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Mentoring Undergraduate Research: Student and Faculty Participation in Communities of Practice

by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler

George Kuh (2008) identified undergraduate research (UR) as a high-impact educational practice, one that has the potential to deepen students’ learning, strengthen self-awareness and broaden perspective-taking abilities, among many other benefits. Working closely with a faculty mentor is one of the defining characteristics of an undergraduate research experience (Lopatto, 2003), and faculty mentors are expected to guide students through the research process and be invested in the results or products (Osborne & Karukstis, 2009). Mentors often fulfill a psychosocial function as well (Johnson, 2006). Although mentoring is assumed to be a crucial component of successful student outcomes, surprisingly little empirical research has focused on mentoring in the context of UR.

Here are highlights of what we do know:

There are a number of models of student participation in faculty-mentored UR, from one student working with a faculty mentor to multiple students working in an apprenticeship model in which more experienced peers work side-by-side with less experienced peers, offering support in addition to the guidance provided by the faculty mentor (e.g., Fair, King & Vandermaas-Peeler, 2004; Hagstrom, Baker & Agan, 2009; Vandermaas-Peeler, Nelson, Feretti & Finn, 2011). Apprenticeship models rely on a developmental, social constructivist theoretical approach to learning (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978), in which students learn through engaged and sustained collaborative participation in authentic activities. Novices gradually assume more responsibility for their own learning as they gain experience, knowledge and skills. Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasized the importance of the learner’s participation in a social community of practitioners, critically defined by a process called legitimate peripheral participation in which newcomers to the community participate in multiple, increasingly complex practices with an eventual goal of full participation and an increasing sense of identity as a “master practitioner” (p. 111). According to Lave and Wenger (1991), individual identities are socially constructed through participation in communities of practice.

By participating in UR, students join communities of practice that foster their professional growth and identity. Professional development is often cited as a benefit of UR participation (e.g., Lopatto, 2003; Osborne & Karukstis, 2009; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen & DeAntoni, 2004). In their hallmark longitudinal and multi-institutional study, Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour (2006) employed a social constructivist lens to investigate the role of UR participation on students’ personal and professional development. Students who participated in summer research programs in the sciences were interviewed over time (including post-graduation). Their faculty mentors were also interviewed after the summer UR experiences. Analyses of the interviews yielded interesting information about perceived benefits of UR experiences. Though both students and faculty mentors reported similar benefits from participating in UR, the faculty were much more likely to view student development as part of the process of “becoming a scientist” whereas students focused more on their own personal growth but did not conceptualize it as professional socialization. The study findings supported a social constructivist model in which faculty viewed student development as moving from legitimate peripheral participation towards a more centralized role in a community of scientists, while the students were still viewing the process from the periphery (Hunter et al., 2006).

Several questions remain underexplored about mentoring practices role in students’ development of personal and professional identities:

  • How is “professional identity development” operationalized across disciplines?
  • What mentoring practices foster identity development, and how should they be altered over time to accommodate student growth and development?
  • What student characteristics (e.g., socio-economic and cultural background) influence identity development and how can mentors provide sensitive and appropriate developmental support to diverse populations?
  • Are there particular benefits of mentoring practices such as facilitating student attendance and presentation at professional conferences, for example, and how can faculty mentors optimize such experiences for students?

Higgins and Kram (2001) conceptualized a developmental network approach to study mentoring at work, acknowledging that individuals do not have just one dyadic mentoring relationship but rather utilize a network or constellation of multiple mentors to support their career development.

Undergraduates also typically participate in numerous on- and off-campus experiences with multiple mentors including adults outside the academic institution (e.g., community-based experiences such as internships). Thus, they are members of multiple, overlapping communities of practice. In a recent publication outlining characteristics of excellence in UR, Rowlett, Blockus and Larson (2012 ) indicated that “the undergraduate research enterprise on a campus should be integrated and coordinated, where possible, with other high-impact practices to maximize student development, leverage resources, and incorporate undergraduate research across the institution” (p. 3). Empirical research is needed to substantiate these claims and to investigate how participation in multiple communities of practice influences identity development.

