9 Teaching, Training, and Mentoring Students in Research Practices Inside and Outside the Classroom
Anne M. Brown
Graduate students and faculty often engage in supporting, training, teaching, and mentoring undergraduate researchers in order to achieve research project milestones and to contribute to university experiential learning initiatives, much as you may be doing now. However, as you may have found, little training or guidance exists on how to successfully engage and train students in the research environment of an R1 university setting. Undergraduate research is identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as a high-impact practice (HIP) (AAC&U, 2020). These undergraduate research experiences can be very valuable in enhancing workforce development skills for undergraduates, but lack of planning, project scope, training, acknowledgment of skill level, and consideration for how to best train and teach students can be challenges for both graduate students and faculty. This chapter outlines an organizational teaching structure that can be used to engage students in undergraduate research in a traditional (e.g., classroom) and a non-traditional (e.g., research lab) environment. Additionally, this chapter offers best practices to ensure a successful experience in teaching, training, and mentoring undergraduate research students in a research-intensive university setting.
This chapter will discuss…
- Strategies for structuring research experiences in a classroom or lab environment.
- Practices to incorporate in the mentorship of students in undergraduate research
The role of experiential learning in higher education is expanding as new initiatives and strategic plans incorporate and support the practice in the undergraduate career of all students (Eyler, 2009). Pioneered by David Kolb in the 1980s, experiential learning can be cyclic and moves students from “concrete experiences” to “active experimentation/application”, with reflection and conceptualization components integrated into the cycle (Kolb, 1984). As a collective whole in higher education, “experiential learning” is frequently used synonymously with the term “experiential education.” Experiential education is often viewed as the broader philosophy of the complete educational pathway of a student, whereas experiential learning applies to an individual learning experience. This experiential learning process benefits students by grounding the theoretical core domain knowledge in an applied setting, where it harnesses the creativity of students to promote deeper levels of critical thinking, and it can incorporate a “trial-by-error” level of confidence and engagement with the material (Kolb & Kolb, 2018). Experiential learning can take many forms, including field work, internships, service-learning, and, in the context of this chapter, undergraduate research.
Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) can be a pivotal experience for students, regardless of major and anticipated career routes (NASEM, 2019). Undergraduate research is considered one of the high-impact practices (HIPs) defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and can benefit students by its integration in a classroom setting or in an applied learning setting (e.g., in a lab, in the field, etc.) (AAC&U, 2020). Often, undergraduate research is not a well-understood activity for undergraduate students in their first and second year, especially at a research-intensive (R1) university. Students often hear about undergraduate research opportunities, but are rarely exposed to what that represents for both the institution and for them in their own personal career journeys. As faculty members in the university, we can fill this knowledge gap by improving the communication systems to emphasize the utility and impact of undergraduate research, alongside training in research and data literacy, on our students’ durable skills.
Research as a broad conceptualization can engage students in thinking about questions they have about the world or an area of personal topic interest, promote a route for them to explore these questions, and ultimately collect necessary information (data!) to make decisions. Students develop a variety of skills such as information management, data management, data ethics, and problem solving during a URE. Importantly, students can leverage these UREs in their future careers—the major skills of critical thinking/problem solving, communication (oral, written, digital), and teamwork/collaboration that are developed during a URE influence the abilities of individuals in every sector of the workforce (McClure-Brenchley et al., 2020). Conveying the broad skillsets learned in an URE, in addition to the domain-specific technical aspects, can be incredibly useful in promoting these experiences for students and often enhance engagement as well (Brown et al., 2016). Describing these topics to the students as both skills learned and marketable features as they enter the next steps of their careers can further clarify the role of the university research enterprise to students.
As faculty members and graduate students, we can recognize the importance of UREs for undergraduates, but how do we creatively, strategically, and equitably engage students in these skills without overtaxing our own capacities? We must structure an unstructured experience, frame skill development, and focus on both research theory and domain specific training to provide an exceptional experience for students and the instructors (Brown et al., 2016). This chapter will discuss these practices in the classroom and in the research lab, where each setting has different goals and outcomes, but can benefit from commonalities in approach to engaging students in research.
Teaching and Mentoring Students in Research in the Classroom
Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are becoming increasingly more common as a means to consistently engage a larger group of students in active-learning of research skills (Bangera & Brownell, 2014; Dolan, 2016). CUREs can be framed as a repeated, tested implementation or a certain research methodology that still maintains authentic inquiry by the student or as a research project related to the research interests of the instructor. Specifically for the latter example, individuals have implemented CUREs in a biology curriculum to have multiple student groups participate in a stepwise test of mutations of certain protein structures, using the student human power as a means to more widely scan for impact of mutation. Regardless of the intention and implementation, students are able to participate in this experience for course credit, easily integrate the experience into their schedule, and in some cases get required course credit for degree completion.
