Mentoring the mentors: Supporting HKU undergraduate students in self-led research projects – Lily Leung
The concept of ‘listening to the student voice’ – implicitly if not deliberately – supports the perspective of student as ‘consumer’, whereas ‘students as change agents’ explicitly supports a view of the student as ‘active collaborator’ and ‘co-producer’, with the potential for transformation.
(Dunne & Zandstra, 2011, p. 4)
Engaging undergraduate students as active collaborators in student-staff partnership is undoubtedly one of the most important issues in higher education. Although we might not be aware, students as partners operate in various contexts within the university – from module, course, programme, to department, institution, and even nationally/internationally collaborations (Healey, 2021). To shift our perspective of students from ‘consumers’ to ‘change agents’, there is a need for us to identify the possible tensions between students and staff and create conditions for enabling constructive partnerships.
Student-staff partnership in undergraduate research
In Undergraduate Research (UGR), as students are usually new to academic research projects, one of the tensions lies in the balance between providing sufficient guidance and giving students a high level of autonomy. When supporting a group of undergraduate students, it is often challenging to design a framework that enables a highly collaborative relationship while maintaining a high standard of research deliverables. In this sense, it is crucial for students and staff to actively engage in the partnership under a mutual learning approach.
To foster such a platform, in the past academic year 2020-2021, an Undergraduate Research initiative was undertaken jointly between the Common Core and the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) through the TDG project: “Developing Student Researchers: Partnering with Students to enhance Undergraduate Research experience at HKU”. We have recruited 22 undergraduate students from HKU to form one group of Student Peer Mentors and six groups of Student Research Assistants, who have been working closely with staff members to launch critical inquiries and mentor fellow student researchers. The peer mentors and research assistants were recruited under a common initiative while their participation was different—peer mentors partnered with faculty coaches to support fellow undergraduate research teams, while research assistants worked on self-led research projects in groups under a given board topic. Through their engagements, these student researchers demonstrated staff-student partnership in different contexts, which enables us to reflect on our current pedagogies and formulate new strategies.
Peer mentoring among undergraduate researchers
The student peer mentors were recruited under the initiative of Critical Zones (cf. Latour, 2020) project of the Common Core in HKU. The Critical Zones project aims to transform learning and develop global citizenship by working with students as partners, interact with inter-disciplinary faculties and local communities, and addressing three Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) proposed by the United Nations — Good Health and Well-Being (#3), Gender Equality (#5), and Sustainable Cities and Communities (#11). Each of the peer mentors was responsible for one SDG respectively. Their main work was to mentor the Common Core undergraduate research teams working on the three SDGs and create research material archives for fellow student researchers. In the initial stage of the project, the peer mentors and staff members have been meeting on a weekly basis. We have done readings and write-ups on SDGs & the concept of “Critical Zones”, as well as creating research archives to prepare for peer mentoring. After assigning the research teams to the peer mentors, our meeting shifted from weekly to monthly for regular reflection on the peer mentoring process.
As the research teams are from various disciplines (e.g. humanities, science, finance, medicine, engineering), the peer mentors found it hard at the beginning as they are not experts on those research topics. They are concerned that they may not be able to provide professional academic advice to the research teams. To ease their concerns, we have discussed clarifying the roles of mentors in a research project. In a traditional setting of research mentorship, faculty professors provide support with academic perspectives and suggest a research focus and give definite answers to inquiries. But when it comes to mentoring, we are not trying to provide perfect answers but to initiate a platform for in-depth discussions – to encourage students to search for solutions themselves. In this sense, students are actively engaged in every decision and important milestone of the research project. Their roles could be shifted from ‘consumers’ to ‘collaborators’ in the partnership.
This idea applies to student-staff partnerships as well. To formulate a student-led context, there is a must for us to accept a certain extent of ambiguity. When we leave room for uncertainties in the discussions, students are usually more encouraged to actively contribute to the research project (Brew, 2013). This conveys to students that asking questions and staying curious are much more important than getting a so-called correct answer. In light of this, the regular meetings and write-up tasks were crucial to both the peer mentors and me. These meet-ups provided a chance for us to check on the current problems regularly and find out the solution together.
Supporting students in self-led research projects
The student research assistants were invited to launch critical inquiries into the teaching and learning experience of HKU students over the COVID-19 pandemic. We have recruited 18 HKU undergraduate students to form 6 research teams. Team members are from different disciplines, for example, Science, Social Science, Engineering, Business and Finance. In the beginning stage, we have discussed with the student teams individually the topics they are interested in. After the discussion, they are invited to brainstorm about the key research questions they would like to investigate. Eventually, the student teams have suggested different ideas around the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning. To name just a few, opportunities and difficulties under the hybrid teaching mode, the role of educational technology under the pandemic, virtual community service experience, and the virtual learning experience of international students. Each of the teams came up with a unique research topic on their own.
The major challenge that students encountered was to figure out their roles in this project. In typical projects, research assistants usually work to assist and facilitate the research progress, i.e. collecting data for research, sorting research materials, or conducting other tasks assigned by the professor in charge. Therefore, some of the students felt confused with the student-led concept of this project at the beginning: “With all these discussions, are there any assigned research topics for us eventually? Are there any preferences from your side that we should follow?”
Throughout the journey, we discovered that the ambiguity we look for should be supported by some clear guidelines on the research process. With the guidance, student researchers could get the big picture of the project and maximize their creativeness within the framework. Therefore, we have designed five guidelines for the students: “How to develop Research Questions”, “Writing a Research Proposal”, “Choosing a good Methodology”, “How to write a Final Research Report”, and “How to write a reflective journal”. These topics are associated with the key milestones of their project, where staff and students will meet and discuss the process regularly.
More to come!
As the next semester is emerging, both projects of peer mentors and student research teams have officially come to an end. But the concept of partnership still exists. The student researchers will still be working as partners in different contexts – working with their peers and professors, interacting with faculty members from multiple disciplines, as well as local communities and organizations.
The authors would like to acknowledge that this article and the related research work were supported by a Teaching Development Project entitled: Developing Student Researchers: Partnering with Students to enhance Undergraduate Research experience at HKU.
- Brew, A. (2013). Understanding the scope of undergraduate research: a framework for curricular and pedagogical decision-making. The Higher Education Journals, 66, 603-618.
- Dunne, E. & Zandstra, R. (2011). Students as change agents – new ways of engaging with learning and teaching in higher education. Joint publication by the University of Exeter, ESCalate & the Higher Education Academy.
- Healey, M., Flint, A. & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. The Higher Education Academy (HEA).
- Latour, B. & Weibel. P. (2020). Critical Zones: The science and politics of landing on earth. The MIT Press.