: a blank D-grid and a blank A-grid. He/she asks protégés to independently mark an “x” on their D-grids at which location they think they are functioning for the agreed-upon skill set. The leader also asks mentors to independently mark a point on his/her D-grid copy to indicate the position at which he/she felt the protégé was performing in the skill. After each partner privately completes his/her D-plottings, the leader asks the pair to compare/question/discuss their choices and underlying rationales.

Next, the leader asks mentors and protégés to privately mark an “x” on their respective A-grid sheets to reflect the location from which they each thought the mentor was mentoring the protégé at that time for the task. The leader then asks the pair to question/discuss their two “A” plottings. After this discussion, the leader asks pairs to debrief the similarities and differences between their respective A and D rankings.

We provide key questions that the pairs typically pose, not only during this initial orientation to the AM framework, but also periodically throughout the entire mentorship period. We consider these questions, which Wiggins (2007) would classify as essential questions, to be critical to the success of the entire Adaptive Mentorship enterprise. Our research showed that as mutual trust developed between participants, and as they became more comfortable with each other and the communication process, then the quality of the mentoring grew, their timidity diminished, and their mutual satisfaction and learning increased (Ralph 2004; Ralph & Walker, 2011a).  The questions are:

  • How did we compare on our D-placements?
  • How did we compare on our A-placements?
  • Why did we match (or mismatch) our plottings?
  • What needs to be done to correct the mismatch?
  • Why did you think I was functioning at “X”?
  • What would AM suggest that I need to do to help us match the quadrants?
  • What would AM suggest that you need to do to help us match the quadrants?
  • According to AM, what am I doing that I should stop doing to help you (protégé) reach D4?
  • According to AM, what am I not doing that I should be doing to help you (protégé) reach D4?
  • How could I provide you (protégé) with more support (or task/direction)?
  • What do I (protégé) need to do to enhance my competence?

Our research (Ralph 1998, 2011a) has further identified the following benefits that accrue when mentor/protégé dyads collaboratively pose and systematically answer the above questions: (a) AM served as a useful framework by which pairs could conceptualize the whole mentoring process; (b) it provided mentors with specific guidance for adapting to and promoting protégé development; (c) it helped sidestep and re-interpret so-called “relationship difficulties” or “personality clashes,” by identifying mentors’ mismatching of their responses; (d) it indicated if protégés were not demonstrating anticipated growth; (e) it served as a “third-party,” helping pairs replace blaming, fault-finding, and rationalizing behaviors with more constructive resolutions; and (f) it required a sound rationale, clear explanations, sufficient training, and sufficient practice for success.


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About the Author(s)

Patricia Chrosniak, Bradley University

Patricia Chrosniak, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education, Bradley University, in Peoria, IL. She can be reached at pchrosniak@bradley.edu.

Edwin G. Ralph, University of Saskatchewan

Edwin Ralph, Ph.D., is a professor and facilitator/supervisor of extended practicum in the College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatchewan, Canada. He can be reached at edwin.ralph@usask.ca.

Keith D. Walker, University of Saskatchewan

Keith Walker, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Education and the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatchewan, Canada. He can be reached at keith.walker@usask.ca.

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