We have a force of 14 mentors ready to coach 140 students through the first year of their university studies. Unfortunately we have decided to let the mentees choose their mentors, because we thought it would be best, if each student found the mentor that fit him or her best. But, of course, some mentors are more "friendly" appearing, others maybe a bit intimidating for students right from school (age 17 to 20), and now we have a situation where a handful of mentors each have 15 to 25 students in their group, another handful has around 5, and the last handful have 2 to none.

We understand that our idea to let the students choose their mentors might have been a mistake, but that is what we have and now we would like to try and distribute the students more equally among the mentors.

Is there a constructive way to deal with this situation and get students more evenly distributed now that the damage has been done? How should we explain the change?

  • Is this a workplace problem? I see this a bit more as an academic/educational issue as phrased.
    – enderland
    Oct 23 '12 at 14:31
  • They assign mentors to new hires in the work place as well. Not sure it makes a difference.
    – user8365
    Oct 23 '12 at 14:42
  • 3
    isn't a school a workplace anyway?
    – user1544
    Oct 23 '12 at 14:51
  • 1
    I posted this question here, because from my perspective (as a paid mentor) this is a workplace question. But the context is academic, of course, and the subjects are students.
    – user4698
    Oct 23 '12 at 15:40
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    I think you should treat it like a reality show. Each week fire the mentor that has the least number of mentees. You can even make up some catch phrase like "No one likes you so get out!" Oct 23 '12 at 18:33

How long have students and mentors been working together? If it was a very short time span, I'd suggest that you take the entire collection, randomly reassign the whole group and live through the fall out. There's no real way to pick and choose who to move, and reassigning everyone, randomly, is at least equally annoying to everyone. Make apologies and admit to the mistake.

Alternately, if enough time has passed that mentors and mentees have bonded, especially in the smaller groups - you could spend a lot of time as a matchmaking service - call in each student in the larger mentor groups and discuss the problem. See if the student is happy with the limited time their mentor can provide, and whether their needs are being met. You may also want to chat with the over-booked mentors and see if they hae insights into students who are not getting real value from the relationship. Talk to these students and try to find a new mentor for them from the less-overbooked mentor pool. It'll be a time consuming process, but one that honors relationships that may have already developed if a month or more has passed since initial assignment.

  • I love your answer. I want to wait a bit and see if more replies come in, but I've already sent your advice around our network. Thank you :-)
    – user4698
    Oct 23 '12 at 15:59

One approach might be self-correction followed by lotteries. Announce that, to give every mentee the attention he deserves, you need a more even distribution, so no mentor will have more than ten mentees. Give them some time to volunteer for transfers (make it clear who is under-subscribed). If that doesn't sort it out, for each mentor with more than ten mentees, hold a lottery to see which ten get to stay. For the leftovers, try to match them up as best you can -- I would invest some human effort here rather than just randomly assigning them, to soften the blow and because there aren't that many of them.

For the future, have mentees request mentors rather than choosing them, to avoid being in this same situation next year. A common approach is to indicate first, second, and third choice, and then you optimize assignments.

  • Interesting the idea of having a pool of possible mentors I'd like to have.. +1! Oct 23 '12 at 16:43
  • I, too, like the idea of having mentees not choose one, but a list of top mentors, so we have some leeway to better distribute them. Also, I like your idea of a lottery. Thank you.
    – user4698
    Oct 23 '12 at 20:04
  • For the future, have mentees list their preferred mentors in preference order. There are good algorithms for doing best matching based on that. Oct 23 '12 at 20:19

Is there a reason for doing only 1:1 in these relationships? Could it be that the mentees each get a second or third mentor that may be a useful backup just in case the mentor gets too busy to talk to the mentee at that time? I'd be tempted to suggest having "backup" mentors for some students and this being assigned so that the students can have an idea of who else could they go if there is an issue. This would likely not change what is currently done but rather add another set of options for the mentees to know who else could they ask things. This also allows for multiple relationships to be built so that if that first choice doesn't work out, there is a way for the mentee to not get lost.

  • That's a good idea, but the situation here is that we work with the whole group, all students at the same time. (It is not a good system, but that is not the issue here, so I'm not going into that. I'm not in a position to change it.)
    – user4698
    Oct 23 '12 at 20:02

Ouch! You really are in a pickle - but there is a solution.

The first thing to consider is the length of time this mentor/mentee relationship is suppose to last. Is it for the rest of the school year or just another month? If it's a shorter amount of time, I would just let it run it's course and correct the distribution for next year. Once the damage has been done, it is very difficult to reverse.

However, if this is something you must fix now - just dive into it and simply tell the students the truth - that them picking mentors has created an imbalance system that is not beneficial to them.

You need to state that the imbalance is hurting them by not getting the best time and attention they deserve. That program re-organization will give them the best chance for success. You need to stress how it is for their benefit.

Then just do it, match them up as best as possible and get to it. You can not please everybody in this situation but you can make a change for the greater good. If some one really has a problem, you can look into it but they are young kids, you have to show them what is best.

  • 1
    What I like about your answer is that you allow for the possibility that the students might not be in a position to know who is the best mentor for them and might make a wrong choice, so we could make their priorities clear to them and (gently) "sort them out". Thank you.
    – user4698
    Oct 23 '12 at 20:07
  • I voted up, but someone else had voted down before that ...
    – user4698
    Oct 24 '12 at 6:22
  • @what: geez, what-ever. Oct 24 '12 at 16:45

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