Five effective strategies for mentoring undergraduates: students' perspectives
Undergraduate research has been shown to provide an exceptionally positive experience for students (Seymour et al. 2004). In a study of student learning outcomes following participation in summer research programs, 1,135 undergraduate researchers reported the highest learning gains on closed-ended survey items related to understanding the "research process" and how to approach scientific problems, followed by gains in knowledge of laboratory techniques and areas of personal development (Lopatto 2004). Other studies investigating the merits of undergraduate research have shown development of research skills (Kardash 2000), enhancement of intellectual curiosity and logical thinking (Bauer and Bennet 2003), and increased college retention rates (Nagda et al. 1998). Positive effects are seen across the spectrum of disciplines from engineering (Zydney et al. 2002) to social science to the humanities (Ishiyama 2002).
Integral to facilitating such benefits for undergraduates is a faculty mentor who can successfully introduce this mostly younger population of students to academic research. Mentoring undergraduates is distinct from the process of mentoring graduate students. Unique challenges stem from, for example, differences in the students' general level of experience and stage of career development. Given the marked benefits of undergraduate research and the importance of effective mentor-student interactions, it is worth exploring the interpersonal strategies that mentors can employ to facilitate the best possible learning outcomes for their undergraduate researchers.
In this article we provide mentors with purely studentderived insights on how best to approach mentoring undergraduates. Our insights stem from personal experience as current undergraduate researchers; also we are all ambassadors to the Office of Undergraduate Research at our university. In that capacity we promote involvement in research to the student body, and we advise students across disciplines on how to be successful researchers. The following are the top five strategies we have found to be the most effective for mentors to generate excitement, expertise, engagement, and a sense of student responsibility that ultimately leads to quality work. Thus we advise mentors to:
Make Yourself Available
Certainly one of the most valuable commodities a mentor can offer is his or her time. If the principal investigator has no time left to give, he or she should at least guarantee that a postdoctoral fellow, a graduate student, or even an experienced undergraduate is able to devote a considerable amount of time to mentoring a new undergraduate researcher. Learning in a research environment can be a dynamic and unpredictable endeavor. Simply spending time with students as they perform tasks allows the mentor to be able to clarify the young researcher's nuanced questions and the subtle discrepancies from the norm or the expected outcome that inevitability arise during the workflow due to the often hyper-detailed nature of research. The mentor may also find himself or herself delving into interesting side topics with the student, all the while generating knowledge and excitement that facilitates the learning and retention process.
Quality time with a mentor is paramount for student success, but how can this process be optimized to ensure that the time students and their mentors...