Practices for High Quality Undergraduate Research Mentoring
by Eric Hall
Undergraduate research (UR) has been called a high impact practice because of its importance in student engagement and success (Kuh, 2008). To achieve these benefits, high quality mentoring is necessary, however little research has investigated this UR mentoring. In an effort to develop a stronger pedagogy around mentoring, my colleagues and I reviewed the literature from the past 20 years and identified ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring (Shanahan, Ackley-Holbrook, Hall, Stewart, & Walkington, 2015).
While these practices begin with strategic pre-planning (practice 1) and end with dissemination (practice 10), these practices do not necessarily happen in a linear manner; some overlap, are hard to separate, and relate to good pedagogy. Below I will briefly explain these ten salient practices and some of what we have learned so far.
The first salient practice, strategic pre-planning to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities, requires investing time early in the research process for project selection and for outlining and communicating a plan. Early in the research process mentors need to consider the variability of skills and motivations that students bring to the project and help create achievable timelines for their project.
Setting clear and well scaffolded expectations, is the second salient practice. When implementing this practice it is important to keep in mind that early on in the process the mentor may need to provide more support and then gradually loosen this support so students can gain independence as a scholar. Mentors should consider using learning contracts or something similar to help provide structure for these first two practices.
The third practice, to teach technical skills and research methods, is intended to introduce students to the expectations of conducting scholarly work in their discipline. Each discipline has unique expectations for research, including such questions as to what are valued resources of knowledge and what may be considered ethical? These are important topics for mentors to convey to their mentees.
Balancing rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students is the fourth salient practice. As part of this practice it is important to provide positive, but constructive feedback. Additionally, the mentor needs to determine ways to remain approachable which may lead to increased confidence for the student to engage in the project.
The fifth salient practice is to build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including faculty, graduate students, and any other members of the research team. Mentors may want to think about ways to build cohesion amongst their research team (if applicable). This may include engaging the team in non-research activities in an effort to show an interest in the whole student outside of the laboratory.
Dedicating time to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring is the sixth practice. This is obviously a time consuming endeavor, but it is important to help provide individualized guidance and support.
The seventh salient practice of mentoring undergraduate research is to increase student ownership of the research over time. For this practice it is important for mentors to make students aware of the importance of the tasks that they are doing towards the whole project. As students develop skills, the mentors may be able to give additional tasks related to the research project.
Supporting students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline is the eighth practice. Students value the opportunity to meet new colleagues and future mentors in informal (e.g., grabbing coffee) and formal (e.g., conferences) settings to expand their network and to learn more about their discipline.
The ninth salient practice is about creating what are often termed “laddered” opportunities for students to learn mentoring skills and to teach aspects of the research process to their peers and near-peers (e.g., graduate students teaching undergraduates). This practice is helpful for the mentees to learn skills on how to become a mentor, but also helpful for mentors because it might allow them to expand their reach to more students in undergraduate research.
Encouraging students to share their findings and providing guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing, comprise the tenth and final salient practice of undergraduate research mentoring. Dissemination is the ultimate goal of most research and creative endeavors, and allowing the students opportunity to do so whether on campus or at an international meeting is valuable. Mentors need to identify viable options to meet the most appropriate level for their students at that time.
Recently when asking which of these practices mentors find challenging, strategic pre-planning (practice 1), building community (practice 5), and creating “laddered” opportunities to learn mentoring skills (practice 9) were rated the most challenging (Walkington, Hall, Shanahan, Ackley, & Stewart, 2018). This suggests that while there is a need to help mentors develop and learn unique strategies for implementation of all the practices, these three might warrant further consideration and planning.
For more information about the practices, please visit our website which is currently in development. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/salientpractices/
- Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- 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: Partnership in Learning, 23(5), 359–376. https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2015.1126162
- Walkington, H., Hall, E., Shanahan, J. O., Ackley, E., & Stewart, K. (2018). Striving for excellence in undergraduate research mentoring: The challenges and approaches to ten salient practices. In M. Vandermaas-Peeler, P. Miller, & J. Moore (Eds.), Excellence in mentoring undergraduate research. council on undergraduate research. Washington, D.C.: Council on Undergraduate Research.
Eric Hall, Professor of Exercise Science, is the 2018-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Senior Scholar. Dr. Hall’s CEL Senior Scholar project focuses on undergraduate research mentoring.