Research as Teaching: Thinking Pedagogically about Student Mentoring

In this blog, Dr. Jim Phillips asks, “If we can bring research questions to our courses, to what extent do we bring intentional pedagogical strategies to our research lab?” Should the perceived boundaries between teaching and research exist at all?

“Integrating Research into Curriculum and Coursework” is a CUR strategic pillar, and at the heart of this effort is a goal  – maybe an ethic – of erasing the boundaries between teaching and research. This is the way we roll in CUR. That is to say, many of us engaged in undergraduate research may have been arguing that such a boundary does not exist, at least within the confines of our experience in this endeavor. At this point, there are numerous successful examples of course based-research, in many disciplines.

“If we can bring research questions to our courses, to what extent do we bring intentional pedagogical strategies to our research lab?”

Nonetheless, the point of the “blog” post is to turn this issue around and examine it20150122_Phillips_122 from the opposite viewpoint. That is to ask: “If we can bring research questions to our courses, to what extent do we bring intentional pedagogical strategies to our research lab?” The goal here, beyond raising this question, is to share a couple strategies that I have used in my group, and also, and share some department and institutional level initiatives in place here at UW-Eau Claire that have facilitated progress on this issue.

Developmental goals and outcomes for research students

A few years ago, I decided to implement a structured development track for the students that pass through my research group. From a recruiting standpoint, this meant targeting primarily sophomores, because in terms of timing, spending two summers and one academic year prior to graduation seemed to offer the best timeline for them to meet the developmental outcomes I set for them.

A written paper

The primary outcome is a culminating paper, and ideally, it is “near-submission-20150122_Phillips_124ready” by graduation. We are not a “thesis-generating” shop, and we do not (and can not) require research for all majors, but a few years ago we formalized our requirements for Departmental Honors to include a final manuscript that would be read and reviewed by two faculty members beyond the mentor. Regardless, my goal has been to have every student in my group go through the manuscript writing process, even if they lack the GPA to apply for Honors. The impact may seem obvious to some, but I know many faculty who are not willing to invest the necessary time. (It usually takes two 1-on-1 meetings per week for an entire semester to review and edit these manuscripts to meet my standards.)

20150122_Phillips_128My success rate is as follows: Two students over the past five years have produced “submit-able” manuscripts, and stayed on after graduation to actively participate in the submission process (write the cover letter, picked the reviewers, etc.). Three others rendered manuscripts that required minimal editing prior to submission. The remaining efforts (3 or 4 such examples) required extensive editing, but the process forced the student to connect the dots and assemble the “big picture” and thus the experience had a major pedagogical impact. Again, this is not newsworthy to anyone in a department that requires an undergraduate thesis, but in our department, students are often working for money (and they need it, and we do allow them to get paid and earn independent study credit). However, the downside of having a pool of students eager to put in long hours in the lab, even during the school year, is that they see the endeavor as a “job”, and overlook the value of the learning experience.

What intentional pedagogical structures can I/we create to facilitate successful student development in research

In any event, thinking backwards from the ambitious, final-paper outcome: What intentional pedagogical structures can I/we create to facilitate successful student development in research? Honestly, answering this question is still a work in progress, but during my last sabbatical (Fall 2013) I started thinking about it in exactly this way – the same way I think about structuring my course in a way that prepares students for a final exam.

Other Assignments

One teaching strategy I tried was creating written procedures for routine processes in the lab (akin to a “lab manual” entry). I am not sure this was effective in the long run; even though it helped students learn to perform the task correctly in the short term, and increased reproducibility, it also let them off the look for thinking about what was going on when they were doing the procedure. So, who knows?

20150122_Phillips_110One effective strategy has been to assign “research homework”, as a means of framing how we approach and conduct certain phases of our investigations. I require students to do these assignments as if it were a class assignment; and they are encouraged to seek as much help from “the instructor” as possible. The rationale here is that I know how to write a p-chem problem set with questions designed to lead the students through a complex and abstract issue: Why not exploit that technique for teaching in a research context?

I presume that I am not the first person to think along these lines, and I do not claim to be an expert; the point of a “blog” is to generate a conversation. My goal here is to get that conversation started (or restarted) so hat we can learn from each other and become better research mentors.

Teaching a student equals “credit” towards graduation…right?

About 3 years ago,  the Chemistry Department at UW – Eau Claire took a bold step towards giving students “real” credit towards their degree by developing a “research track” through our chemistry major. Again, this is nothing completely new and different for those of you in thesis-generating departments, except that we allow students to by-pass one of their upper level lab courses (e.g., Physical/Analytical Lab, or Advances Synthesis Lab, as appropriate), in exchange for a two-course sequence that results in a culminating manuscript (Research methods—> Manuscript writing). The benefit is that both student AND mentor earn credit (course/major credit, and teaching credit, respectively), which legitimatizes the pedagogical effort and impact of research in the eyes of the administrators, and is helpful for resource-allocation conversations with administrators. We are also going to promote this degree track in our recruiting efforts.

“…we allow students to by-pass one of their upper level lab courses …in exchange for a two-course sequence that results in a culminating manuscript”

The downside is that ACS-CPT will not allow research to count for “content teaching” so we are unable to certify these degrees for this cohort of graduates (i.e., they fail to meet p-chem lab or inorganic lab requirement, even if they worked in an equivalent research lab for two years, and wrote a full-length research manuscript). Perhaps this will change at some point, if and when the ACS-CPT shifts form “topical” requirements to outcomes; a change long overdue.

The pedagogical characteristics of effective undergraduate research mentoring

Recently, there has been an intentional effort to clarify and promote to an effective “mentoring pedagogy” here at UW-Eau Claire. The idea is analogous to how an office for “professional development of instruction” facilitates innovative classroom teaching. In fact, the faculty “community of practice” that has been working on this initiative was born through a collaboration between the director of our research office and the former director of our teaching-learning center; specifically by Karen Havholm (CUR URPD Division Councilor and Director of our Office of Research and Sponsored programs) and Bob Eierman (newly emeritus Professor of Chemistry and former Director of our Center for Excellence in Teaching).

This group has produced a “definitions document” (Definition-of-Effective-Mentoring-Final-RJE) in which they articulate mentor attributes and activities that exemplify effective mentoring. These include the following:

  • The mentor has the disciplinary expertise required to mentor the project
  • The mentor designs a project appropriate to the student and the subject matter
  • The mentor leads the student through stages of the research project and personal development: Recruitment, Initiation, Cultivation, Transformation, and Closure
  • The mentor maintains a supportive collaborative environment throughout

I have found by reviewing these materials that I have, to some extent, followed these guidelines, but only by some combination of instinct and dumb luck. I am certain that this will be of great value to all of us who are interested in being more intentional and systematic about our efforts to mentor research students.

In the end, it is clear that addressing this issue of how we think pedagogically about how me mentor and train our research students, either by informal dialog or structured instructional initiatives, will make us better at what most of us regard as the the most important part of our work.

Phillips_James_2015~ Dr. Jim Phillips is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. The Phillips group uses low-temperature infrared spectroscopy and computer modeling to identify and characterize complexes that are apt to undergo substantial changes in structure in response to a change in their chemical environment. They are particularly interested in complexes that show extreme sensitivity to their environment, and undergo significant structural changes in solution.



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