Mentoring Tips

Two design students shaping wooden slats.

1. Establish clear expectations

Establishing clear expectations with your student about work schedules, responsibilities, and communicating is an important first step in making sure that the relationship goes smoothly.

  • Questions to discuss:
    • What does the mentor expect of the student? What does the student expect of the mentor?
    • How many hours a week should the student expect to work on the project?
    • What is the best way for the student to contact the mentor with questions?
    • How often will the student meet with the mentor?  Should the student do anything to prepare for these meetings?
    • (If applicable)-when should the student get help from their graduate student mentor, and when should they contact the faculty member?
    • Should the student send the mentor weekly email updates on the progress of the project?  What information should be included in these updates?
  • Tips:

2. Make the steps of the research process explicit

Think through all of the necessary background knowledge and skills that a novice would need in order to complete the task at hand and teach these things explicitly to your students. Remember that even seemingly small gaps in knowledge can create big obstacles for students. Consider these tips:

  • Make a timeline of milestones that the student will need to reach during the course of doing the research, such as the one in our Undergraduate Research Contract. Talk with the student about what skills and knowledge s/he will need to take in order to complete each step in the process.
  • Assess your students' beginning skill level and knowledge when you first start working with them. It's important to have them actually do the task or demonstrate knowledge, as beginning students often struggle with assessing what they don't know.
  • Sit down with the student you are working with and listen to them narrate how they would solve a problem; this might help you identify parts in the research process where students might need instruction.
  • Ask undergraduates who have already done research with you to write a list of "things they wish they'd known the first day." Sometimes they might be able to articulate steps in the research process that you do automatically.
  • Expose students to the full research process, even if they are only working on part of it. Have students read key articles or books that led to the current study, or ask students to brainstorm what the "next steps" in the research process might look like.

3. Teach students resilience

For many students, the inevitable setbacks in the research/creative process will be the first time that they have tried something and had it fail. Strategies to keep students motivated include:

  • When setbacks are part of the normal research process:
    • Explain that technical hurdles, disproven hypotheses, and dead ends are a normal part of doing research in your field. Emphasize what we have learned by the setback and how it can inform future work.
    • Model for students how you manage setbacks.
  • When setbacks are due to student error:
    • Walk through the process with the student to identify where the error was made. Keep a forward-looking attitude that emphasizes how the student can do it differently the next time.
    • Utilize other undergraduates or graduate students who have recently learned similar skills to work with the student to teach needed skills or explain how they overcame similar challenges.
    • Review your communication plan with your student to see if misunderstandings could be caught sooner.
    • Be sure to acknowledge what students are doing well so they feel motivated to keep trying.

4. Incorporate routine checks for understanding

Don't assume that a lack of questions means that the student understands. Be proactive about catching areas of misunderstanding early to prevent larger problems later on. Try these strategies:

  • Have your student write out a procedure or research plan before they carry out the experiment or research. Review the plan with them and review any areas that seem less certain.
  • Ask your students to send you a weekly email update with 1. a summary of what they learned that week; 2. any obstacles they encountered; 3. what they are planning for next week.
  • Have your student explain their research (either in writing or in person) to someone outside of your field. Check for areas where understanding is not very deep.

5. Foster increasing independence

While students often need a lot of support initially, the ultimate goal for many undergraduate researchers is for them to be able to take ownership of their projects and think independently.

  • Questions to consider:
    • Where does the student continue to need support, and where does s/he seem ready for a challenge?
    • Given the student's future career plans and amount of time they have available to work on their project, what is a realistic and meaningful level of independence to be expected of the student before graduation? With that goal in mind, what are the next steps in moving the student toward that goal?

6. Address professional development

Surveys of student researchers have found that they often report that some of the most important benefits of undergraduate research are related to professional development: networking opportunities, experience working in a professional setting, gaining experience in public speaking, etc. Consider discussing these questions with your student:

  • What career options is the student considering? Are there ways that the research experience could help the student decide on a career goal or get needed experience?  Note: having the student consult with the University Career Center might be helpful.
  • What experience (if any) does the student have working in a professional setting? Do they have any questions about how to dress, how to send emails, etc.?
  • Are there any networking opportunities that you as the mentor could help facilitate for the student? If you go to a conference with a student, be sure to introduce the student to people and help them make new connections.