Advising, Counseling, Coaching, Mentoring: Models of Developmental Relationships in Higher Education

  • June 28, 2013

Allison E. McWilliams, Wake Forest University
Lauren R. Beam, Wake Forest University


A concern for student development has existed in some form since the establishment of institutions of higher education. As student needs have evolved, developmental strategies similarly have adapted to meet those needs. Major theoretical models emerged from psychology and sociology in the early twentieth century and examined the interaction between the college environment and student development (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). Notably, the work of Erikson (1950, 1968) and Chickering (1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993) explored identity development in adolescence; more recently, Arnett (2004) built upon this work to create a theory of emerging adulthood to describe the period of exploration and identity formation that occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

Based on these theories, several strategies have been deployed to address student developmental needs, including advising, counseling, coaching, and mentoring. These strategies have either operated in isolation from one another or have been used interchangeably without a full understanding of the unique uses and goals appropriate to each. But as Evans et al. noted, “the whole of students’ development is bigger than its parts” and demands more than a one-size-fits-all model (2010, p. 371). Indeed, the very theories upon which these strategies are based “encourage partnerships … to enhance student learning and maximize positive student outcomes” (Evans et al., 2010, p. 7).

This article examines each of these strategies and their applications within the higher education setting. The article describes the development of Wake Forest University’s Mentoring Resource Center and efforts to develop a campus-wide mentoring culture through strategic partnerships with other offices on campus, particularly Career Education and Counseling, Residence Life and Housing, and Academic Advising. The authors describe challenges and opportunities the university faced as it developed and implemented this decentralized, highly collaborative model, as well as discuss lessons learned and aspects of other developmental models that can enhance the effectiveness of mentoring programs.

Four Strategies

The term “advising” has broadened considerably over time from its original association with academics and course selection. According to the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), the academic advising curriculum includes, but is not limited to, “the institution’s mission, culture and expectations; the meaning, value, and interrelationship of the institution’s curriculum and co-curriculum; modes of thinking, learning, and decision-making; the selection of academic programs and courses; the development of life and career goals; campus/community resources, policies, and procedures; and the transferability of skills and knowledge” (NACADA, 2006, ¶ 8). NACADA also acknowledges that advising takes many forms in a higher education context, including developmental, career, and mentoring-style relationships. The developmental model of advising not only focuses on student learning and educational experiences, but seeks to connect students’ academic interests and skills with their personal and career ambitions (King, 2005). Many of the tools and resources used in an advising relationship that overlap with those used in career offices include self-assessments, online resources related to majors and careers, goal-setting exercises, and learning experiences outside the classroom (e.g., shadowing or volunteer opportunities, on-campus involvement, and externships/internships).

In addition to segmentation according to the types of services offered, advising models differ depending upon who is providing the assistance. Some institutions—usually smaller, liberal arts-based schools—maintain the traditional, decentralized model of faculty advising. Larger institutions, lacking the capacity to assign a faculty member to every student, have moved to a centralized professional advising model, whereby professional staff is employed to teach students to plan and manage their educations and guide them through the course-selection process. The majority of institutions use a shared structure combining the professional advising model with the decentralized faculty advising function (Pardee, 2004). Many schools of all sizes have added a peer advising function as well, training upper class students to guide their younger counterparts in course selection, transition to student life, and career choices.

The counseling profession, according to the American Counseling Association, seeks to address individuals’ wellness, personal growth, and career development through various interventions and strategies (Hackney & Cormier, 2005). Counselors fit into a variety of specialized developmental areas, such as mental-health, marriage and family, K-12 school, pastoral/faith-based, and career counseling. Within a higher education context, mental health and career counseling are the most common developmental models used to address college student needs. The services provided by college mental-health counseling centers often include assessment and diagnosis of mental-health disorders, treatment for anxiety and depression, substance-abuse treatment, addressing body image issues, support groups, and psychoeducational and prevention programs. As college students increasingly struggle with anxiety, depression, and other life and relationship stressors, they are turning to mental-health counseling resources on campus for support and assistance that other mentors, advisers, and faculty and staff might not be trained to provide (Kadison & DiGeronimo, 2004).

Career counseling, also termed career development, reflects constantly changing student needs due to the fluctuating economy, innovations in technology and communications, and new hiring trends (Dey & Real, 2010). Career development is defined as “… a lifelong process involving psychological, sociological, educational, economic, and physical factors, as well as chance factors that interact to influence the career of the individual” (Hackney & Cormier, 2005, p. 14). Career strategies and tools used with students include facilitating educational career panels and networking events, providing occupational information via technology, taking career treks to businesses and organizations, and providing self-assessment tools and one-on-one career counseling relationships. Interventions, such as role playing and solution-focused therapy, are valuable tools used by the counseling profession. Role playing is often used for practicing interviews, preparing to talk to employers, and learning how to address potentially uncomfortable conversations. Solution-focused therapy, developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in the late 1970s, is a goal-directed counseling theory that can be particularly effective for counselors, mentors, advisers, and professionals providing support for students at various developmental stages (Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy, n.d.).

