Advice on how to most effectively mentor students (essay)

Although the practice of undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work has long been a fixture in American higher education, several developments within the past couple of years have drawn much-needed attention to the role of the undergraduate faculty mentor. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index identified that only about two in 10 college students strongly agreed that they had a mentor who encouraged them in their goals. In 2015, Purdue University administrators announced their plans to make mentoring undergraduate students a point of emphasis in tenure reviews. And since then, scores of articles and studies have appeared about the role and importance of mentoring.

Our interest in those developments is in the way they are focusing attention and conversation on the crucial practice of mentoring undergraduate students. For three summers, we co-led a seminar at Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning on mentoring undergraduate research for faculty members and undergraduate research program directors from institutions in the United States and abroad. The work of experts in the field of mentoring, as well as George Kuh and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has identified undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work as among 10 high-impact practices and provided the foundation for our seminar. Yet we’ve pushed one step farther. Our seminar participants have identified one key to this high-impact practice: the mentor who works closely with a student engaged in a research or creative project.

Guided by our own knowledge and experiences of mentoring that, in turn, have been enhanced by our seminar participants' studies of mentoring practices, we’ve learned a few things about what excellent mentoring is, and what it's not. And along the way, we have acquired a better idea of what institutions can do (and in some cases, what they shouldn't do) to enhance the well-mentored undergraduate experience.

Mentoring relies on quality relationships that endure over time. An intensive summer or multiyear mentored undergraduate experience, for example, supports students’ developing expertise in a field of study as well as their personal growth. And as a result, mentoring connotes a relationship that transcends mere assigned roles such as advising and teaching.

Yet good intentions and the proliferation of programs for undergraduate research do not guarantee that good-quality mentoring happens. Even when students, faculty members or administrators label these assigned relationships "mentorships," there is no guarantee that such supervision will reflect effective mentoring practice. Student involvement in undergraduate research or creative work alone offers no guarantee of good mentoring.

We instead suggest that colleges and universities better emphasize quality mentoring relationships and develop strategies and practices that assist faculty members and students alike in aspiring to and developing an excellent mentoring experience. Specifically, they should:

  1. Define the relationship. The farther we progressed in our seminar, the more complicated the meaning of mentoring became. Not every student-faculty assignment or interaction results in mentoring, even if it is labeled as such. An intentional focus on high-quality mentoring requires a critical definition of the developmental relationship we have in mind. Colleges and universities would be well served to articulate:
    1. what good mentoring is on their campuses (and how it differs from the other important roles a faculty member plays for students),
    2. how it is operationally defined,
    3. what the appropriate expectations are,
    4. what its best practices are, and
    5. what its distinct manifestations are among the disciplines.
  2. Train faculty members over time. Holding the occasional workshop for faculty on mentoring will not alone advance an institutional culture of high-quality mentoring. Rather, institutions should commit to a prolonged and robust system of mentor selection and training, one that begins with a faculty-faculty mentoring program, incorporates the importance of recognizing and engaging the variety of student developmental needs, and includes regular assessment of mentoring effectiveness with students.
  3. Provide adequate support. Undergraduate research offices, and the people who occupy them, need clear direction from campus constituencies about the role and value of mentoring at the institution. Likewise, those offices should have financial backing -- not only funds available to support students and faculty in undergraduate research experiences but also to support consistent programming and training about what makes a high-quality mentor.
  4. Make it a priority. Chief academic officers play a key role in making good mentoring a priority on campuses. They must allocate the resources and create the infrastructure to fully support undergraduate research offices. They also should support diverse pathways for faculty members to be involved in undergraduate research, following appropriate training and perhaps even supervised experience in the mentor role.
  5. Focus on competence. Perhaps most politically sensitive, we suggest colleges and universities pay more and better attention to competence of those in the mentoring role, and recognize that not every faculty member is a good mentor to undergraduate students at every stage in their career. It would be helpful to assist faculty members in thoughtfully working to balance the various expectations and aspirations of their own careers with associated activities related to high-quality mentoring of undergraduate students. One important element of such planning is that faculty members consider when they can (and when they cannot) invest in a high-quality mentoring relationship with an undergraduate student.
  6. Recognize and reward good mentoring. Colleges and universities need to consider how mentoring undergraduate students in research fits into the evaluative standards used for the promotion and tenure processes, and how other kinds of tangible supports can be offered to those who excel in such activity. Given the vital learning opportunity such experiences offer to students -- not to mention the considerable time and effort required of the faculty member -- we believe that faculty work in this high-impact practice should be recognized, rewarded and formalized in institutional practice and policy.
  7. Assess and reassess. Finally, if we are to hold to the belief that good-quality mentoring is inextricably linked with successful undergraduate research experiences, then we need to commit to an honest assessment and evaluation of these experiences that provides the faculty mentor with an opportunity for growth and development in this important role.

