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How can we provide effective feedback to our mentees?

Imagine you have a colleague who is mentoring an undergraduate researcher for the first time. Given your experience mentoring undergraduate researchers, your colleague seeks advice from you about how to mentor this student. After offering some advice early on, you don’t hear from them again for the rest of the term. You happen to run into them after the term has wrapped up and you ask them how it went. Your colleague laments, “It was all going well until the student gave me a draft of their final paper one week before the due date. It was a disaster! It really needed to be re-written, but giving that kind of feedback so close to the deadline seemed unfair. I didn’t know what else to do except edit it heavily myself. I tracked changes so the student could see what edits I made, but they just accepted my changes and turned in the paper. This student wants to go to grad school, but there is no way they will be successful given the quality of their writing.”

You listen, nod, and empathize, “That sounds familiar! I thought the same thing when I was first mentoring early career researchers. Luckily, I happened to go to a workshop on how to give effective feedback. I found it useful for thinking about the balance between positive and critical feedback. It turns out that positive feedback is more effective for folks who are learning something brand new, while critical yet constructive feedback is more effective for folks with some expertise who are trying to improve. Sometimes I can’t determine whether a mentee would benefit from more positive or critical feedback, so I often start by asking what kinds of feedback they are seeking.”

You also know that sometimes mentees don’t know what feedback they need. So you share the following strategies for giving effective feedback:

  1. Focus on the task at hand. Notice how your colleague jumped from assessing the quality of their student’s draft to making predictions about the student’s potential for success in grad school? It turns out that predictions like this aren’t likely to bear out, and can often indicate more about our own biases regarding what success looks like. Instead of giving feedback related to an unpredictable future, feedback is more fair and effective if it stays focused on the task in front of us. You advise your colleague, “Don’t worry about their grad school prospects – that is so tricky to predict. When I give feedback, I pick two or three things that my mentee can feasibly address in the timeframe they have, and I focus on those.”

    Biases are systematic patterns of judgment in favor of one thing, person, or group over another in a way that is unfair or unreasoned.

  2. Provide specific and illustrative examples. It can be tempting to give extensive and detailed feedback to early career researchers. Yet, too much feedback can be overwhelming, especially to individuals first learning to do something. Feedback is more effective if it is limited and aimed at supporting mentees in doing the work themselves. With this in mind, you elaborate, “When I get a paper draft from a mentee, I read through the entire draft without editing. Then I pick a few things that are most important or feasible for them to focus on improving. Then I give them an example to follow. For instance, if the chain of logic in the introduction isn’t clear, I ask them to create a bulleted outline of their main points in order or I ask them to make a reverse outline so they can check the chain of logic themselves. If their paragraph structure needs improvement, I will rewrite one paragraph with a clear topic sentence and appropriate follow-on sentences. Then I will annotate the paragraph to explain how and why I rewrote it the way I did and ask them to do the same with subsequent paragraphs.”
  3. Provide support and resources. It can also be tempting to think we have to provide our mentees with all of the help they need. Rather, we help our mentees (and ourselves!) by recognizing our own limitations as mentors and steering our mentees to other sources of support. With this in mind, you ask your colleague, “Do you know about the writing center on campus? When my mentees are struggling with the operations of writing, I have them get help there so I can focus the limited time I have on helping them with the aspects of their writing that are specific to scientific writing and to their project. I have also found the book Writing Science (Schimel, 2011) super helpful – we have a few copies in the lab for folks to consult.” Pointing out other sources of support promotes equity by indicating there is not one single right way to do things and ensuring all of our mentees know where they can find help.       

    Equity is about who has power in a group and how that power can be redistributed to be fairer. As mentors, we can promote equity by helping mentees recognize the power they have to help themselves and by removing ourselves from the role of “gatekeeping” help.

  4. Normalize challenges and frame feedback as an opportunity for improvement. Critical feedback can be difficult for mentors to give and mentees to receive, since it can be interpreted as work not being good enough. We can help our mentees receive critical feedback constructively by explaining that challenging skills like writing take time and effort to develop, and that we are offering critical feedback to help them improve (Brandstätter & Bernecker, 2022). In addition, research on “wise feedback” (Yeager et al., 2014) indicates that we can help mentees respond favorably to critical feedback by emphasizing that we have high expectations for our mentee, that we know our mentee can meet these expectations, and that we are here to help. With this in mind, you explain, “I try to remind myself that most undergraduates have never written more than one or two drafts of a paper before they submit it. I show them that it is normal for me to generate 20 or more drafts before I finalize a paper. Of course, I don’t expect them to write quite so many drafts, but I do expect them to revise multiple times if needed to improve the quality of their papers. I also remind them that I can help and they can also ask their peers and others in our group for help.”

Your colleague appreciates your advice. “Thanks so much for these tips – I’ll definitely try them out the next time I am giving feedback to a mentee. I also realized I could have made both of our lives easier if I set milestones along the way. In the future, I’ll be sure to ask for drafts of parts of the paper throughout the semester. That way, they’ll be able to make improvements as they go and we both won’t be so crunched for time.”

You respond, “Happy to help! I apply these same ideas when I am giving feedback on other things as well, like planning experiments, analyzing results, annotating code, and giving presentations. I try to focus on the task at hand, make just a couple of suggestions of how the work could be improved, give an example or two to illustrate how to apply the feedback, and point out how they can find additional help elsewhere. I also try to set a tone that encourages my mentees to seek help by normalizing the iterative nature of scientific research. No matter how many students I mentor, I am still learning things. So please let me know how it goes.”

For more on giving and receiving feedback, check out:

  • Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (1st edition). Viking.

For more on mentoring others in writing, check out:

  • Gottschalk, K., & Hjortshoj, K. (2004). The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Do you have other ideas about how to provide effective feedback to mentees? Email us at– your input may be the focus of a future blog post!

If you are interested in learning more about evidence-based practices related to undergraduate research and mentorship, please check out our other blog posts in this series (listed below) and stay tuned for future blog posts!

  1. Who gets to do undergraduate research?
  2. New researchers have arrived-now what?
  3. How do you know what your mentee knows?
  4. How do I set my mentee up for success in research?
  5. How do you support mentee independence in research?


Dr. Erin Dolan is a Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education at the University of Georgia as well as C-CoMP’s Diversity Coordinator.


Brandstätter, V., & Bernecker, K. (2022). Persistence and disengagement in personal goal pursuit. Annual Review of Psychology, 73(1), 271–299.

Schimel, J. (2011). Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (1st edition). Oxford University Press.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804–824.