Learning Through Research
Svoboda_MillerAccording to Mabrouk and Peters (2000), students report the most important aspect of their undergraduate research experiences is the relationship with the mentor. From the students' perspectives the most valuable mentor characteristics include "the advisor's knowledge about the project, [and his/her] enthusiasm, availability, and patience." These characteristics are more valuable to the student than "an advisor [who] is intellectually brilliant, has external research funding, works at the frontiers of knowledge, or is well known professionally."

Students often expect to achieve something significant by the end of the ten- or fifteen-week period. Sometimes they do. More often the slow pace of their research surprises them. They sometimes think they are not doing enough, or that the mentor and others will be disappointed that they are not accomplishing more each day or week. If unwelcome surprises bring the research to a halt, students often become discouraged. Mentors must encourage students to persist through these periods when the project seems stalled and to value the importance of quality, not necessarily quantity, alone.

Students come into the undergraduate research experience with a focus on the product or outcome of the project. They expect to learn research skills, methods, and techniques, but often focus on the final answer or product. They are often surprised at the personal insight they gain through the process itself and their experience as they learn what kind of work they like to do and the kinds of professional interactions that are satisfying and interesting to them. The confidence they gain is a bonus most of them did not envision. 

Some students are reluctant to ask questions. They labor under the notion that asking questions reveals a lack of knowledge that their mentors think they should have. Not asking questions can cause students to miss out on important information they need to continue a project. If they get behind in their work and don't talk about the problem, they may try to work it out for themselves. This effort can cause them to become frustrated and discouraged. Mentors play an important role in encouraging students to ask questions and ensuring that their protégés have the information they need.

If problems arise, students are often hesitant to raise the issue. They want (and need) the mentor's recommendation for future opportunities and applications. They sometimes think that if they assert themselves, they will fall from favor and lose the recommendation, so they try to get through the experience the best they can. Mentors often are unaware that the students are unhappy, and, therefore, the mentors cannot address the situation. The most effective mentors keep communication channels open and encourage student comments about how things are going.