Academic or career coaching is a relatively new, action-oriented developmental model that can address executive/professional, life, leadership, relationship, or career needs. According to the International Coaching Federation (2011), the coaching profession is distinguished by the action, accountability, and follow-through that are the focus in a coaching session. Coaches seek to elicit solutions and strategies from clients themselves, as well as to nurture the skills and resources that a client already possesses, rather than “treating a problem” or educating a client.

Academic coaching refers to skills-oriented learning relationships in which a helping professional is “coaching” a student to improve in areas such as goal setting, time management, and study skills. Often confused with tutoring or counseling, academic coaching has been proven to increase retention and academic success rates among college students (Bettinger & Baker, 2011). Strategies used in academic coaching include asking initial assessment questions, using worksheets to practice skills such as time management, and creating an individualized action plan. While somewhat comparable to academic coaching, career coaching is primarily focused on vocational goal setting, job-search strategies, and practicing skills such as interviewing and crafting a networking pitch.

Mentoring is often defined interchangeably with each of the other strategies; advisers, counselors, and coaches are sometimes referred to as mentors even though the goals and interventions used are distinct. Mentoring in higher education historically is rooted in those informal advisory relationships that develop between faculty and graduate students, serving a socializing role for students to the academic profession. In the professional fields in particular— law, business, medicine, education—students are subconsciously socialized over time and through interaction with their faculty advisers to “internalize behavioral norms and standards and form a sense of identity and commitment” to the field (Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001, p. 6). Throughout this process, academic mentors provide “crucial insider information,” as well as teaching “about the subtleties of local politics and organizational power. Good mentors teach protégés strategies for managing conflict and coach them on setting short- and long-term goals. Also, they teach protégés the norms that set the acceptable range of behaviors” (Johnson & Ridley, 2008, p. 16). Informal mentors are a fundamental part of students’ socialization process to the academy and the discipline. However, not all students receive this sort of guidance and attention: “faculty members are more likely to mentor students whose professional interests are similar to their own and remind them of themselves” (Johnson & Ridley, 2008, p. 161).

A key issue with this sort of informal mentoring is that not everyone benefits from it. As the research and best practice models in the field have progressed, however, colleges and universities have started to institutionalize formal mentoring programs for faculty, staff, and students. Best practices for formal mentoring programs include incorporating frameworks and structures to maximize the likelihood of success for both mentoring partners. These include articulating beginning and end dates for the mentoring relationship, providing training or orientation to the program, offering resources and support for the mentoring partners such as a handbook or guidelines, and providing some structured oversight to the relationship to ensure that mentoring partners understand the expectations and follow through. These structures distinguish formal mentoring programs from informal mentoring relationships, which can occur at any time and often without oversight. Mentoring relationships, particularly in the academy, are power relationships; the potential to use that power for harm is great. Formal mentoring programs can help to mitigate that potential.

No matter the type of relationship, effective mentoring involves intentional conversations focused on the mentee’s growth and development. Mentors ask thought-provoking questions, practice active listening, provide objective feedback and guidance, and model effective behaviors. The mentoring conversation asks the mentee to articulate the problem/issue/situation that he or she is working through, identify goals and concrete action steps, work through those goals and actions, and reflect on key learning moments. While mentoring uses many tools and resources, such as action planning tools and self-assessments, it is, at its heart, all about the intentional conversation.

A Collaborative, Decentralized Developmental Model

Mentoring of undergraduates occurs at that interesting intersection where a youth population is asked to consider adult questions and make adult choices; therefore, it must focus on several interrelated outcomes: socialization to higher education both socially and academically, exploration and development of the potential self, and identification of a future path that aligns with that potential self. Mentoring is particularly well-suited to this work as “consistent support creates a safe climate in which students can take risks and do the work of developing personally and professionally” (Johnson, 2007, p. 49). Through effective mentoring relationships, students learn key skills about building networks and the importance of lifelong learning and development, skills that will serve them well in this uncertain, interconnected world. These outcomes also provide an opportunity for interconnection between and among the goals and strategies of advising, counseling, and coaching.

