Are STEM mentors really helping students?

New study reveals STEM mentors are not always as effective as they could be

STEM-mentor-research[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect more accurate details]

Growing institutional pressures on faculty time may be causing STEM graduate students to complete programs without accurate assessments of their skills.

According to a new study, STEM students in graduate programs do not perceive their strengths and weaknesses in alignment with their mentors. Furthermore, faculty mentors do not always accurately assess their students’ skills. The reason, say researchers, is that in some cases, college and university pressures on faculty rarely allow for accurate alignment of student assessment with skill.

This revelation may be just one of many factors that not only shed light on the increasing pressures on faculty time, but also why many STEM students—specifically women and minorities—either never obtain their doctorate or can’t sustain a career post-graduation.

The study is part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) grant-funded research on STEM research teaching, conducted by lead researcher David Feldon, associate professor of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State and director of the university¹s STE2M Center, and is an area most researchers haven’t yet examined, he said.

“Graduate education is the least examined program, yet graduate students are given tremendous roles to fill, such as teachers, innovators, and scientists,” said Feldon. “It’s time this program received a lot more attention and focus.”

Taking the first steps in what Feldon hopes will lead to further and in-depth (using performance-based data) research on STEM graduate education practices in the future, the study documented students’ perceptions of their skills, faculty mentors’ perceptions of students’ skills, and then measured students’ actual skills through performance-based data.

What the study found was that, when compared against performance-based assessments of mentees’ work, neither faculty mentors’ nor their mentees’ perceptions aligned with rubric scores at rates greater than chance in most categories.

In other words, students and mentors can’t accurately assess students’ skills.

(Next page: Why perceptions aren’t aligning to actual performance; solutions)

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