IMPACTing Online Student Success through a Peer-Mentoring Program

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

This education session details how one fully online program sought to address its adult students’ desire for greater community and their need for additional support at key programmatic points. Come learn about the value and the challenges of developing and launching an online peer-mentoring program and capstone mentoring course.

Extended Abstract

In this session, we will share about our experiences in designing and launching a peer-mentoring program to support adult learners in a fully online doctoral program. The session will offer insights into how we have leveraged our peer-mentoring program to more fully support our student body, comprised of a diverse group of experienced leaders, in obtaining their doctorate in an accelerated online program that applies a practitioner-scholar model. As many working in online programs have seen firsthand, and as research has confirmed, community is critical for sustaining and supporting online returning learner student success (Lively et al., 2021; Geesa et al., 2020). We will share how we designed the IMPACT Mentoring Program to bridge two needs:

  1. Fostering student support, retention, and success by providing students getting started on the dissertation process with an experienced peer mentor.

  2. Allowing students in their final session prior to graduation to gain experience as mentors.

Though this program was designed specifically to address doctoral student needs, the session will offer insights into how this same approach could be adjusted to work at a master’s or even a bachelor’s level program

Participants in this session will learn about how we strategically designed the peer mentoring program to help support key student needs at a critical moment in the students’ program, based on multiple feedback sources including student surveys, faculty feedback, and programmatic retention data. Students pursuing professional doctorates more and more frequently turn to online programs to allow them to maintain their professional and personal obligations while also completing a degree, yet these students require personal relationships within the program both from faculty and from peers (Kumar & Coe, 2017). Faculty often find their time stretched thin as they seek to support their students and their advisees, as was the case within our program. As such, we will discuss how we sought to bring in a different kind of expert, the near-graduate peer, to offer guidance and support at the point of the formal beginning of the dissertation development process. We will also build upon existing research and discuss best practices for how to harness the virtual environment to foster community connections in small group mentoring sessions (Pollard & Kumar, 2021).

Our session will focus not just on the benefits of the mentoring program for the mentees but also its value for mentors. Mentors participating in this program gain the opportunity to experience cross-cohort community, thus increasing their sense of belonging to the program and to the university at large. We will discuss how our experience with the IMPACT Mentoring Program aligns with existing research on the value of community in sustaining and supporting student success (Geesa et al., 2020). We will also share how we have harnessed this program to combat our students’ persistent battles with imposter syndrome, even as they enter their final term in the program, something unfortunately seen too commonly in doctoral programs (Sverdlik, 2020). Our goal is that by bringing near-graduates in to support other students in the early stages of the dissertation process, we will reinforce programmatic confidence in our near-graduates and boost their confidence as they prepare for the post-graduation transition.

Furthermore, participants will get the opportunity to learn about how we designed the IMPACT Mentoring Program to account for significant concerns related to adding additional responsibilities to online adult learners. Even without any additional programmatic responsibilities, fully online, accelerated programs can take a toll on students’ mental health (Berry, 2017). As such, we designed this program strategically to enable students to garner the value of being part of the mentoring program without overwhelming or unduly adding to their already full calendars.

During this session, we will also demonstrate how we built the mentoring experience into a capstone course designed to equip students with practical, experiential mentoring skill development that they can harness beyond the classroom in their own professions and industries. We will share insights into how the course functions and how it allows students to experience the full mentoring cycle using Kolb and Kolb’s (2018) experiential learning cycle, initially as mentees prior to enrolling in the course and ultimately as mentors at the culmination point in the program.

One of the challenges that our program, like so many other online programs, has faced stems from balancing faculty time with student needs (Kumar & Johnson, 2019). We will share in this session how we designed the peer-mentoring program using programmatic analysis of both faculty and student pain points tied to retention challenges and graduation delays and sought to address those areas creatively without huge budgetary impacts or significant time outlays from program faculty, administration, or the students themselves.  

Throughout the session, participants will learn about the rationale for the IMPACT Mentoring Program, the design process for the program and its paired course, and the launch of the mentoring capstone course. Participants will be given the opportunity to hear what the mentors, mentees, and other faculty in the program have to say about their experience with the IMPACT Mentoring Program. And, finally, participants will learn about the iterative changes already in process to ensure continuous improvement as the program prepares to move to its next cycle of mentors and mentees in the summer.

Session participants will be given the opportunity to engage in a variety of ways throughout the session including through participant polls, collaborative brainstorming sessions, and opportunities for Q&A. The presenters will seek to develop an early understanding of the audience demographic and their experience and reasons for interest in learning about the development and launch of a fully virtual peer-mentoring program and a capstone mentoring course, and the session will be catered accordingly. Participants will be put into breakout groups where they will get the opportunity to consider key challenges inherent in bringing a peer-mentoring program into an online degree program and will be able to brainstorm with their group strategies for how their organizations could overcome those concerns in order to harness the powerful benefits of the incorporation of a peer-mentoring program.

The session participants will walk away with a variety of key takeaways from this session including the following:

  1. The value and need for creating community in online programs aimed at adult, returning learners.

  2. The role that a peer-mentoring program can play in fostering that community and creating lifelong connections amongst students.

  3. The value that a well-designed peer-mentoring program can bring to an online degree program both for the participating students and also for the faculty supporting those students.

  4. The role that a mentoring course can play in the development and maintenance of a peer-mentoring program as well as in reducing time burdens on participants in the program.


Berry, S. (2017). Student support networks in online doctoral programs: Exploring nested communities. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 33.

Geesa, Rachel Louise, Rebecca D. Brown, and Kat R. McConnell. "Mentoring pathways program for first-year education doctor of education students: perspectives of a program redesigned for sustainability." Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 28.2 (2020): 156-175.

Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle. Australian educational leader, 40(3), 8-14.

Kumar, & Coe, C. (2017). Mentoring and Student Support in Online Doctoral Programs. The American Journal of Distance Education, 31(2), 128–142. 

Kumar, S., & Johnson, M. (2019). Online mentoring of dissertations: The role of structure and support. Studies in Higher Education, 44(1), 59-71.

Lively, C. L., Blevins, B., Talbert, S., & Cooper, S. (2021). Building Community in Online Professional Practice Doctoral Programs. Impacting Education: Journal on Transforming Professional Practice, 6(3), 21-29.

Pollard, R., & Kumar, S. (2021). Mentoring graduate students online: Strategies and challenges. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 22(2), 267-284.

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., & McAlpine, L. (2020). PhD imposter syndrome: Exploring antecedents, consequences, and implications for doctoral well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 737-758.