CUREs are not without challenges. For example, the time to instruct or serve as a teaching assistant (TA) in a CURE is much more time intensive than other courses, such that students often have issues in motivation and ownership of projects, and TAs lack the expertise to mentor students in a CURE environment (Heim & Holt, 2019). Having implemented a CURE for a first-year, 1 credit, P/F environment in the field of biochemistry, personal experience indicates these challenges are justified.
There are some strategies that have aided in the mitigation and improved experience (of both the instructor and the TA):
- Outline requirements up front. On the first day of class, we provide the rubrics, instructions, and expectations for the final deliverables of the CURE. Students are grouped either naturally at the start of class (using a SCALE-UP classroom, students naturally join tables) or in virtual teaching—via randomized assignment to smaller “breakout rooms” wherein small groups of students can synchronously collaborate until allocated group time ends. Students remain in these groups for the entire semester. Originally, we did not define group roles (i.e., everybody had an equal role). However, in more recent iterations of the course each person/group fills a specific role (project manager, lead data collection, lead writer, lead presentation design, etc.) so that there are more tangible responsibilities up front and students can conceptualize the process throughout the entire semester on the first day. Second, framing the project in terms of specific roles helped students properly conceptualize the complexity of collaborative research. As instructors, we also created all sign-up sheets for these roles (via Google Sheets) and shared notes documents (via Google Docs) and have these linked on the homepage of the course learning management system (LMS). These specific tools were chosen because they had the lowest barriers to access, requiring only a browser and limited processing power. The clarity of expectations and routes to move forward have improved student engagement and diminished confusion.
- Explicitly discuss the impact on their skills and careers. In the first-day materials, there is an explicit slide that details the skills to be taught and the objectives that will be experienced/performed by the student. These include basic research and data literacy skills (file management, file naming, data ethics, consumption of credible information, teamwork, writing and presentation skills) and domain specific, technical skills (for our course – command line interface, bash scripting, molecular visualization, summary statistics, etc.). After polling the class for general career interests, we then use at least one of those skills as an example in a career case the student might encounter. While the actual topic of the CURE implemented in the course might not be a direct interest of the student, the students can now conceptualize how this process can be beneficial for them. This has helped with the issues of ownership and follow-through of students.
- Offer incentives. While not possible in all situations, many universities offer an end-of-semester research symposium. Students have indicated that a final poster presentation that is attended by non-class faculty and students is an incentive. Additionally, students can add this presentation and/or symposium to their resume. Participating in a symposium hosted outside of the class might be extra work for a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) or instructor, so other opportunities include inviting faculty of the discipline to attend an in-class digital poster session (using screens in a large classroom or meeting room) at the end of the year. This then creates networking opportunities, which is a big attraction for students. Additionally, some of the research training modules in the course (e.g., data management, data ethics, etc.) have all been designed to be a digital credential (sometimes referred to as badge) so students will have records of completion as they explore internships or other on-campus research opportunities.
- Don’t forget to be a mentor. We have all struggled in the process of research in a variety of ways. Convey that to your students and humanize yourself and the process of research. Sometimes we focus solely on completing the in-class activities of the day and reaching the final deliverables of a course. With a CURE, however, there will be down time for the instructor to be circulating the room. One strategy that was very helpful was making sure each group had a regular check-in. How was their project going? What questions did they have? Did they know why they were doing today’s task? Finally, and what might be most important, how were they doing in general? How was their semester going? Were they excited about something coming up? Those questions greatly influenced the collegiality of the course and made the entire class, not just an individual group, feel like a team. These questions additionally opened the door for students to ask the questions they might be hesitant to ask out of lack of confidence, and even comment “I learned about things I didn’t know I needed to learn about.”
These four strategies have been helpful in finding balance and having clear expectations for both the student and instructor during a CURE. For a GTA, it can be useful to have all of the planning and expectations of the student deliverables completed at the start of the semester so that both the student and GTA know the final goal. Instructing or acting as a TA for a course that includes a CURE can be a rewarding experience and will be quite different from a lecture experience. Working with students in this capacity can also be a fantastic experience for GTAs earlier in their career, as mentoring students in the completion of a research task can develop their own mentorship and research skills.
