Teach the Earth > Teaching Methods > Undergraduate Research > How To Engage Undergraduates in Research > Provide the Right Support

Undergraduate research requires that students wrestle with questions that don't yield clear, undisputable answers. It requires that they plan, experience the process of trial-and-error, see knowledge as a work in progress, grapple with ambiguity, and collaborate. Beyond structuring the critical elements of the undergraduate research experience to achieve your selected cognitive learning objectives, you may want to identify ways to help your students make the most of other real world learning opportunties that undergraduate research offers. Setting expectations at the start of the project can go a long way toward promoting this learning, but there are other ideas and resources you may wish to draw from along the way.

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Are these students frustrated with a research partner, or are they simply studying the success of their institution's recycling program? Photo courtesy of Randolph College.

Explore Dimensions of Mentoring

The nature and quality of the mentoring you provide can influence not only the quality of the research project, but the extent of a student's broader learning during the undergraduate research experience. Mentoring can help socialize students into the discipline, identify career aspirations, and process issues pertaining to the ethics of research and discovery. Mentoring can help students recognize and accept that much of what they struggle with in undergraduate research - uncertainty, trial-and-error, and more - are normal to the research process and to much of life in general. Faculty mentors can gain for themselves personal and professional satisfaction from mentoring and may gain additional insight into how their students learn. The benefits of mentoring to both the student and the faculty member can live long after the undergraduate research experience.

While there are clear objectives to mentoring, there is flexibility in how it can be done. Like other aspects of undergraduate research, the approach you take should be informed by your the choices you make about the form and intensity of your undergraduate research experience. For instance, if you are doing a class-based project, requiring informal reflection journals or blogs as a means of formative assessment may have the added advantage of helping you identify how each individual is experiencing the project. If students are reading each other's blogs, a response to one student is a response to all. Of course, if you are working with just one student or a small group of students, you may prefer to have more in-person discussions.

The Council on Undergraduate Research (2002) offers a guide to mentoring that describes student and faculty mentoring expectations and offers some practical suggestions for mentoring undergraduate researchers. Neil Fleming's (2003) more general report on personal interaction and learning complements this.


Maximize the Benefits of Working in Groups

If your students are also working with one another, you'll want to make sure their interactions are smooth. The Starting Point module on cooperative learning offers some tips for helping students work together.

You may also wish to think beyond using group interactions to promote cognitive learning objectives. While faculty mentoring can support a student's broader growth and learning, so can support from other students. For instance, blogs or break-out session can allow students to communicate with each other about how they experience the twists and turns of the research experience and how they are using it to better understand not only the discipline, but their own perspectives and professional goals.


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