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Biology   Chemistry   Physics   Psychology
 
Evaluation of an Undergraduate Mentoring Program in the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at Reed College, 2000-2001
 
INTRODUCTION

This report evaluates the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program sponsored by the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at Reed College during the 2000-2001 academic year. The program was made possible by a 1998 National Science Foundation Award for the Integration of Research and Education (NSF-AIRE). Evaluation of the Mentoring Program has been underway since 1999-2000, including survey research of participants in the Psychology Department and interviews of mentors and faculty in Psychology, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. During 2000-2001 a survey of faculty, mentors, and students in the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics was conducted.

Nine faculty members worked with mentors throughout the year having selected 12 upper class majors in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics to serve as mentors to 59 students, most of whom were taking upper level science courses. Of these nine faculty members, three from the Biology Department, two from the Chemistry Department, and one from the Physics Department participated in the 2000-2001 evaluation process and 3 mentors and 25 students completed evaluation surveys.

These surveys were designed in consultation with the science faculty and included both multiple-choice and open-ended questions (see Appendices A-F). Some of the questions were borrowed from surveys administered the previous year in the Psychology Department; others were newly designed to reflect mentoring in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Faculty members and mentors were asked to identify their goals and expectations, specific mentoring jobs and duties, and their perceived impact of the mentoring program. In addition, student recipients of mentoring described and then evaluated their interactions with the mentors. The questionnaires were distributed to participants via email in late March, 2001.

GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS OF FACULTY MEMBERS AND MENTORS [1]

When asked to specify goals and expectations for the mentoring program, most faculty members reported benefits for the mentors, for the students, and for themselves. Faculty goals for the mentors were straightforward; to expose their mentor to advanced research techniques in preparation for mentoring an upper level class, to have their mentor assist them with faculty summer research, and to design laboratory and course materials. Finally, some faculty members wanted the mentor to experience what is like to work closely with students.

Consistent with the goals and expectations of the faculty, the goals and expectations of the mentors included assisting students, working closely with a professor over the summer and school year, and improving their mastery of course materials. For all but one faculty member and for all of the mentors, their goals and expectations were realized from “fairly well” to “fully”.

SPECIFIC MENTORING JOBS AND MENTOR EFFECTIVENESS

Faculty members identified those mentoring activities that seemed to be of most help to the students who were mentored. The mentoring jobs most often mentioned were teaching students how to use lab equipment, and assisting them in the design and implementation of their own research projects. Faculty members also noted that working closely with a mentor in the labs, and receiving one-on-one tutoring were very important to the students.

Mentors were asked to estimate the amount of time they spent carrying out their various duties. Mentors spent from 3 to 4 hours per week working for the mentoring program. The three mentors who responded reported mentoring 6, 10, or 20 students during the year, respectively[2]. Mentors were also asked which jobs they performed most effectively. They reported spending most of their time assisting students (either individually or in groups) with the design and implementation of individual research projects. They spent the next highest amount of time working closely with a faculty member in connection with labs, group tutoring, and helping students prepare lab reports. Out of 10 possible mentoring jobs, mentors reported that working closely with a faculty member, group tutoring, and assisting student research were the jobs in which they felt most effective. Advising independent student research projects was very highly rated by both faculty and mentors for mentor effectiveness.

IMPACT OF THE NSF-AIRE PPROGRAM ON FACULTY MEMBERS AND MENTORS

Faculty members reported that the NSF-AIRE mentoring program had observable effects in the lab and classroom. Some noted the improved quality of professor-student interaction. Because mentors answered preliminary questions raised by students there was extra time for the professor and student to discuss more complex ideas and questions. Thus, the Mentoring Program permitted better use of the professor’s time. The mentors also made the labs run more smoothly, and because they were already familiar with advanced lab equipment (due to their summer training), faculty concern about damage to the equipment in the laboratory was greatly reduced.

