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)

According to Feldon, the main reason why faculty mentors can’t accurately assess their students’ skills is because time is a limited resource.

“Much early mentee skill development may occur while the mentee is not under the watchful eye of the mentor…it is also possible that the many demands on faculty members’ time lead them to rely on abstract impressions of individual students,” says the report.

Another reason faculty mentors are not able to accurately assess student skill is because many faculty assign solitary work that is utility-based, not merit-based. That work is then assessed non-specifically, with terms such as “unfocused,” “aggressive” or “hard working.”

“It’s about the need to produce,” explained Feldon. “Direct state funding has dropped dramatically over the last 30 years, with research grants now paying most of the bills. Research faculty are now under incredible pressure to produce, since the only way the university can grow is through reputation and grants; these grants also help support expenses, such as salaries and student services.”

“Producing now takes up most research faculty time, which doesn’t always leave much for mentoring their graduate students—that’s why they’re being assigned tasks for utility [not for skill exercise], getting non-specific feedback, and working alone without much guidance,” he continued.

Solutions: It’s complicated

Though the report indicates that many STEM graduate mentors are not able to accurately assess students’ skills, the intent of the analysis is not to discount the necessity of the mentor-mentee relationship.

“Many graduate students need faculty mentors to define the way forward to professional accomplishment,” says the report. “Likewise, faculty mentors, as stewards of their disciplines, need graduate student mentees to sustain and advance their fields.”

When asked if there were any institutional guidelines available concerning mentorship, Feldon said it’s a guessing game.

“There are some guidelines available at the Center for Teaching Excellence, et cetera, but the empirical evidence for these guidelines is weak,” he said. “It’s hard to tease apart which specific tasks as part of a mentorship effect performance, since, as the study recently highlighted, perceptions of whether or not a student is learning required skills are flawed. Much more performance-based data would be needed to develop meaningful guidelines, and that’s where future research comes in.”

However, Feldon emphasized that obtaining performance-based data on student skills development may be a hard task to accomplish considering student privacy concerns, as student performance data is often confidential and sensitive.

For now, though, colleges and universities can take two steps to better mentorship—both concerning cultural attitudes, rather than rules and regulations:

Focus on teaching: Research institutions can place a greater emphasis on the importance of teaching, not just research, Feldon explained. “In other words, don’t just be a Tier 1 research institution, be a Tier 1 teaching institution!”

He suggested that one way to allow for a better teaching focus is for institutions to shift the emphasis from quantity to quality in faculty production for tenure review. “That way, faculty can take their time on research and better mentor their students for a larger overall study and not need to race to break up their research into tiny publishable chunks; an articulated value could lead to a slackening of pace.”

Clearly articulate expectations and criteria: The study notes that specifically articulated quality benchmarks for performance within the context of academic research could help students’ ability to self-assess and monitor their skills development.

“Increasing the specificity of the learning objectives and the extent to which they are identified explicitly for STEM graduate students may enhance efficacy and precision of feedback…further, increased emphasis on anchoring assessments of skill to discrete task performance may enable faculty to more effectively steer students toward resources and experiences that will enhance necessary scholarly skills,” concluded the report.

To read the full report in the American Educational Research Journal, titled “Faculty Mentors’, Graduate Students’, and Performance-Based Assessments of Students’ Research Skill Development,” click here.

Read more on STEM graduates’ skills here.

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