What we have come to know about the experience for students engaged in undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work is that it has the potential to facilitate deep and lasting high-impact learning. This potential can only be fully realized when colleges and universities commit to the belief that high-quality mentoring matters -- for students, faculty members and their institutions over all -- and they put practices and programs in place to promote, reinforce and celebrate it.

Laura L. Behling is professor of English at Knox College. W. Brad Johnson is professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. Paul C. Miller is assistant provost for communications and operations and professor of exercise science at Elon University. Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University. They served as co-leaders of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning’s Seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, 2014-16.

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Vanderbilt Must Count Non-Tenure-Track Union Election Ballots

Vanderbilt University must count all ballots from a June election in which non-tenure-track faculty members in the College of Arts & Sciences voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, a hearing officer from the National Labor Relations Board said. The recent decision could still be appealed by Vanderbilt and must be approved by the NLRB regional director, but non-tenure-track professors in the college described it as bringing them one step closer to collective bargaining.

Some 193 instructors were eligible to vote in the election, with 55 voting for a union and 40 opposed. The university challenged the validity of 28 votes, but NLRB ended up counting 27 of those.

“We call on the administration to accept the NLRB hearing officer’s decision and begin negotiating with us in good faith,” Heraldo Falconi, a senior lecturer in Spanish, said in a statement. “We have lawfully completed the steps required for union certification, and it's time to get started negotiating a clear set of policies and guidelines that's consistent for all non-tenure-track employees.”

The university said in a separate statement that it is evaluating the NLRB hearing officer’s report “and in the process of determining next steps at this time. We continue to approach this process in good faith and with the well-being of the Vanderbilt community and its faculty at the forefront.”

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Guidance on the process of gaining tenure (essay)

Don Haviland, Anna M. Ortiz and Laura Henriques give advice on how to understand your institution’s timeline, criteria and unwritten expectations.

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The Road to Tenure: Understanding the Process

Data show global nature of academic collaboration

More than half of all research papers published by academics in France and Britain now have at least one international co-author. Share lags in U.S.

Flipping the Classroom booklet and webcast

Inside Higher Ed has released its latest print-on-demand compilation, "Flipping the Classroom and Other Techniques to Improve Teaching." You may download the free booklet here, and you may sign up here for a free webcast on the themes of th

Inside Digital Learning: Quality in Online Courses

In today's "Inside Digital Learning":

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AGB Urges Trustees to Back Shared Governance

The Board of Directors of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges released a statement reminding trustees of the importance of shared governance. "In higher education’s volatile environment, shared governance is essential," the statement says. "It adds substantial value to institutional progress and innovation. In fact, responsibility and accountability for addressing colleges’ and universities’ thorniest challenges often rest with multiple parties. Effective shared governance is about more than who is responsible for what. At its best, shared governance is about how key constituents in institutional communities -- traditionally faculty, administrators and board members -- engage in achieving a commonly supported mission."

The statement is based on a 2016 AGB study of shared governance and includes four principles for trustees concerning shared governance: boards should not only understand but champion its value; it must be based on a culture of meaningful engagement; it requires a constant commitment by campus and board leaders; and policies related to shared governance should be reviewed periodically to ensure their effectiveness.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer for tenure, academic freedom and shared governance at the American Association of University Professors, who was involved in discussions about the statement, said it “makes a very strong case to trustees as to why shared governance is important for the proper functioning of institutions of higher education.” AGB, AAUP and the American Council on Education co-wrote a 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which the new AGB statement reinforces.

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Virginia Tech Professors Mulling No-Confidence Vote in Provost

Faculty members at Virginia Tech are considering holding a vote of confidence in Thanassis Rikakis, provost, The Roanoke Times reported. Surveys and other internal documents suggest increasing faculty dissatisfaction with the direction of the university and communication between administrators and professors, according to the Times. The Faculty Senate has also resolved that a memo from Rikakis suggesting that a negative tenure or promotion review can result in reappointment to another position elsewhere in the university is in violation of the Faculty Handbook, the Times reported. A Tech spokesperson said that the university maintains that the provost “has followed all the policies and procedures defined by the Faculty Handbook.”

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St. Kate's Adjuncts Reject Union Bid

Adjunct professors at St. Catherine University in Minnesota voted against forming a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Tuesday. ReBecca Koenig Roloff, president, said in a statement that the election result was “an affirmation of the way our adjunct faculty and university leadership have worked closely with one another over the course of the last year to achieve real progress in areas such as compensation, benefits and professional development.” 

Carol Nieters, executive director of the local SEIU, in a separate statement accused St. Kate’s of waging a vigorous anti-union campaign. SEIU continues to stand with “faculty and students at St. Kate’s who deserve better than the current situation,” she said.

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Battle broadens over archives for scholars to share papers

Scholars feel pressure to remove their work from research-sharing platforms like Academia.edu and others, as publishers’ battle with ResearchGate rages on.


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