Faculty members also noted the ways in which the program contributed to the growth and development of their student mentors as departmental majors. Most faculty found that the program had made “moderate” to “substantial” contributions to their mentors; only one believed the program made little or no such contribution. For example, “learning the important difference between the study of a physical science vs. the practice of it,” as well as “increased confidence gained in research capabilities,” were mentioned as substantial contributions to mentor growth. In addition, most faculty members believed that their mentor had a “moderate” to “substantial” influence on the development of those students who received mentoring. Because of their generally positive perspective of the program, the majority of the faculty members surveyed here hope to participate in the NSF-AIRE Mentoring Program in the future.

EVALUATION OF THE PROGRAM BY STUDENT RECIPIENTS OF MENTORING [3]

Students were lively and expressive in their evaluation of the Mentoring Program (see Appendix F). A large majority of students who evaluated the program reported frequent interaction with the student mentors; i.e., at least once or twice a week. Interactions between the students and the mentors included assistance with lab work, homework, and clarification of assignments. One student remarked: “The lab consultations were invaluable as my Cell Biology class was rather large and we were often unable to ask the professor directly for help on smaller topics. Without the mentor, we would have been much more confused and direction-less during lab time.” Overall, the students saw their mentors as effective in furthering their comprehension of the subject matter. Most rated their mentors as “effective” or very “effective” although a few rated their mentors as “very ineffective”.

When the students were asked if they would ever consider becoming mentors, most stated they would, but with qualifications. One student gave a very enthusiastic “YES!” adding that, “It would be a great opportunity to help my peers and it would also help me to learn the subject better...you don’t really understand something until you teach it!” Another student said, “I think I would enjoy being a mentor. I generally enjoy answering questions, helping people with their coursework and acting in the capacity of tutor/trainer/instructor.”

On the other hand, some students felt that time would be a big constraint: “If I weren’t graduating this semester, I might consider becoming a mentor in the biology department. However, it does seem like a big time commitment for the mentor, which is a difficult thing to do when you have your own course load to deal with.” According to another student who rejected the prospect of mentoring: “Not really. I have enough of my own work to do. I also find that the mentors rarely know more than I do, if anything they’ve had a year to forget it all. I don’t think I’d be in any better of a boat.”

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

Consistent with the assessment of last year’s Mentoring Program in the Psychology Department (1999-2000), evaluations of the 2000-2001 Mentoring Program in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics were also very positive. The faculty stressed improved professor-student interactions, the positive outcomes for mentors of working closely with a professor on advanced research techniques and later in assisting students to solidify course concepts. For those faculty members and mentors who responded to the survey, goals and expectations of the Mentoring Program were met far more often than not. Throughout the course of the school year, both faculty members and mentors found that mentors were most effective in helping students design their own independent research projects and in group and individual tutoring. Finally, student respondents were very receptive to the program. Most found it easier to discuss preliminary research questions with the mentor rather than the professor.

Criticism of the program was also voiced. One of the primary concerns was that of communication; some mentors were unsure of their specific duties, and some students in mentored classes were unaware that the program existed. A possible solution to these problems might be an early distribution of a detailed description of the program (including the mission statement of the National Science Foundation), noting the specific duties and responsibilities expected of mentors. As part of their decision-making and later training, prospective mentors might benefit from viewing videotapes of one or more particularly effective mentors at work as well as taped interviews with students describing especially helpful mentor interactions based on their own experiences. In addition, all participants should agree to join in an evaluation process at the end of the year (if one is planned). These measures would enable prospective mentors to make a realistic judgement as to whether the job will be suited to them and, once they are mentors, to serve most effectively.

Monthly meetings of all mentors to facilitate and exchange ideas and experiences in the labs could also be helpful. Such discussions might, among other things, assist the mentors to clearly differentiate between the role of the T.A. they encountered in their lower division labs and classes and the role they are now expected to play. A meeting at the end of the year between mentors and interested students might be useful, if only in saving faculty some of the time they would otherwise use to provide orientation

Finally, the desirability of expanding the role of mentors to include additional responsibilities was advocated by some faculty members and is an issue that warrants further exploration.

Assessment Introduction
Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C
Appendix D
Appendix E
Appendix F

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