7 Key Ways to Make Student Mentoring Matter

Four scholars describe what institutions can do -- and should not do -- to enhance the well-mentored undergraduate experience.

October 27, 2017

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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