Mentoring Undergraduate Students in Research

Quality mentoring is more of an art than science. There are recognized characteristics of quality mentoring, best practices, and common challenges associated with mentoring, but an individual’s mentoring style is something that is established through experience and is unique to each student-mentor pairing.  Below we provide information that will help you develop a foundation of knowledge about mentoring, but we encourage you to consult with colleagues that have experience in mentoring – their wisdom and anecdotes are more instructive than lists of key characteristics and mentoring tips.

Key Traits for Mentoring

Temple, L. et al. (2010) note four key traits for mentoring:

  • Forwardness: this trait has to do with faculty being proactive in introducing undergraduate students to and incorporating them research.  It is based on the premise that undergraduate students often lack the confidence to inquire about or attempt to conduct research due to their low level of knowledge and ability.  As such, faculty should make efforts to reach out to students that demonstrate interest and/or ability in courses and co-curricular activities.
  • Persistence and repetition: this trait focuses on the student learning that occurs through conducting research and witnessing faculty struggle with the same challenges and setbacks they are experiencing. The experience of overcoming obstacles and working with faculty outside of formal course structures fosters student resiliency.
  • Emotional honesty: this trait centers on demonstrating to students the reality of your profession.  Allow students to see the joys and the challenges of teaching, research, and service. By removing any filters, both positive and negative, students can experience what it is like to be a professional in your discipline which will assist with their learning and academic/career exploration.
  • Recognizing and locating alternative mentors: this trait is based on the fact that many students change their interests and goals during their undergraduate years, which can lead students in directions that move away from your research interests. This trait asks that faculty treat students as part of their professional network – which if they have genuinely invested themselves in your research they most assuredly are – and assist them in exploring new pathways and finding other mentors by using your networks.

Best Practices & Key Factors for Success

 

Through their work, Shelito et al. (2001) and Temple et al. (2010) identified many best practices, key factors for successful mentoring, and common challenges. We have combined these ideas and actions into four categories: communication, establishing expectations, planning, and soft skills.

 

Communication

  • Mentors should communicate frequently and clearly with students. Also, following up with students shortly after giving new direction is important so they can ask any questions that came about during their initial processing of the information.
  • Create a culture in which students believe you are approachable and one in which they are encouraged to ask questions and are not punished for not knowing something.
  • Once expectations have been set (see next section) make sure to clearly communicate, revisit, and reaffirm them during the research project.
  • Meet consistently with your undergraduate research student(s) and provide positive, constructive feedback and encouragement.

 

 Establishing Expectations

  • At the beginning of your project be sure to work with your students to set goals, deadlines, and expectations. Post the agreed upon expectations where everyone has access.
  • For students new to research, make sure to establish the difference between your expectations of them in this environment against those of students taking a course.
  • Take the time to teach your students to appreciate the research process – as slow as it may seem at times – rather than simply the outcomes of research.  One can do so by disrupting the process with opportunities to reflect on their experiences.
  • Encourage students to disseminate their work in the same way faculty would – many undergraduate research publication and presentation opportunities exist.

 

 Planning

  • When developing a research schedule, consider student time commitments outside of the research project.
  • Budget time for students to acquire necessary skills or techniques, especially for students that are new to research.
  • Allow students to learn through trial and error, to an extent.  Students will naturally explore paths that seem unlikely to work, which is good for learning, but they also need to be reined in before significant time and resources are wasted.
  • For the portions of the research that the student will being conducting, make sure to create a well-defined project with student interest and ability in mind and one that will allow them to have intellectual ownership.
  • Craft the student portion of the research product to lead towards student independence.

 

 Soft Skills

  • Spend time with your students and get to know them as individuals.
  • Encourage persistence in face of setbacks.
  • Once they have demonstrated commitment to the project students should be treated as professionals and be given the same respect and opportunities for development as other colleagues.
  • After the research project is complete, provide continued mentorship and offer career guidance.

Next – Benefits of Undergraduate Research

References

Temple, L., Sibley, T.Q., & Orr, A.J. (2010). How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research

Shellito C, Shea K, Weissmann G, Mueller-Solger A, Davis W. (2001). Successful mentoring of undergraduate researchers: Tips for creating positive student research experiences. Journal of College Science Teaching, 30, 460-465.