July 16, 2009

Mentoring Undergraduates in Research and Scholarship

By: in Teaching and Learning

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Interested in a good example of how teaching, student scholarship, and service can be integrated into a single activity? Cecilia Shore [reference below] suggests that mentorship of undergraduates doing scholarship (be it research in labs or bibliographic searches) may just be that example.

Despite its potential, she observes that few resources exist to support efforts to assess this important professional role or to assist those who would like to improve how they work with undergraduates on scholarly projects.

This well-referenced article surveys research (most of it descriptive) on the topic, discusses the unique aspects of this particular kind of teaching, and offers advice on how these professional activities might be reported and assessed. The teaching that this kind student mentorship requires is differentiated from regular classroom instruction in several important ways.

For example, the research process gives students an opportunity to be involved at every level, from mundane data collection details (like counting questionnaires) to the abstract, conceptual context of the research. Regular classrooms deal with one end or the other of this continuum. In lab courses, students deal with details, but the focus is on practicing a technique that produces a predetermined outcome. In content courses, students integrate and synthesize data, but they do this with the findings of others.

What makes this reference especially valuable is Shore’s description of the characteristics of good faculty mentors for students doing scholarly work. Her set of characteristics derives from the research of others as well as several educational theorists. She groups these characteristics into two main categories: managing student work and building interpersonal respect/trust.

Managing student work

  • Recruit talented students by offering a unique training experience.
  • Select projects that are feasible and yet make unique contributions to the discipline.
  • Nurture self-sufficiency; don’t dictate answers—provide choices.
  • Teach students about safety and ethical considerations.
  • Encourage students to do presentations/publications.

Building interpersonal respect/trust

  • Treat students as junior colleagues; provide an open environment where undergraduate opinions are welcome; listen patiently.
  • Be approachable and available.
  • Be frank and direct; give timely feedback.
  • Be sensitive to how much guidance/structure different students need at different points in the project.
  • Show your enthusiasm; practice what you profess.
  • Resist the temptations of power.

The opportunity to do research or scholarship can contribute much to a student’s learning experiences, and given the amount of faculty time and effort it requires to make these contributions, this service to the profession ought to be evaluated. Shore includes some potential survey items that might be used to solicit student assessments of their experiences working with a particular faculty mentor.

She notes that little previously tested instrumentation exists but that as scholars of teaching, we have an obligation to assess objectively the impact of these experiences. For anyone who mentors students engaged in scholarly projects, this pragmatic piece is a valuable resource.

Reference: Shore, C. (2005). Toward recognizing high-quality faculty mentoring of undergraduate scholars. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 16 (2), 111–136.

Excerpted from Characteristics of Good Undergraduate Mentors, May 2006, The Teaching Professor.

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