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How Do We Support Faculty to Develop as Mentors of Undergraduate Research?

by Paul Miller

Undergraduate research is well established as a high-impact practice. It helps students participate in knowledge creation, transition to the workplace, and develop their ability to think critically (Johnson, 2006).  Faculty who mentor undergraduate research report benefits related to teaching, career productivity, and renewed energy (Noe et al., 2002).  The student and faculty benefits of participating in a mentored undergraduate research program coalesce for institutions leading to increased faculty retention, enhanced alumni loyalty, and overall institutional commitment (Clark et al., 2000).  However, with the growth of mentored undergraduate research at the disciplinary and the institutional levels, the demand for faculty mentors has also grown resulting in added complexity to faculty expectations.  Despite extensive research on the practice’s value to students, faculty and institutions, there is still much to learn about mentoring undergraduate research and the most effective ways to support faculty in their development of mentoring skills and abilities.

Historically, most academics were introduced to the scholarship of their discipline, or at least became active participants in its creation, when they enrolled in their respective graduate programs.  With increasing access to undergraduate research programs across the academy, younger students have the opportunity to become creators of new knowledge rather than solely a consumer of existing knowledge.  These experiences provide rich, engaged learning opportunities for students and provide an earlier entry point into disciplines (Kierniesky, 2005).  This high-impact practice (Kuh, 2008) may be particularly impactful in allowing students to develop their abilities of inquiry, analysis, synthesis, and dissemination (Page et al., 2004; Seymour et al., 2004), skills that are among the most desirable for future employers and graduate programs (Hart Research Associates, 2013).

In 2004, Page et al. described the benefits of a well-rounded mentored research program.  Students who participated in a mentored research program reported a better understanding of research methodology, a more comprehensive understanding of disciplinary theory, and an increased chance for success in research-based graduate programs.  Additionally, students seemed to demonstrate an elevated self-confidence in academic pursuits.  This result was supported by Seymour and colleagues (2004), who reported that 91% of the students participating in mentored research reported positive experiences.  Students reported that they made personal/professional gains, developed their ability to think and work within their chosen field, gained professional skills, clarified or confirmed their career plans, prepared themselves for graduate studies, and increased their attitudes to learning and working as a researcher.

Mentored undergraduate research experiences are enriching for students, and the degree of success is predicated on establishing a solid collaborative relationship between faculty and students. Lopatto (2003) stated that in order to achieve a successful undergraduate research experience, a mentor needs to establish a balance between guided and autonomous activities for the student, develop an ongoing and dynamic relationship with the student, and be attuned to the student’s needs. Additionally, Lopatto (2006) described the impact effective, high-quality mentoring can have on the undergraduate research experience. Two traits, “responsive to questions” and “treats you like a colleague,” are highly desirable to students and directly related to students’ satisfaction with their research experience.

This prior research reiterates that students experience dynamic engaged learning by participating in a mentored undergraduate research experience.  What needs to be considered is how mentoring undergraduate research differs from teaching a traditional class.  Faculty may need to utilize different skills when engaged as a mentor in order to be effective.  By assuming the role as mentor, a faculty member may be called upon to act as a facilitator, guide or co-learner while the students take on the roles of explorer, cognitive apprentice, teacher and producer of knowledge (Jones et al., 1994, 1995).

For these outcomes to potentiate, effective faculty mentors must have access to tailored professional development activities and be encouraged to work with undergraduate students.  With the complexity of institutional demands facing faculty, mentoring activities must prove to be fruitful and mutually beneficial for both the student and the mentor (Hunt & Michael, 1983). Faculty need mentoring activities that are valued, rewarded, and supported by their institutions (Rowlett, Blockus and Larson, 2012). It has been further suggested that the implementation and integration of a comprehensive undergraduate research program should be tied to faculty development and that fostering a community of mentors would help faculty develop as teachers and scholars (Thomas & Gillespie, 2008). A study conducted by Dolan and Johnson (2009) found that mentors of undergraduate researchers reported perceived gains in productivity, confidence, understanding, teaching ability, and communication skills. While the benefits of participating in mentored undergraduate research for students and faculty are fairly well accepted, a void currently exists in the literature identifying evidence-driven strategies describing the best ways to support faculty in developing these mentoring skills and abilities.

The Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (Rowlett et al., 2012) published by the Council on Undergraduate Research suggests several elements that are important for the training and support of undergraduate research mentors.  They are:

  1. Clear programmatic expectations
  2. Development of mentoring communities/networks
  3. Integration of mentoring into professional development plans
  4. Mentor training during graduate/post-doctoral programs

The COEUR document also describes several elements to incentivize the mentoring of undergraduate research.  They are:

  1. Recognition of excellent mentoring
  2. Inclusion of mentoring effectiveness into promotion and tenure decisions
  3. Incorporation of mentoring into salary decisions
  4. Awarding distinction to programs demonstrating excellence in undergraduate research mentoring
  5. Publicizing mentored publications

While these characteristics may be instrumental in the establishment of a vibrant mentored undergraduate research program, questions still remain regarding the most effective ways to support faculty in their development of mentoring skills and abilities:

  • What is needed to support the development of skilled mentors?
  • How do we identify the characteristics of successful mentoring and how is it assessed?
  • Where does mentoring undergraduate research fall in the hierarchy of faculty expectations?
  • How impactful is it to develop a community of mentors and how would such a community influence mentoring practices?
  • How can we equip faculty mentors with the skills to adjust their mentoring approaches for differing student needs?
  • How do different institution types either encourage or discourage faculty participation as undergraduate research mentors?

While the benefits for faculty and students of participating in a comprehensive undergraduate research experience have been fairly well articulated, it does leave room to consider what additional benefits could arise if best practices related to mentor training and support were identified and implemented. Would such information help faculty be more efficient in their mentoring efforts? Would student learning be enhanced? What would be the impact of a mentor training program to the university culture and the community of mentors? These questions and others are potential areas of investigation for the upcoming Center for Engaged Learning Research Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research.  Check back for a call for applications, next month.


  • Clark, R. A., Harden, S. L., & Johnson, W. B. (2000). Mentor relationships in clinical psychology doctoral training: Results of a national survey. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 262–268.
  • Dolan, E. & Johnson, D. (2009). Toward a holistic view of undergraduate research experiences: An exploratory study of impact on graduate/postdoctoral mentors. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18, 487-500.
  • Hart Research Associates (2013). It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Liberal Education, 99 (2), 1-8.
  • Hunt, D. & Michael, C. (1983). Mentorship: A career training and development tool, Academy of Management Review, 8, 475 – 480.
  • Johnson, B. W. (2006).  On being a mentor. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Jones, B.F., Valdez, G., Nowakowski, J. & Rasmussen, C. (1994) Designing learning and technology for education reform. North Central Regional Educational Lab., Oak Brook, IL.
  • Jones, B.F., Valdez, G., Nowakowski, J. & Rasmussen, C. (1995) Plugging in: Choosing and using educational technology.. North Central Regional Educational Lab., Oak Brook, IL.
  • Kierniesky, N.C. (2005). Undergraduate research in small psychology departments: Two decades later. Teaching Psychology, 32(2), 84-90.
  • 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.
  • Lopatto, D. (2003).  The essential features of undergraduate research.  CUR Quarterly, 24, 139 – 142.
  • Lopatto, D. (2006). Undergraduate research as a catalyst for liberal learning.  Peer Review, 8 (1), 22-25.
  • Noe, R.A., Greenberger, D.B., & Wang, S. (2002). Mentoring: What we know and where we might go. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 21, 129 – 173.
  • Page, M.C., Abramson, C.I., & Jacobs-Lawson, J.M. (2004). The National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program: experiences and recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 31(4), 241-247.
  • Rowlett, 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.
  • Thomas, E. & Gillespie, D. (2008). Weaving together undergraduate research, mentoring of junior faculty, and assessment: The case of an interdisciplinary program. Innovations in Higher Education, 33, 29-38.


Paul Miller is a Professor of Exercise Science and Director of Undergraduate Research at Elon University.

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