Mentoring Undergraduates at MIT


Version 2.2, 2 May 2001


During the 2000-2001 academic year the Committee on the Undergraduate Program has had a series of discussions that began with undergraduate advising and quickly expanded to undergraduate mentoring. This document is intended to capture some of the most salient points in those discussions and to establish a base for broader discussions across the Institute with the goal of raising our mutual expectations with respect to the mentoring of our students. CUP has proposed that the faculty give it formal responsibility for oversight of undergraduate advising, and with that authorization we expect to proceed with a set of activities intended to call attention to the outside-of-the-classroom relationship between faculty and students.

The Task Force on Student Life and Learning in its September 1998 report called our attention to the value of informal learning and on-campus interaction in all of its forms:

"The central and distinguishing feature of an MIT education is that it incorporates research, academics and community into an education that is greater than the sum of its parts...the higher education of the future must go beyond classroom learning."

In his recent book, Richard Light (Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) has made a very persuasive case that the learning that goes on outside of the classroom is more memorable and vital for undergraduate students and that much of the value in an undergraduate education can come from such interactions, particularly those with faculty mentors.(1)

While MIT has addressed a number of the proposals suggested in the Task Force's report, we have yet to turn our full attention to the task of advising and the fuller role of mentoring of which advising is only one part.

Mentoring


CUP believes that the educational value for which we should strive lies more in the concept of mentoring than in the more narrow concept of advising. We believe that many of the complaints that MIT students have voiced concerning their advisors can be more profitably understood as complaints about the low level of mentoring that they feel they have received from the MIT faculty.

We envision undergraduate mentoring as encompassing four complementary, yet identifiably different roles: teaching, guiding, facilitating, and advising.(2) We obviously share the value that teaching is an important form of mentoring our students and applaud the ways that the quality of undergraduate teaching is being addressed through a number of initiatives. We wish to focus the Institute's attention on the remaining three roles: guiding, facilitating, and advising. In our view, MIT has all too often remained content with trying to "fix" the problems with the third in the hope of somehow magically addressing the first and the second. But that approach has not worked. The feedback that we have already received from various corners of the Institute suggests that we do not do as good a job at mentoring our students as they would like or as we would like.(3) In large part, that is because we have not adopted a common value that mentoring is an important, if not key, element in what we should be doing as a faculty and as a university.

From the student's point of view, a high quality mentoring system would produce five important outcomes:

  • Students would be assisted in developing a comprehensive educational plan, which evolved over time in response to their changing needs and desires, instead of merely receiving just-in-time registration advice.
  • Students would be guided to the wide network of people at MIT who could provide more focused, specialized advising including, for example, career advice, preprofessional contacts, and links to summer jobs, internships, and study abroad possibilities.
  • Students' personal needs would be understood and appreciated, and they would be referred to the appropriate resources within MIT for assistance with these needs.
  • Students would have had one or more high quality one-on-one personal interactions with a faculty member. This might come through a UROP if the faculty supervisor were actually providing mentorship or through any number of other encounters.
  • Students, by the time they are juniors and seniors, would know one or two MIT faculty well enough to obtain good letters of recommendation.

Each of these outcomes comes with complementary expectations for faculty mentors:

  • Mentors would assist students in developing a comprehensive educational plan instead of merely offering just-in-time registration advice.
  • Mentors would facilitate entry to the network of people at MIT who could provide more focused, specialized advising including, for example, career advice, preprofessional contacts, and links to summer jobs, internships, and study abroad possibilities.
  • Advisors would be prepared to acknowledge, understand, and address students' personal needs and would be in position to identify problems and refer students to the appropriate resources within MIT.
  • Faculty would consider it part of their job responsibilities to offer high quality one-on-one personal interactions with a small number of undergraduates. This might come through a UROP if the faculty supervisor were actually providing mentorship or through any number of other encounters.
  • The faculty mentor would know his or her students well enough to provide good letters of recommendation.

And each of these faculty expectations has reciprocal expectations for students, themselves:

  • The student would actively engage in developing a comprehensive educational plan and discussing it with faculty mentors.
  • With the guidance of their mentors, students would use proactively all of the facilities at their disposal to seek out the network of people at MIT who could provide more focused, specialized advising including, for example, career advice, preprofessional contacts, and links to summer jobs, internships, and study abroad possibilities.
  • Students would express their personal needs to their faculty mentors so that their mentors might refer them to the appropriate resources within MIT.
  • Students would actively seek out high quality one-on-one personal interactions faculty members, taking full advantage of UROP opportunities as well as the many other special programs that are available.
  • The student would work to get to know a faculty member well enough so that he or she is able to provide good letters of recommendation.

Enlisting Faculty in the Mentoring of Undergraduates


Many faculty members already serve as excellent mentors to our undergraduates and at least some departments take their mentoring responsibilities quite seriously. But high quality mentoring ought to be the responsibility of the Institute as a whole and not relegated solely to departments. To achieve a substantial change in what has become an ongoing problem, we will have to find ways to recruit faculty broadly to the mentoring task. In this vein:

  • The Institute needs to make it clear that advising and mentoring of undergraduate students are part of the responsibilities of an MIT faculty member.
  • The Institute should encourage junior faculty to become mentors and advisors, beginning with their second year on the MIT faculty after they have had a chance to become acclimated. Departments should be expected to make mentoring and advising part of their agreements with junior faculty.
  • Institute Visiting Committees should be asked to monitor how well mentoring and advising is operating in the departments that they oversee.
  • The Institute should train new faculty with respect to mentorship and the Institute's expectations in this area. Many of our new faculty come from universities in which mentoring of students is not a top priority. We should make it clear that this is one of the things that distinguishes an MIT education.
  • The Institute should provide the infrastructure to enable mentoring , including:
    • Financial support to departments and, possibly, incentives to faculty (though we are cognizant of the fact that incentives can easily become entitlements and lose their incentive effect)
    • Resources that offload some technical advising tasks to other parts of the administrative structure (e.g. the forthcoming proposals of the Advising Discovery Project)
    • Resources to staff professionally strong undergraduate department offices
    • The provision of multiple points of access to mentors and advisors throughout the Institute (e.g. Residence-Based Advising, BioMatrix, Mission 2004, and other initiatives that have been underwritten by the d'Arbeloff grants)

Enlisting Others in the Mentoring of Undergraduates


We believe that mentoring is first and foremost the responsibility of the MIT faculty. This does not mean that effective mentoring cannot be found elsewhere. Various areas of the Institute have experimented in involving fellow students, staff, and alumni in mentoring. While we applaud these efforts, we feel that they cannot be a complete replacement for high quality mentorship from the faculty themselves.


(1) Richard Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
(2) We take our cue from concepts developed by the BioMatrix program in their document "Mentoring Basics."
(3) One program, UROP, was designed with exactly this in mind, but even there results with respect to mentoring have been mixed.

 

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