Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Winter Week 7: Mentoring Undergraduates in Research

Research-oriented universities provide students with rigorous training in scientific research but not equivalent experience to teach their knowledge and skills to the next generation of students in their own fields. Some of us might have had opportunities to mentor undergraduates and experienced the fact that the process of developing an effective method of mentoring takes years and requires experimenting and analyzing success and failure. No two students are the same or develop along the same trajectory, so mentoring must be continually customized, adjusted, and redirected to meet each student’s needs. Throughout this workshop we discussed about mentoring approaches, brainstormed ideas and shared mentoring challenges and solutions with each other to accelerate our learning process.

We started off by asking what does mentoring mean to everyone or what is the definition of a mentor?  A mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional.

The workshop was divided into three main parts:

I.  Prior to getting started/early on during the mentoring process:

During the first meeting with your mentee, take some time to introduce the lab you work in and the relevant projects. A good mentee is expected to check the lab website and do a bit of research before the meeting. This is a good opportunity to start connecting with the mentee by engaging in a pleasant discussion and answer some of the questions addressed to you. Show your enthusiasm about the project and talk about the big picture. Most projects do not yield an immediate result which sometimes discourages students. Being aware of their potential contribution to the long term success of the project keeps students enthusiastic.

Get to know your students. Give them a chance to describe themselves, their hobbies, likes and dislikes. Try to understand their background and habits. For example how do they learn best? Each might have different preference like hands on experience, reading literature about a topic, verbal explanation, process diagrams etc.
Undergraduates are young and potentially unexperienced. Make them feel comfortable around you. Encourage them to ask questions. Remember that pleasant and enthusiastic working environment and happy students are the keys for them to acquire successful and reproductive learning experience.

Another important concept that we discussed in this context is defining your working relationship and making your expectations clear early one. It will be helpful to provide real examples from your relationships with previous undergraduates who worked with you. For example “I expect my students to take some responsibility regarding the project, keep organized notebook, present their findings to the lab members, show interest, be curious and never refrain from asking questions and for clarifications. As pointed out above, mentoring is a very dynamic process. Mentors are expected to modify their expectations if necessary based on their previous experiences.
At this stage and assuming the mentee has agreed to work with you, start to get them acquainted with the new environment. Introduce them to the lab members, show them the facilities in the building, discuss lab policies, and get them started on a lab notebook. ALWAYS keep communications open between you and the mentee. This is extremely helpful in terms of identifying problems early on. Ask them how they feel. If you notice that they seem distracted or sense decline in their enthusiasm try to understand the reason.

Knowing your student will be of paramount importance when it comes to choosing their project. Whenever possible, let them have a say in the process of assigning them their project. An interesting point was brought up during our discussion as some of us mentioned that usually at the early phase mentors ask students to do “boring” stuff and feel bad about it. Remember that something that you think is “boring” might be perceived differently by another person. That being said the opposite is true. Mentors should be cautious as something what they think as “very exciting” might not be so for someone else. Again knowing your student and keeping the communication open comes in play.

II.    During the mentoring process

At this point nurture the mentor-student relationship so that it is based on TRUST and RESPECT. Again always remember that the students are young, usually inexperienced in the research environment and require your constant attention. Show compassion and don’t make them feel neglected. Whenever possible, engage in brief casual conversation; ask about their progress in their courses, offer them time off before midterms and major assignments. Simple things that can help you get their respect and hopefully make them devote to their projects yielding optimal learning experience.

Another important point that led to vigorous discussion was the negative results or failures in research which though seems like breakfast, lunch and dinner for an experienced researcher might be very discouraging for undergraduates. Always remind students that negative results are part of any research project. Explain them that one can learn far more from couple of negative results or failures followed by success compared to immediate success. In the same context and in an effort to alleviate the psychological distress from unsuccessful results, always try to keep them motivated. For example, frequently remind them the importance of the project they are working on or have them explain their project to another member in the lab. Another motivation approach that we discussed was letting the students “grow into” the challenge. In other words motivate or push them to do their best. For example if you get “x” to work, you can do “y”.

Lastly, let them know early on if you are not happy with their performance. This sounds like unpleasant thing to do but it can be done very nicely. Always start by pointing out their good habits and accomplishment and then hit them with your concerns. For example, “So far you did a great job in “XYZ” which shows your capability and willingness to work hard. However, I’m noticing that you are doing careless mistakes that can be easily avoided. I know you can do much better than what you did in WVX during the last two week”. 

III.  How to assess your success as mentor?

Assessing your success as a mentor can be difficult as the process is mostly subjective. Through our discussions we decided that creating measurable objectives ahead of time and evaluating them in the student before and after the mentoring process can be a good way to tackle this problem. The measurable goals could be things we value like demonstrating professional attitude, ability to present work in both formal and informal context, problem solving skills, being persistent in making the project go forward, among others.    

2)   Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering (1997)
3)   Gonzalez C. Undergraduate research, graduate mentoring, and the university's mission. Science 2001; 293:1624-1626.
4)   Detsky A.S. Academic Mentoring—How to Give It and How to Get It. JAMA 2007; 297: 2134-2136.
5)  Lee A., Dennis C., and Campbell P. Nature’s guide for mentors. Nature 2007; 44: 791-797. 

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