Tips for Mentoring Undergraduate Students

The benefits of undergraduate research experiences for students are well-documented. However, the professional and personal growth students gain is dependent upon high-quality and effective mentoring.

In addition to introducing students to the methods of the discipline, excellent mentors:

  • promote students’ intellectual independence and curiosity
  • foster students’ ability to make research decisions
  • help students clarify their career goals
  • promote students’ sense of belonging as a member of a community of scholars
  • help students build confidence

Students report that the most important aspect of their undergraduate research experience is the relationship with their mentor. (Temple et al. 2010)

For students, benefits of participating in undergraduate research fall into three broad categories: cognitive and intellectual growth, professional growth and advancement, and personal growth. The Council on Undergraduate Research has some very good publications on mentoring undergraduate research students (references listed below). Common themes in mentoring that fall into the three categories of student benefits are summarized below.

Mentoring tips for advancing cognitive and intellectual growth

  • Set clear expectations and guidelines for the research and professional behavior
  • Introduce students to the primary theoretical, conceptual, and methodological ideas
  • Teach and model the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline
  • Build capacity and foster self-efficacy by scaffolding research activities
  • Be patient and tailor explanations to the student’s level

Mentoring tips for fostering professional growth and advancement

  • Model and guide scientific professional practices, such as acceptance of responsibility and acknowledging failure as part of the process
  • Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline
  • Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral presentations, poster presentations, and writing
  • Dedicate time to one-on-one mentoring
  • Talk about goals and career plans with your students

Mentoring tips for promoting personal growth

  • Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest
  • Increase student ownership of the research over time
  • Give students the opportunity to struggle productively
  • Provide constructive feedback
  • Encourage questions

Inclusive Mentoring

How can we make undergraduate research opportunities and experiences more inclusive? Some tips for inclusive mentoring include:

  • Recruiting and encouraging students specifically. Students may feel too intimidated to approach faculty about research opportunities.
  • Fostering a sense of belongingness by inviting students to share their perspectives and experiences. Let students know that their identities and experiences are valued.
  • Believing in your students’ abilities and then helping them develop skills through scaffolding. Encourage them to believe they will be successful.
  • Sharing your own challenges and how you overcame them.
  • Being flexible with schedules. Many students have work or family obligations that make scheduling research difficult.

Hensel, N.H. (Ed.). (2018). Course-Based Undergraduate Research: Educational Equity and High-Impact Practice.Virginia. Stylus Publishing & Council on Undergraduate Research
Temple, L., Sibley, T.Q., Orr, A.J., (2010). How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers. Washington D.C. Council on Undergraduate Research
Vandermaas-Peeler, M.V., Miller, P.C., & Moore, J.L. (Ed.). (2018). Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Washington D.C. Council on Undergraduate Research