Teaching and Mentoring Students in Research in the Lab
More structured undergraduate research experiences in the lab setting can be beneficial in supporting inclusivity and STEM retention (NASEM, 2019; Hernandez et al., 2018). While it might seem oxymoronic since undergraduate research is about exploration and discovery, students need structure when learning many of the technical and procedural aspects of undergraduate research. Students are accustomed to being in a defined learning environment and classroom. Expectations are highlighted on the first day and there is a pretty standard procedure of events. However, often it is solely up to the principal investigator (PI) to determine how a research experience is structured. This structure varies greatly even among instructors within the same department. While that freedom for the PI is warranted, we need to consider how that can affect the student and the GRA (graduate research assistant) that might become the central point of contact with the student. Implementing structure and training in both domain specific techniques and research methodology is necessary in order to provide a comprehensive training and experience for undergraduate research students and best utilize graduate student and faculty time and resources. Structuring the “standard” parts of the research process, like end of semester goals and deliverables, highlighting the timetable in which certain major milestones should be reached (which should not be tied to actual research results obtained), developing a grading/accountability scale, and presenting expectations in a way that students are used to will alleviate a lot of repetitive questions and provide a sandbox for the student to develop. This structured approach has been studied (Brown, Lewis, & Bevan, 2016) by examining the pre- and post-implementation of a structured undergraduate research experience, and the value and utilization of a structure in undergraduate research experiences, and highlights the impact of continuous iterations and lessons learned implemented since deployment. Tips for implementing structure but allowing sandbox creativity are as follows:
- Use a syllabus. While it might seem confining or unnecessary to have a syllabus for a URE, most students are receiving credit for their time in the research lab. This credit is counted equally to any other course credit they receive, so why not have the same standardization that students are used to? We have found that having a syllabus greatly streamlines the process and semester expectations that already exist in other UREs as well as in other courses (e.g., paper, weekly participation, documentation, etc.) and defines expectations in a way that makes clear the grade the students will receive for credit. This has greatly enhanced our ability to host more undergraduate research students and has provided equitable settings for all students—from those starting in their first semester to those that have been in the lab for years.While the syllabus is a useful tool for setting student expectations, it is also highly valuable for the instructor and GRA. There are times when students might vanish, becoming unresponsive to emails and not heard from again. Perhaps the student is overwhelmed, overcommitted, or other issues have arisen; it therefore becomes more difficult for the instructor to assign a grade if there is no track-record of accountability and no route to prove that assignment of the given grade was warranted. This can also ease the stress of a GRA who has a student who is not showing up and provides easy documentation to show the PI the issues occurring without feeling responsible for them.
- Create structured training protocols. Students starting in the research lab will likely have minimal training both in the concepts of the research process and in the specific techniques utilized in the research group. Therefor we have found it useful to implement a standardized training process that all students must complete regardless of skill level. This provides equitable scaffolding for all students to join the group and requires output of the student so skill level and interest in research can be assessed and students can be more appropriately matched to projects based on these skills and interests. While some labs might not be able to afford that level or time commitment of training, it has paid off in the outputs after the first semester.
- Use an online platform for protocols and training. All aforementioned training is hosted on an LMS, which makes new students joining the group much easier to handle once the initial time investment in module/training material creation has occurred. Having all tutorials for the specific lab and training in one place, be it be on an LMS, an Open Science Framework, or an internal website, the central location and focus of a purposeful training can ease the burden of students integrating into the lab and developing the skills need to work on research projects.
- Implement several indicators of “success.” Often, GRAs or PIs expect students will produce stellar research results right out of the gate. In reality, this will not often be the case. Developing the skills to revise and re-do experiments in order to grow is a core component of the research process and it is our responsibility to develop the acceptance of and need for iteration in students. It is important for students to experience that the first time we do something, especially in research, it will often not result in a final product. Iteration and the normalness of this process of improvement needs to be both communicated and embraced. The little wins—the connection of two pieces of information, forward movement even if small, or having a good student discussion—need to be acknowledged. PIs should be gracious with their GRAs and praise their overall interaction and work with a student, especially when the student grasps a difficult topic or continually improves at their presentations in group meetings. Looking at the process holistically, not solely based on the research outputs, will improve morale and motivation in the undergraduate research student and the team as a whole. There are occasions when GRAs may become stressed that it will reflect poorly on them as the GRA that a student is not performing—and you should remind them of the overall goals and various measures of success. We are all in different places in our life and we must be kind and observant of this with our students. We are here to perform high-quality research and to mentor the next generation in research and data literacy, and prepare them for their next steps in their careers. This approach and attitude can greatly improve team morale, relieve stress, and indirectly, improve the research outputs.
Imposing a structured framework on the research process a student partakes in during a lab-based URE can benefit the student, GRA, and instructor. The general structure, grading scheme, expectations, and routes to find information related to the URE should be easy to access and find (e.g., one central location). Standardization across all students enhances community and can help with students lacking confidence in an URE.. Openly and easily accessible trainings (e.g., publicly available and easy to find) and protocols can improve the transparency of research performed as well as teach best practices for both open research and open science. While there is some up-front time required to create the structure—specifically the syllabus and training materials—that time is recouped in the future with a system that makes it easy to bring new students on board. In the end, this structure and planning contributes to both the research and teaching enterprises of the university.
