Lessons from Peer Tutoring Towards Mentoring Undergraduate Research
by Sophia Abbot
As I’ve reflected on the findings of my recent collaborative research and subsequent blog post on peer tutoring, I’ve begun to consider ways lessons from that work might inform practices in other student-instructor relationships. What I mean by peer tutoring in this context is an undergraduate student tutoring peers at a lower course level and working closely with an instructor to do course-situated support work (see Falchicov, 2001 for a breakdown of peer tutoring types). Because of the relationship involved between the tutor and instructor, and the new role navigation that tutors need to do, I see analogies between tutor-instructor relationships and undergraduate research mentor-mentee relationships.
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in the Naylor Symposium for Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies. With a team of four, I explored what it means to mentor undergraduate research and our group produced recommendations for strong mentorship practices. In particular, we looked to and adapted the Salient Practices in Mentoring Undergraduate Research that have been developed by Shanahan, Ackley-Holbrook, Hall, Stewart, and Walkington (2015). These Salient Practices emerged after the authors conducted a review of literature on undergraduate research mentoring practices and found commonalities across the practices mentors engaged in to support their mentees. As we examined the salient practices, I soon noticed connections between the Salient Practices research and my findings on peer tutoring. I wondered whether a similar list of practices existed for tutoring and while not perfectly analogous, Sinclair Goodlad’s list of Seven Golden Rules for Tutoring and Mentoring Schemes (in Falchikov, 2001, pp. 135-141) offers a few parallel practices.
The Golden Rules resonate deeply with the findings that emerged from the work I did with colleagues on tutoring. In our main themes — relationships, role clarity, and positionality — Golden Rules one through five in particular emerged as strong takeaways (see Abbot, Graf, & Chatfield, 2018, p. 252). The liminal nature of the tutor position necessitated special attention to the development of shared definitions and working structures. And similar themes emerged in the Salient Practices. Both lists address the importance of planning, structured support, and attention to content and technical skills as a part of student development in these roles.
But some interesting differences are also apparent and may point to areas the two practices can inform each other. Missing from the Golden Rules, but present in the Salient Practices is the idea of increasing student ownership over time. In our work on tutoring, my colleagues and I found that increasing tutor responsibility and agency over time helped tutors feel more fulfilled in their positions. This idea is especially worth noting because while tutors desired increased ownership in their work, this evolution was not commonly experienced among the tutors we surveyed. Here, tutor-instructor pairs might learn from the work on mentoring undergraduate research and begin to more intentionally develop tutor agency and responsibility.
On the flip side, one practice I didn’t see reflected explicitly in the Salient Practices, but which might support mentoring is defining and legitimizing roles. Goodlad’s Golden Rules emphasize defining roles, and in our interviews and surveys with peer tutors, the importance of legitimization of tutor roles was a recurring theme. Instructors exemplified this by affirming the peer tutor’s position in the classroom for the students in the course, affirming the tutor’s content expertise for students in the course, and talking explicitly with the tutor about the challenge of navigating liminal positions. While undergraduate researchers may not need to contend with establishing legitimacy in the context of their peers in the same way in-course tutors might, legitimacy is still an important facet of student professional development and mentoring. Salient Practices 8) supporting students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline and 10) encouraging and guiding students to share findings in presentations and writing both get at this professional development and can enhance students’ sense of legitimacy in their work. In video interviews (coming soon) about the Salient Practices, mentors discussed the way presenting work in front of an audience or peer group can help establish a undergraduate’s sense of self as a researcher. These opportunities and explicit conversations about professional development can also help reaffirm for students the skills they are developing. From our tutoring research, I also believe that legitimacy can be even more simple: telling an undergraduate researcher that their work is valuable, referring to them as researchers, and treating student researchers as colleagues in the research process.
The relational essence is key to both tutoring and undergraduate research mentorship and is at the heart of why best-practice research can cross-inform. I’ll be looking next at how both of these relational practices can be informed by work on student-faculty partnership.
- Abbot, S., Graf, A. J., & Chatfield, B. (2018). Listening to undergraduate peer tutors: Roles, relationships, and challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2). 245-261.
- Falchikov, N. (2001). Learning together: Peer tutoring in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge/Falmer.
- Goodlad, S. (2001). Seven golden rules for tutoring and mentoring schemes. In N. Falchikov, Learning together: Peer tutoring in higher education (pp. 135-141). New York, NY: Routledge/Falmer.
- Shanahan, J. O., Ackley-Holbrook, E., Hall, E., Stewart, K., & Walkington, H. (2015). Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentors: A review of the literature. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnerships in Learning, 5, 359-376. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2015.1126162
Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.