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How do you know what your mentee knows?

Imagine you are a postdoc and you want to gain mentoring experience before you go on the job market. You volunteer to mentor a new undergraduate researcher in the lab. You have a good idea of the project you want them to work on and you decide that giving them some materials to prepare and techniques to learn will be a good way for them to onboard to the project. You know how long it would take you to prepare the materials and carry out the techniques, and you estimate it will take them longer, but you are not sure how long. You are also not sure how long to spend teaching them versus letting them try on their own before you offer some guidance. How can you calibrate your expectations to your mentee’s abilities? Here we offer some practical advice for gauging what your mentees know and can do and supporting them as they develop expertise (Pfund et al., 2015).

  • Start by asking. The best place to start gauging what your mentee knows and can do, and whether your expectations are reasonable, is by asking your mentee. One challenge is that it is human nature to want to please people so your mentee may respond by telling you what they think you want to hear rather than what is actually the case. One way to work around this tendency is to ask in ways that prompt more than yes or no responses. For instance, instead of asking “have you done this technique?” ask your mentee to “tell me about any lab courses you have taken and what kinds of techniques you did in them.” Starting with “tell me” sets your mentee up to describe what they’ve done in a way that can help you assess their abilities and avoids the uninformative yes or no response. Of course, there are some things you need to tell rather than ask your mentee, such as safety guidelines or other rules or regulations (e.g., animal care, human subjects, coding documentation). Provide your mentee a copy of any applicable guidelines or regulations and revisit them over time with your mentee to check for understanding and follow-through (or compliance in the case of regulations).
  • Check assumptions. Both you and your mentee are likely to have assumptions about what your mentee knows and can do. Maybe your mentee learned to pipet in an introductory lab course and you both assume they can pipet with the level of accuracy and precision needed for the research. Yet, it has been some time since they pipetted (people forget things over time) and they have not practiced pipetting in the way that it is done in your lab, so their pipetting skills may not meet expectations. Rather than figuring this out in the middle of an experiment, check assumptions by asking your mentee to do things to show their proficiency before they are in a high stakes situation, such as working with materials that are limited or that present a safety risk or using expensive equipment. Be sure to check your own assumptions as well. We may assume that showing our mentees how to do something once will be sufficient for them to learn, or that a technique that takes us an hour will take them a similar amount of time. It is easy to forget how much expertise we have. We can check our assumptions by recalling the first time we did something and observing how long it takes other first-timers with similar levels of experience to do something. We can also check in regularly with our mentees (even multiple times throughout a multi-step process!) to elicit their understanding. Have them diagram what they are doing, repeat steps back to you, or explain the purposes behind using certain materials, techniques, or steps. This will allow you to gauge what they understand and clarify as needed.
  • Normalize the struggle and encourage reflection. We all want our mentees to get things right the first time, yet everyone makes mistakes – especially when we are learning. People respond to making mistakes in a variety of ways, some of which are adaptive (i.e., helpful for their learning and growth) and some of which are less so (Henry et al., 2019). As mentors, we can encourage adaptive responses by “normalizing the struggle” of doing research by sharing our own mistakes and failures. We can also encourage our mentees to reflect on what went wrong and what they would do differently in the future. Knowing that mistakes are “normal” and reflecting on how to improve will help your mentee make fewer mistakes in the future, more quickly identify and resolve errors, and avoid becoming so afraid of making mistakes that they aren’t willing to try.
  • Adjust as needed. Everyone is different, including our mentees. This means that a single approach to teaching your mentees may not work for all of them, and expecting mentees to work at the same pace as each other is unrealistic (Limeri et al., 2019). Expect your work plans as well as your approach to collaborating to change – start somewhere and adjust as needed. For instance, does your mentee want or need more hands-on guidance or do they want to try things themselves and then come to you for help? Do they seem to be getting the hang of things and making progress, or are they floundering such that more day-to-day support may be needed for a while? Writing down daily or weekly goals with your mentee and meeting to check in about progress will help the two of you make adjustments so your mentee (and you!) can thrive. These differences do not make a “good” or “bad” mentee – rather they are just differences that reflect your mentees’ prior experiences, and they are likely to change as your mentee develops expertise.

We hope you see how these recommendations help you assess the understanding of each of your mentees and tailor your guidance and support to meet them where they are. This is not only more effective for your mentees, it is more equitable because it ensures each mentee gets the level of support and challenge they need.

The difference between equal and equitable: Equal implies that everyone is treated the same. However, everyone’s background and experiences are not the same, so it is more fair – or equitable – to tailor mentoring support to meet the needs, interests, and aspirations of each mentee.

Do you have other ideas about how to set reasonable goals for undergraduate research and for monitoring progress? 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?

About the Authors

Dr. Olivier Zablocki is a Research Scientist in the Sullivan Lab at the Ohio State University (OSU), and a grant writing specialist at the Center of Microbiome Science at OSU. He’s part of the Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences working group within C-CoMP.

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.


Henry, M. A., Shorter, S., Charkoudian, L., Heemstra, J. M., & Corwin, L. A. (2019). FAIL is not a four-letter word: A theoretical framework for exploring undergraduate students’ approaches to academic challenge and responses to failure in STEM learning environments. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(1), ar11.

Limeri, L. B., Asif, M. Z., Bridges, B. H. T., Esparza, D., Tuma, T. T., Sanders, D., Morrison, A. J., Rao, P., Harsh, J. A., Maltese, A. V., & Dolan, E. L. (2019). “Where’s My Mentor?!” Characterizing Negative Mentoring Experiences in Undergraduate Life Science Research. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(4), ar61.

Pfund, C., Branchaw, J. L., & Handelsman, J. (2015). Entering Mentoring (2nd ed.). Macmillan.