January 5th, 2010

Mentoring Undergraduate Student Research


In a chapter in an e-book on undergraduate student research in psychology, authors Wadkins and Miller integrate research and resources into a wonderfully pragmatic exploration of the role of faculty mentors. When undergraduates do a research project under the guidance of a mentor, the process not only develops the students’ research skills, it also “transforms their professional and academic selves.” (p. 209)

Citing other research, Wadkins and Miller discuss four different styles of mentoring: supporting, coaching, delegating, and directing. The supporting style of mentoring involves the use of praise to promote cooperation. As a style it is more relationship- than task-oriented. The coaching style is based on modeling and demonstrating appropriate behaviors. A delegating style places responsibility on the student being mentored. It tolerates more ambiguity and freedom of choice. It contrasts with the directing style where the mentor lays out exactly what needs to be done and when and how it needs to be done. In this mentoring style, task completion and performance outcomes are emphasized. Research with student teachers has shown that the supporting and delegtaing styles both positively influence success in the classroom, the coaching style had no influence, and the directing style a negative impact. However, flexibility in mentoring style is important. Which style works best is related to the learning needs of the student being mentored.

There has also been inquiry into the attributes that make a good mentor, and not surprising the three most important ones are interpersonal skills, personal attributes (including maturity, wisdom, being friendly and optimistic, admired and respected, and trustworthy and dependable), and professional competencies involving being experienced, qualified, knowledgeable, and professionally active. If that sounds like a daunting list, the authors note that “perhaps the most important individual factor that defines a good mentor is his or her commitment to the role of mentoring.” (p. 210)

Obviously students benefit enormously when they are mentored well; they can be harmed just as enormously by a mentor who offers extensive criticism and puts personal needs (like getting a publication out of the research) before creating meaningful learning experiences for the student. But teachers also benefit. Mentoring affords one of the few opportunities for extended face-to-face, one-on-one instruction.

Reference: Wadkins, T. A. and Miller, R. L. (2008). Bending twigs: The act of mentoring undergraduate student research. A chapter in an e-book: Developing, Promoting, and Sustaining the Undergraduate Research Experience in Psychology, found at www.teachpsych.org/resources/e-books