Like their students, faculty mentors are members of myriad communities. By definition, communities of practice are relational and dynamic, such that every community involves relations between the members, the activities, other communities, and the world (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Faculty participation in academic communities of practice involves overlap among their various roles at the institution, including UR mentors, graduate mentors, teachers, scholars, advisors and more. This overlap can contribute to positive influences on faculty development (e.g., overlap between mentoring UR and faculty scholarship can lead to increased productivity) as well as tensions (e.g., emphasis on one role for promotion and tenure may impact levels of participation in other communities). The dynamic nature of communities of practice can present interesting challenges for newcomers and more experienced members of communities of practice as well. For example, new faculty mentors of UR need to learn elements of traditional practice as it has been maintained in the community, and the experienced mentors at the institution share this time-honored knowledge. However, the social practices of any community must evolve over time and the challenge for experienced members of the community is to adapt to a changing ecology that is continually influenced by the newest members of the community (Lave & Wenger, 1991), inspiring questions like:

  • How can we best support the development of faculty mentors of UR within and across their various communities of practice?
  • What supports would enhance excellence for new mentors and how can we continue to develop excellence among more experienced mentors?
  • How do evolving social practices and changing institutional cultural ideologies influence notions of excellence in mentoring UR?

The 2014-2016 CEL Research Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research will explore these and related questions. CEL Seminars facilitate focused multi-institutional, multi-method research by scholars from multiple disciplines and from both U.S. and international contexts. Click here to learn more about CEL Seminars, and please check back in September for the call for applications.


  • Fair, C., King, C. & Vandermaas-Peeler, M. (2004). A cognitive apprenticeship model of undergraduate research in human services.  Human Services Education, 24 (1), 61-68.
  • Hagstrom, F., Baker, K. F., & Agan, J. P. (2009).  Undergraduate research:  A cognitive apprenticeship model.  Perspectives in Higher Education, 12, 45 – 52.
  • Higgins, M. C. & Kram, K. E. (2001).  Reconceptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective.  The Academy of Management Review, 26 (2), 264-288.
  • Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S. L. & Seymour, E. (2007).  Becoming a scientist:  The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal and professional development.  Science Education, 91 (1), 36 – 74.
  • Johnson, B. W. (2006).  On being a mentor. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning:  Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  • Lopatto, D. (2003).  The essential features of undergraduate research.  CUR Quarterly24, 139 – 142.
  • Osborn, J. M. & Karukstis, K. K. 2009. The benefits of undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative activity. In M. Boyd & J. Wesemann (Eds.), Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing the Impact (41-53). Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington, DC.
  • Rowlitt, R. S., Blockus, L. & Larson, S. (2012).  Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research (COEUR).  Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington, DC.
  • Seymour, E., Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S. L., & DeAntoni, T. (2004). Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three-year study. Science Education, 88(4), 493 – 534.
  • Vandermaas-Peeler, M., Nelson, J., Ferretti, L., & Finn, L.  (2011).  Developing expertise:  An apprenticeship model of mentoring undergraduate research across cohortsPerspectives on Undergraduate Research Mentoring, 1.1, 1 – 10.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is a Professor of Psychology at Elon University and a Seminar Leader for the 2014-2016 CEL Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research.

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Welcome to the Center for Engaged Learning!

Welcome to the web site for the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University! The new Center will bring together international leaders in higher education to develop and to synthesize rigorous research on central questions about student learning, filling an important gap in higher education.

Researchers have identified what the “high-impact” educational practices are – study abroad, undergraduate research, internships, service-learning, writing-intensive courses, living-learning communities, and so on. However, while we know what these practices are, we could know much more about three essential issues: (1) how to do these practices well, (2) how to scale these practices to many students, and (3), how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact experiences.

We know, for example, that undergraduate research has powerful outcomes, but it’s very labor intensive – usually one faculty member mentoring one student over an extended period of time. If we understood more about how students learn and develop during an undergraduate research experience, and if we better understood effective faculty mentoring practices, then we could design scaled research experiences that simultaneously would be more effective while reaching far more students – at Elon and elsewhere.

The Center for Engaged Learning also will allow us to tackle a third important issue – studying how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact practices. Most colleges and universities treat student experiences as distinct – with separate offices and sets of evidence-based practices for study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and so forth. At universities where students study abroad and then later complete an internship, or participate in service-learning and then conduct undergraduate research, how can we best help our students integrate across these experiences so that they reinforce each other? The Center will lead precisely that kind of research so that we can support students in integrating across their many engaged experiences.

By collaborating with local, national, and international leaders in high-impact practices, the Center will focus energy and creativity on these important questions. By conducting multi-institutional research and programs on what precisely makes certain experiences “high impact,” how to scale-up those experiences for all students, and how to help students integrate their learning, the Center will not only advance engaged learning in higher education, but it also will support the deepest learning for students.

We invite you join the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University in this work to transform engaged learning.

Peter Felten, Executive Director
Jessie L. Moore, Interim Associate Director

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