Wake Forest University is working to build an interdisciplinary culture of mentoring that aims to achieve these interrelated outcomes for all students, not just those in specialized groups that are the focus of formal mentoring programs or who benefit from informal mentoring by lucky happenstance. In June 2010 the university established the Mentoring Resource Center (MRC), which plays a key role in supporting and building connections between students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community. The MRC serves as a central office to provide guidance, resources, support, and recognition for all Wake Forest mentoring relationships and programs. Over the past three years, the MRC has supported the work of twenty formal mentoring programs on campus with more in the planning stages. MRC staff members have trained more than 2,100 faculty, staff, and student mentors and mentees.

The MRC is housed within the Office of Personal and Career Development, along with Career and Professional Development; Leadership Development; the Center for Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship; and the Family Business Center. This co-location provides opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration among these departments and also makes clear the university’s commitment to mentoring as a strategic component of the personal and career development process. MRC leaders have formed strategic partnerships with offices across the campus, including Academic Advising, Residence Life and Housing, Campus Life, the Chaplain’s Office, the President’s Office, the Center for International Studies, and targeted academic departments.

One of the greatest challenges program administrators have encountered is learning to lead a decentralized model of mentoring. It requires relinquishing authority and control to the individual departments and organizations seeking to develop mentoring programs on their own. It requires extensive outreach and ongoing education of multiple partners about what mentoring is and is not, and about the expectations of effective mentoring practice for our campus. However, relinquishing control facilitates the creation of mentoring programs within the structures and norms of individual departmental or organizational cultures. Ultimately, university leaders believe this will create a stronger culture of mentoring on the campus.

Three key MRC partnerships include campus career counselors, resident advisers, and academic advisers. The mentoring training, tools, and resources draw upon those used by university career counselors, such as helping students develop concrete goals and action plans and using self-assessments. While the center’s programming does not include an expectation that these counselors, resident advisers, or academic advisers will enter formal mentoring relationships with their “assigned” students, MRC staff intentionally train each on the strategies of effective mentoring, including asking key questions, providing objective feedback, and fostering critical thinking and exploration. These partnerships are key to developing a mentoring culture on campus. By equipping everyone who may interact with a student with the tools and resources of effective mentoring conversations, the MRC increases the likelihood that all students will be effectively supported and guided in their individual processes of identity formation, relationship building, and goal setting while they make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

At the same time, MRC leaders feel it is important to learn from partnerships and collaborations across campus and to incorporate tools, resources, and knowledge from these offices into the university’s mentoring work. The divide between mentoring and advising, mentoring and counseling, and mentoring and coaching is no longer as great as it once was, and to highlight those distinctions while supporting a firm definition of mentoring may be detrimental to student development outcomes in the long run. The work of a mentor in higher education is not confined to one particular set of questions or goals. Mentors advise students on making appropriate academic choices and building effective relationships with peers. Mentors counsel students on developing goals and action plans toward achieving careers, and serve as sounding boards during good times and bad. Mentors coach students on transitioning effectively into college, learning how to be successful there, and then transitioning into the “real world.” Mentoring is strengthened by these other developmental models and can, in turn, contribute tools of effective questioning, listening, guidance, and feedback to these programs. In doing so, the Mentoring Resource Center aims to equip students with the tools and knowledge to make effective, appropriate decisions in their lives at Wake Forest and beyond. All of this is the work of mentoring.


Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bettinger, E. P., & Baker, R. (2011). The effects of student coaching in college: An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student mentoring (Working Paper No. 16881). Center for Education Policy Analysis. Retrieved from

Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.

Dey, F., & Real, M. (September, 2010). Emerging trends in university career services: Adaptations of Casella’s career centers paradigm. National Association of Colleges and Employers Journal (p. 31–15).

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hackney, H., & Cormier, S. (2005). The professional counselor: A process guide to helping (5th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy. (n.d.). What is solution-focused therapy? Retrieved from

International Coaching Federation (ICF). (2011). About. Retrieved from

Johnson, B. W. (2007). On being a mentor: A guide for higher education faculty. New York, NY:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, B., & Ridley, C. R. (2008). The elements of mentoring. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kadison, R., & DiGeronimo, T. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, M. C. (2005). Developmental academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). (2006). NACADA concept of academic advising. Retrieved from

Pardee, C. F. (2004). Organizational structures for advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

Weidman, J. C., Twale, D. J., & Stein, E. L. (2001). Socialization of graduate and professional students in higher education: A perilous passage? (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 3). Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Higher Education.

An original version of this paper was presented at the 2012 International Mentoring Association Conference. The authors are grateful to the conference participants who provided thoughtful questions and feedback.

About the Author(s)

Allison E. McWilliams, Wake Forest University

Allison E. McWilliams, Ph.D., is the director of mentoring for the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She can be reached at

Lauren R. Beam, Wake Forest University

Lauren R. Beam, M.S., N.C.C., is the assistant director of programming and outreach for the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She can be reached at

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.


     ISSN: 1521-2211