Mentoring Undergraduate Students

Princeton’s requirement that all undergraduates complete a Junior Project and a Senior Thesis in order to graduate offers a unique opportunity to mentor your students as researchers–giving students key skills that readily translate to their future graduate careers or professions. In this section we offer some general guidelines and best practices for supporting your students as a mentor as they embark on their independent work.

Goals and Benefits

As a mentor to undergraduate students, you will support them as they develop the key skills that come through doing in-depth, sustained research. You might consider the goals to be much broader than a polished, cohesive, well-researched thesis: these include process-oriented skills such as project and time management, analytical and critical thinking, the ability to participate in a critical conversation, the ability to communicate and work through issues with someone more experienced, and writing and public speaking-skills that transfer far beyond a student’s specialization in any one specific discipline. 

In the scholarship on learning and teaching, mentoring has been shown to be a “high impact” practice that deeply and directly impacts students’ success and facilitates “deep learning” (Walkington et al., “Striving for Excellence” 105). Mentoring leads to higher academic achievement and retention rates; being mentored well increases students’ resilience and their sense of belonging, building “self-confidence in professional skills and abilities” (Lunsford et al. 317-318). Helen Walkington, et al note: ”A positively mentored UR experience balances challenge and support in ways that inspire the student to see themselves as part of the research community” (“Mentoring in Undergraduate Research” 143). 

Undergraduate students repeatedly report that their relationship with their faculty mentor was the most impactful aspect of their research experience (see Walkington et al., “Striving for Excellence” 105). At Princeton, this one-to-one mentoring relationship is important to many undergraduate students, even upon entering the University: 67% of Princeton students surveyed in a recent study of incoming first years, for instance, think faculty contact outside of classes will be very or extremely important. Mentoring epitomizes the Princeton culture of “close student-faculty engagement, where faculty members often serve as mentors to students as they progress in their studies.” 

Mentoring relationships also positively impact faculty, leading to a deeper alignment between teaching and research. While many believe that the time it takes to mentor detracts from a faculty member’s own research agenda, a recent study found that mentors were more, not less, productive, learning from their students’ work and even sometimes co-authoring articles with them (Walkington et al. “Mentoring in Undergraduate Research” 140). 

 

Best Practices

Successful mentoring is a learned, not innate, skill, and there are some approaches that have been shown to be especially effective in supporting undergraduate researchers. Perhaps because it is so individualized, the quality of the mentoring dynamic matters and directly impacts its effectiveness (Walkington et al., “Striving for Excellence” 105). 

When comparing some common qualities of award-winning mentors of undergraduates, researchers found that key to mentors’ success is “an ability to establish and sustain a high level of challenge, while maintaining meaningful engagement and a feeling of achievement among students” (Walkington, et al., “Mentoring in Undergraduate Research” 137). In the ASHE Higher Education Report on Mentoring Undergraduate Students, Gloria Crisp, et al. summarizes the research on mentoring, noting that advising undergraduates requires an approach that is structured and focusing on building the general skills required to manage a large research project (24). 

What follows are ten practices that have been shown to create successful mentoring relationships between faculty and undergraduate student researchers, based on a recent summation by Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning. We have also drawn on Walkington et al.’s “Striving for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research,” adapting the list to Princeton’s specific program of undergraduate research.

References and Additional Resources

Crisp, Gloria, et al. “Special Issue: Mentoring Undergraduate Students.” ASHE Higher Education Report, vol. 43, no. 1, 2017, pp.7-103, https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1002/aehe.20117

Johnson & Ridley, The Elements of Mentoring: 75 Practices of Master Mentors. St. Martin's Press, 2018.

Lunsford, Laura Gail et al. “Mentoring in Higher Education.” The Sage Handbook of Mentoring, edited by David Clutterbuck, et al.. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017, pp. 316-334.

“Salient Practices.” Center for Engaged Learning. Elon University, https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/salientpractices/, accessed 8/10/23. 

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 69, no. 5, 797–811. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797

Steele, C. M. (1997). “A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance.” American Psychologist, vol. 52, no. 6, 613–629. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.52.6.613

Walkington, Helen et al. “Striving for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research: The Challenges and Approaches to 10 Salient Practices.” Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, edited by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, et al. Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), 2018, pp. 105-129.

Walkington, Helen et al. “Mentoring in Undergraduate Research: The Teacher’s Role.” The Cambridge Handbook of Undergraduate Research, edited by Angela Brew, et al.. Cambridge University Press, 2022, pp. 133-148.