Undergraduates across the country are now several weeks into their summer research. Many are hitting stride – they are getting comfortable in their research groups and picking up research-related knowledge and skills. Many will also be making mistakes, experiencing failures, and encountering difficulties that they have not faced in their academic work. Experienced researchers and mentors know that this is just part of doing research. Learning how to do research involves trying and failing and trying again – probably more often than in predictable settings like classes. Even though we know this, we can also forget what it is like to be new to research. We may miss the fact that everyone starts research from a different place – with different experiences, abilities, values, and dispositions. We may be tempted to blame students for not completing their research tasks at the level of quality we expect or on the timeline we think is reasonable. When this happens, we can sometimes misinterpret a student’s mistakes or slow progress as an indicator that they are not taking the research seriously.
It turns out that this tendency – the inclination to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situations or circumstances when judging others – is human nature. Sometimes called the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977) or correspondence bias (Gilbert & Malone, 1995), this tendency manifests in education and training settings as “student deficit thinking” – or assuming that students’ lack of research progress and success is their fault. A growing body of research now shows that deficits in environments – such as students’ prior and current educational experiences – are more likely to be the cause of less-than-desired performance. At first glance, this may be discouraging to mentors because we can’t do anything about our mentees’ prior education or training that may set them up (or not) for success in research. Yet, this can actually be liberating! We as mentors can treat instances when students fall short of expectations as a “learning environment deficit” – circumstances or situations we can change to better support student learning and success.
Here we propose strategies for promoting undergraduate researchers’ learning and development by shifting from thinking about student deficits to shoring up learning environment deficits. These strategies aim to add “structure” to research training so that students are more likely to make progress and succeed, regardless of their prior experiences or future aspirations.
- Offer a choice of projects. Offering undergraduates an opportunity to choose among a small number of research projects will allow them work on research they find most interesting or relevant. This is motivating not only because people have some autonomy – or control – over their circumstances (Fazey & Fazey, 2001), but also because it gives them direction compared to not having a specific project or topic in mind.
- Consider making an undergraduate research “syllabus.” Just like a syllabus for a course, a syllabus for research can function as a one-stop-shop for information about learning goals, key personnel and resources, seminal papers, and a week-by-week timeline. Of course, formal grading can be left out (unless research is for graded credit) and the syllabus can be dynamic based on how the research is going and how the student is doing. Establishing a plan – even a flexible one – and making it transparent can reassure students that they are on the right track and help them find information and help they need along the way. Here is information that could be included on a syllabus and some examples of research syllabi (example 1; example 2; example 3).
- Create opportunities for students to do different research tasks. Researchers do a lot of different things – from designing experiments to writing code to building equipment to presenting and discussing papers. If students can try different tasks, they can begin to develop a diversity of skills and explore the types of work that are interesting to them. Plus, you can begin to identify and build on their strengths to spark more meaning in their experience and foster their personal drive to do the work (Hiemstra & Van Yperen, 2015). These might not be evident if they only carry out a limited number of research tasks. While some repetition is necessary for skill-building and research progress, focusing too much on any one task can also hamper learning and decrease motivation.
- Ask for feedback regularly. As mentors, we are accustomed to giving feedback to our mentees, but we ask for feedback from them much less regularly. Check in with your undergraduate researchers on a regular basis to ask about how things are going from their perspective, such as one thing that is going well and one thing you can do to better as a mentor to support them in their research and learning. Checking in regularly (weekly or biweekly) is especially important in the summer, when the timeline for making midstream adjustments is short. Your students may at first be hesitant to give you honest feedback about how to improve. If you keep asking and make sure you give them time to think about it and respond, you will get new insight into how you can meet individual mentees where they are and help them make the most of their research training.
By carefully examining learning environment deficits and thinking about how to provide structure, we can shift research training to be more equitable. The strategies we describe here promote equity by giving mentees power to choose aspects of their research, find research activities that fit their interests and strengths, and share feedback that can improve their experience. Investing time upfront to structure the learning environment for undergraduate researchers can increase their likelihood of success and facilitate a rewarding experience for both you and your mentee.
Do you have other ideas about how to promote student learning and success in research experiences and training? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org– 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!
- Who gets to do undergraduate research?
- New researchers have arrived – now what?
- How do you know what your mentee knows?
About the Authors
Dr. Nicole Lynn-Bell is a C-CoMP Postdoctoral Fellow conducting research at the University of Florida centered around ocean microbes and undergraduate education.
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.
Fazey, D. M., & Fazey, J. A. (2001). The potential for autonomy in learning: Perceptions of competence, motivation and locus of control in first-year undergraduate students. Studies in Higher Education, 26(3), 345-361.
Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), 21–38. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21
Hiemstra, D., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2015). The effects of strength-based versus deficit-based self-regulated learning strategies on students’ effort intentions. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 656-668.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173–220). Elsevier.