Lessons Learned from Teaching and Mentoring Students in Undergraduate Research
UREs are a fantastic experience that allow students to engage more deeply in a topic, experience success and failure in safe environments, and propel their curiosity and skills to the next level (Petrella & Jung, 2008). That is not to say that these experiences are not time-consuming for instructors and GRA/GTAs, but the interactions, excitement, and outcomes that result can greatly outweigh the challenges. This chapter has highlighted the importance and role of experiential learning, specifically undergraduate research, in the education and development of the student in multiple settings. Routes and advice to deal with challenges of UREs in both the classroom environment and in the research lab setting are discussed, as well as highlighting the commonalities between them. Preparing and thinking about the kind of environment and setting you want to create in an URE is an important starting place. As instructors, we must continually consider how we frame and present to students the process of research, enhance their data literacy, and introduce domain-specific techniques and knowledge. Given the proliferation of misinformation, how we approach research and data literacy training via UREs is critical.
In retrospect as an instructor/PI in who both teaches an URE in a course and leads a large undergraduate research lab, these roles as a research instructor and research mentor are one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of my position at the university. Mentorship has the ability to propagate long-lasting, far-reaching effects. The excitement that we demonstrate and the environment that we create in class and in the research lab has an ability to etch into the life experience of the student given the nature of UREs. UREs provide us the chance to be a mentor for both our students and our GRAs/GTAs. I have had and currently have exceptional mentors and I challenge myself to give back in the same way that I have benefited, propagating that cycle further. Just like framing of benefits is discussed in how to work with challenges of CUREs, it is important to conceptualize how important being a good mentor is at the onset of working with students in UREs.
A piece of advice when conceptualizing mentorship in UREs: one cannot “blanket mentor.” That is, each student needs an individualized approach to their particular mentoring relationship. Start those conversations early, and know that while it is a time investment, it benefits both the mentee and the mentor in the long run. Mentorship is a learning process, and I encourage you to follow Slack channels, Twitter threads, and scholarship on the matter for advice and solutions. As academics, we all are continually refining our craft. Participate and challenge yourself in these mentorship conversations as well as in your approach to deploying UREs in the classroom and lab environments. The tips and techniques discussed in this chapter will hopefully improve your experience in engaging with students in research environments. If you are a GRA/GTA beginning your journey in mentoring undergraduates, do not hesitate to ask your PI/instructor/mentor questions about these topics and challenge yourselves to grow in this area; it will benefit you throughout your career, no matter the path you take.
- What is one technique that was discussed that can be implemented in an undergraduate research experience that you work with?
- What is a technique or strategy that you have implemented that might mirror those discussed here? Have they been successful in alleviating challenging experiences in the classroom or the lab?
- Have you thought reflectively about your current and past mentorship of students? What is working or not working and how might you adjust?
- As a GRA/GTA working with students in an URE, what is something you will utilize from this chapter in your current class or research lab?
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Brown, A. M., Lewis, S. N., & Bevan, D. R. (2016). Development of a structured undergraduate research experience: Framework and implications. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 44(5), 463-474. doi:10.1002/bmb.20975
Dolan, E. L. (2016). Course-based undergraduate research experiences: current knowledge and future directions. National Research Council Communication Paper, 1, 1-34.
Eyler, J. (2009) The power of experiential education. Liberal Education, 95(4). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ871318.
Heim, A. B., & Holt, E. A. (2019). Benefits and challenges of instructing introductory biology course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) as perceived by graduate teaching assistants. CBE Life Sciences Education, 18(3), ar43. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-09-0193.
Hernandez, P. R., Woodcock, A., Estrada, M., & Schultz, P. W. (2018). Undergraduate research experiences broaden diversity in the scientific workforce. Bioscience, 68(3), 204-211. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix163
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle. Australian Educational Leader, 40(3), 8.
McClure-Brenchley, K. J., Picardo, K., & Overton-Healy, J. (2020). Beyond learning: Leveraging undergraduate research into marketable workforce skills. Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research, 3(3), 28-35.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). (2019). 5 promising strategies that contribute to STEM student success, in Minority Serving Institutions: America’s Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/25257.
Petrella, J. K., & Jung, A. P. (2008). Undergraduate Research: Importance, Benefits, and Challenges. International Journal of Exercise Science, 1(3), 91–95.
- How to cite this book chapter: Brown, A.M. 2022. Teaching, Training, and Mentoring Students in Research Practices Inside and Outside the Classroom. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0. ↵