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Supervising Undergraduate Student Projects
August 20, 2013 - 7:17pm

gh gardenKaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.

As a lab citizen, you may be responsible for supervising undergraduate senior/honors thesis projects. With all of your other work that needs to be done, this can seem like an extra burden—another project to work on with a student  you think you’ll have to micromanage because you are unsure of how well of a job they can do with their limited (no) laboratory experience. As the supervisor of an undergraduate student, your role is not only to ensure that the student does the study properly, but also to teach the student about general research practices, scientific rigour, independence, and critical thinking. When first starting out, it’s easy to take the micromanager role because we are used to things running at a certain pace. But an undergraduate project likely will not go as quickly. As a result, we may overextend ourselves into the project. This, however, is not good for your students. Not only should they be doing their own work, but they are missing out on important lessons that can be taught through these projects.

These opportunities allow you to learn, early on, the disadvantages of micromanaging work and how to designate work, supervise students, multi-task, get your name on a publication, and manage projects  from a higher platform than usual. The following are some tips I've gained over my past experiences as a supervisor:

Set expectations early about independence, your role, and your supervisor’s role. If your school does not have guidelines that dictate the components of these theses, it is up to you and your supervisor to establish them. Most undergraduate students won’t have a clue what is involved in an honors thesis or more importantly what they are (and are not) responsible for. Setting clear guidelines early will get rid of hassles later in the term.

Get students involved early.  If your lab is busy, there may be an opportunity for students to help out and become comfortable in the lab before they begin their own project.

Have ongoing deadlines throughout the term. Whether it is from the first draft of their methods to their lit review or a list of hypotheses, if students work continuously through the term, they will remain accountable and not fall behind.

Teach good practices from the start. From lab maintenance to organizing data, you are establishing the basis for good research practices. The student will be ahead of the game, and you won’t need to deal with as many issues after the fact.

Before explaining concepts to them, make sure they go over their undergraduate notes. I have found this is particularly important for statistics, but also for other areas such as measurement techniques or instrumentation selections. This will save you valuable time in not having to review the basics and prepare students to come with questions for you.

Give students opportunities to contribute their own ideas. Most students will be handed a project, but that doesn't mean they don’t have ideas or theories on their work. Allow your student pursue these without going way off base. Not only will it make them feel like they are contributing unique ideas to their project, but it will teach students not to be scared when bringing ideas forward, even if they think they are still novices in the field.

Checklists, checklists, checklists! I have previously written about my use of checklists in research. If they are extremely valuable to me, they are even more necessary for undergraduate students. Provide examples of your checklists so they can make their own and edit them during the piloting process.

Pilot each section of the project separately. Once done, bring all the parts together. I’ll admit this is time consuming on the front end. But as we all know, front end effort can make up for back end work on projects. It will also prevent the student from becoming overwhelmed early on.

Establish frequent checkpoints. In the end, they are still novice researchers and unfortunately they don’t know what they don’t know. It is your responsibility to make sure they are collecting and processing their data correctly. There are two ways to do that: (1) teach them how to look for typical things that are wrong with the data so they can come to you with their concerns and (2) take a look at every few participants or data collections to make sure you familiarize yourself with the data and can spot any issues.

Remember, it’s THEIR work. Yes, you need to make sure it is sound, but it’s their project. They should be doing the bulk of the work, and your controlling ways need to let go so that you can guide. This is especially important when looking at the early drafts of their written document. It can be easy to change things, but how about giving directions so they can make the changes instead?

If your institution is like mine where there is no strict rubric for these theses, take a look at Duke’s Biology Thesis Assessment Protocol and their accompanying research for additional advice.

As a graduate student, what are some tips you have for working with even the most motivated of undergraduate students? Leave your comments below!

[Photo by Flickr user Sam Bebee. Used under Creative Commons License]

 

 

 

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