Using Interviews to Assess and Mentor Students

Teaching sits down with students to talk with them about the class

Have you considered adding five-minute student interviews to your teaching tool kit? Before you calculate how long it would take to interview all of your students and dismiss this idea out-of-hand, consider how student interviews provide a unique setting and opportunity for you to teach students individually.

Extensive research confirms the value of student-teacher interactions. Sandy Astin’s widely acclaimed What Matters in College reports that interaction between student and faculty has “significant positive correlations with every academic attainment outcome: college GPA, degree attainment, graduating with honors, and enrollment in graduate or professional school” (383).

In our experience we have found student interviews are a highly effective alternative or supplemental assessment method and teaching tool which students find valuable. We asked almost 400 college students enrolled in general education courses what benefits they receive from faculty interviews, and they reported that interviews enable them to receive immediate feedback, provide a unique setting to explain their work, and help them feel more responsible and accountable regarding the coursework. That’s a laudable set of benefits. Here are the learning experiences we think interviews support:

  1. Performing: Brief interviews can provide students an opportunity to demonstrate proficiency. They may be especially appropriate in courses like music, physical education, science, language, nursing, etc. where mastery of specific skills is an integral requirement of the course. Brief discussion regarding the student’s performance may follow, as appropriate.
  2. Reporting: As a supplement to other traditional assessment methods, interviews can quickly identify what students have done, as well as what they know. In some courses, it may be appropriate to conduct longer small group interviews (perhaps for team project reports) which requires a smaller time commitment than individual interviews. Reporting interviews have worked well for us in several courses, including a software engineering capstone course where student groups were required to demonstrate and explain their software as well as in a general education humanities course where individual students shared what they experienced while completing a self-selected personal development project.
  3. Mentoring: Interviews provide an opportunity for professors to compliment, assist, correct, address problems and opportunities, and demonstrate interest. All interviews may include a mentoring component, but they can be conducted exclusively for that purpose. Unlike testing and reporting interviews which often are scheduled for all students, mentoring interviews can be set up more selectively with a subset of students—those who’ve improved a lot, those who need to improve a lot, or those who’ve done something exceptional.

Unlike other kinds of meetings students and teachers have in faculty offices, interviews are scheduled in advance, have stated objectives, and are generally more formal. Successful student interviews require advance preparation and planning by both the professor and the student. Here are some suggestions drawn from our experiences:

  • Interview Early: There’s a temptation to wait and interview students at the end of a semester. There are more course-related experiences to discuss at that point. But that’s when both students and faculty are stressed and pressed for time. Instead, we’ve found it’s better to schedule interviews early in the semester to lessen the impact on our schedules and to provide students with feedback earlier in our course.
  • Clarify Expectations: The idea of being “interviewed” by the professor makes many students nervous. Reduce the stress by removing ambiguity. Explain the interview’s purpose. Help students understand how to prepare for the interview and what to expect when it happens.
  • Be Flexible: Interviews challenge faculty members to connect with all kinds of students. There’s a need for flexibility. Faculty need to let students be who they are—with varied communication skills, enthusiasm, and dress. Part of the agenda is helping them learn to communicate comfortably with experts and those they perceive as authority figures.
  • Stay on Schedule: Students appreciate one-on-one time with their professor, but they typically value quality time over quantity. Students are busy people, too. Five minutes is not very long. If you need more time, don’t run over—instead schedule a second interview. Use a stop watch or subtle timer to keep you on schedule. Leave a few minutes between interviews, so you can pace yourself and be attentive to every student.
  • Maintain Focus: Use your time well. Eliminate distractions. Appropriately limit pleasantries and chit chat. Maintain eye contact. Call students by name. Ask engaging questions.
  • Keep Grading Simple: Consider creating self-assessment rubrics for students to complete and submit prior to their interview. Assess their performance during the interview. You could also assign one of three grades: Pass (student was on time and prepared), Marginal (student was late and/or unprepared), and Fail (student did not schedule or did not attend their scheduled interview).

We have found that interviews benefit us as well as our students. They can help us more accurately assess students’ learning and performance. In some courses, providing immediate face-to-face feedback takes less time than preparing written critiques of student work. Problems and misunderstandings can sometimes be identified and resolved before they become larger. Unlike static written assessments where one format must fit all students, interviews provide an increased opportunity for on-the-spot tailoring and adjustments. Interviews are also a good way to get to know your students better.

We recognize that incorporating student interviews can require significant time and effort which means that interviewing is not always feasible or appropriate. But these are interactions that students value and learn from. Our experience, which is supported by student evaluation comments from many years, is that the time and effort needed for student interviews is an investment worth making.

Barbara Morgan Gardner, PhD, is an assistant professor and Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor at Brigham Young University. Barbara Gardner can be reached at and Ken Alford can be reached at

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on October 25, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.