What Matters in Mentoring

April 11, 2011

It has always been important for young people to have mentors. Some mentors guide us through our personal lives; others help prepare us for our careers.

A new research project is bridging theory, research, and practice to mentoring college-level biology students. This work builds on years of collaboration by UW-Madison biologist Christine Pfund and physiologist Janet Branchaw. They’re now joined by psychologist Angela Byars-Winston, who is Principal Investigator for a new project that measures how training research mentors in biology affects their students' career development.

A mentored research experience for undergraduates aims to increase students’ interest, motivation, and preparedness for their careers. Benefits of mentored experiences include improved research skills, better preparation for post-graduate education, and increased productivity.

It’s known that students from racial and ethnic groups, and White women, are especially at risk for inadequate mentoring relationships. But relatively little is known about specific factors in a research mentoring relationship that create positive experiences. Unfortunately, research mentors seldom receive training on the mentoring process and are sometimes ill-equipped to assume mentoring roles. Often, the techniques designed to improve mentoring lack a sound base in theory: They don’t employ the extensive research literature on teaching and learning, or the psychology of career development. Mentoring programs are often based on anecdotal evidence and unsubstantiated strategies.

That’s about to be remedied, thanks to this new collaboration. The team uses social cognitive career theory to explore students’ research-related self-efficacy beliefs and their career expectations. Long-term research outcomes should include an increased and diversified number of students who pursue science careers.

Specific Aims for This Research

  1. Establish the psychometric properties of research mentor and mentee surveys used to evaluate the Wisconsin Mentoring Seminar (Entering Mentoring) and establish evidence for their construct validity and reliability. Working hypothesis: The research team can produce measures with sufficient estimates of reliability and validity to support the subsequent hypothesis-testing phase of the project.
  2. Identify critical elements in research mentoring relationships associated with student cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Working hypothesis: Once quantified, sources of efficacy in the research mentoring relationship will predict students’ research-related self-efficacy beliefs and their expectations for success.
  3. Modify the Wisconsin Mentoring Seminar accordingly. Test the effectiveness of the adapted mentor training program on student outcomes. Working hypothesis: A research mentor training intervention that addresses empirically-identified critical elements will enhance students’ interests, intentions, and subsequent academic behaviors consistent with pursuit of a research career in science.