From the Science Student Council

How to Work Successfully with Undergraduate Students


By Gloria Luong

As graduate students, we are constantly surrounded by undergraduate students. Whether we are serving as teaching assistants, instructors, or research assistants, undergraduate students are a natural part of our academic lives. Surely, working with undergraduates is a rewarding experience.  Undergraduate students often raise thought-provoking questions in class and make significant contributions to our research, which constantly reinforces our choice to pursue a career in academia. Sometimes, however, undergraduate students may be going through stressful times or lose their motivation during the term, which may affect their work performance. Other times, undergraduate students’ poor work performance may stem from the poor guidance they receive from their advisors and instructors. The following list includes a variety of strategies that may be used to enhance and optimize your work experiences with undergraduate students.

Establish Role Expectations

From the beginning of your work relationship with your undergraduate students, whether as a teacher, mentor, or research supervisor, be sure that your expectations for your students are very clear. When teaching a class, be sure to take some time on the first day to go over the syllabus and course expectations. As a research supervisor or mentor, you should also be clear about what you expect your undergraduate research assistants (RAs) or honors students to accomplish during the term and what your role will be in helping them to achieve these goals. In doing so, you will set the tone for your work relationship with your undergraduates.  In all cases, encourage your undergraduates to ask you questions when they need help. Part of your role is to ensure that undergraduates receive the education and training they are seeking out from your course or from working in your lab. You can achieve this by making yourself available as a resource that students can turn to for help.

At times, your undergraduates’ work performance may not meet your standards. If this happens, one way you can approach this problem is to reach out to your students from the start. For example, in the classroom setting at the beginning of the term, have your students record their ideal grade for the quarter. After the first midterm or quiz, identify students who may not be on track to meet their goal. You could personally email the students to ask them if they would like to meet with you during office hours to discuss their progress in the course and try to collaboratively come up with a plan so the student takes an active role in achieving the grade they want for your class.

Leadership by Example

Leading by example may be an effective strategy when you are in charge of a group of students (e.g., when you are a project manager or graduate student researcher). For example, if your undergraduate RAs are forbidden from logging onto Facebook during lab hours, do not check your friends’ status updates while in the lab. Your research assistants will be aware of the hypocrisy and you will have a difficult time explaining why it is alright for you to update your Myspace profile while they have to run your experiments. Granted, there will be times when you will have unique privileges that your RAs do not have, and you will not be subjected to the same rules (e.g., you may be able to do coursework while in the lab, but RAs may not). If this is the case, make these role distinctions very clear to your RAs from the very beginning.

Aligning Your Goals

According to Alice Eagly and colleagues, transformational leadership styles in which leaders emphasize the importance of the group’s goals and inspire their followers to find creative solutions to problems are among the most effective styles. So, where possible, inform your students about why the material you are teaching is important. What’s the bigger picture? How might this affect your students’ lives? In the lab setting, explain to your RAs why the projects they are working on are important and why they should care about the results. What’s the theory and reasoning behind this study? What does it mean if your hypotheses are not supported?  There are methodological considerations, however, and sometimes your RAs will need to be blind to the experimental conditions or hypotheses (e.g., when coding data). In these cases, once the data are all collected or coded, explain to the RAs the importance of the role they played in your research project. And of course, it’s always nice to thank and reward your undergraduates for a job well done!

When in Doubt…

Remember that you are a student as well. When in doubt about how to work through a problem with your undergraduates, ask your advisor for help. Your advisor has likely had more years of experience working with undergraduate students (and graduate students, for that matter), and probably has some pearls of advice for you. Feel free to consult other graduate students who may have dealt with similar student issues. Also, many campuses have a Center for Teaching and Learning that focuses on these very issues. Remember to become familiar with your institutional policies and procedures. Take advantage of these resources, as well as conflict management courses, if offered by your university. You might learn something new!

For related information on mentoring undergraduates, please see a previous article authored by SSC member, Abby Adler.

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Gloria Luong, the Health Research Representative on the APASSC, is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. Her research interests are focused on emotion regulation in interpersonal contexts across the lifespan.