Academic tutoring vs. mentoring. A Spanish perspective

by José M. Peinado

The word tutor has its origin in Latin, as the person that that orients, assists, or supervises, generally a student (or pupil), while the word mentor has its origin in Greek and its meaning is quite similar, i.e. the person who acts as guide and adviser to another person.

Over time, the figure of the tutor has been associated with the teacher, but mainly as a facilitator of learning, rather than as a source of knowledge. The role of tutors in PBL[1] and (tutorial) small groups has been, for example, widely defined and used in the literature.

In Spain, and it could be said for most of southern European countries, the figure of the tutor is very old and well established, for example, in the legal world. However, in the University, despite its use for many years, the role of the tutor is unevenly understood. Although at the undergraduate level, all teachers must set, at the beginning of each academic year, a schedule of tutoring for their current students, the fact is that students usually request appointments with the teacher/tutor, only during evaluation periods, with the purpose, almost exclusively, to solve doubts regarding the matter. Under this system, tutor and teacher is, in fact, the same person with a sum of tasks, moving from lecturing and work in small groups, to a personal/tutorial contact with students. A little different is the figure of the tutor during initiation to research and doctoral studies. In this case, the tutor is responsible for the adequacy of the training and the research activity of the student to the principles of the program. In this way, the role of the tutor is clearly differentiated of the director of the doctoral thesis or research work, who is responsible of driving the whole research tasks performed by the pupil. Completely different is the well stablished role of the tutors during specialized clinical training. In this case, tutors develop a fundamental role in supervision of residents and take the responsibility to ensure the training competencies according to the stablished program. Tutors and particularly directors, use to have a direct responsibility on daily research/learning tasks of pupils and students.

In this (academic) context the mentor figure is barely used in Spain. In fact, not surprisingly, both words (tutor and mentor) are often used when the Spanish tem “tutor” is translated to English. Only recently[2], some business enterprises have begun to use “mentoring” programs, keeping the English term, to emphasized the difference with more classical tutorial programs. In these cases, the objectives are to improve skills, discuss professional issues, and retain and develop talent. So mentors share their experience and help the mentees to gain confidence broadening their views and perspectives, without maintaining a direct work or friend relationship. Furthermore, mentoring has an altruistic and generous component, while tutoring seems to be more part of the professional activities.

Part of the objectives of the pathway project are to develop a mentorship program template and a mentor profile with the objective to support and retain better clinician-scientist and make stronger research teams. Mentorship could not only be based on experience. It is necessary to define mentor skills, emphasizing the importance of listening, responsibility and mutual trust.

Success in research, like in a football team, relies not only in good ideas or budget, but also on a cooperative and respectful environment. Mentorship programs could play a very beneficiary role in science development, particularly in Spain, where the figures of the mentor/mentee have still a long way ahead.

[1] Problem Based Learning

[2] Also, few months ago, the university of Granada (Spain) implemented a new program named “mentoring for research”, with the aim to promote quality research by leveraging the expertise of Emeritus professors in research tasks, to cater for those less experienced researchers with specific needs.

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