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Conversation #40: Janet Branchaw on Mentoring for Student Success

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Janet Branchaw

A conversation with Dr. Janet Branchaw of University of Wisconsin-Madison on teaching, learning, and mentoring for student success.

Janet Branchaw, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, serves as the Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE) and the Associate Director of the National Research Mentoring Network’s Mentor Training Core. She has led several NSF-funded projects focused on undergraduate research experiences and authored the Entering Research and 2nd edition of the Entering Mentoring curricula. Her research focuses on the development and study of student and faculty development interventions designed to improve undergraduate STEM education.

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T. Coston: Hello and welcome to the Teaching, Learning, and Everything else podcast at Xavier University of Louisiana. I am Tiera Coston and today I am speaking with Dr. Janet Branchaw. Dr. Branchaw assistant professor of kinesiology and the school of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, serves as director of the Wisconsin institute for science education and community engagement and the associate director of the national research mentoring networks mentor training core. She has lead several NFF projects focused on undergraduate research experiences and the entering research and second edition of the entering mentor curriculum. Her research focuses on the development of student and faculty development designed to improve undergraduate education. Thank you for taking the time out to speak to us about mentoring. And so we’ll start off by asking how did you come to focus on mentoring as a means to promote student success?

J. Branchaw: Well first thanks for inviting me to do this. I really appreciate it. The first question about how did I come to focus on this really from the students perspective. I direct a couple of undergraduate research programs on our campus. And I saw through experience with those students how much mentoring matter. And I think we all know through experience how important mentoring is key to our success. But watching young students and trainees really some of them succeeding and not succeeding based on who was their mentor got me really interested in mentoring. So I did everything that I could to help the students become successful and it became clear to me that they needed to be working with their mentors and not just with them directly. So that’s how I got interested.

T. Coston: which brings me to the question. I think you’re right in that all of us have mentored in many places throughout our lives. I don’t think many of us if we knew could define mentoring. How would you define mentoring and what would contrast that with advising especially academic advising?

J. Branchaw: So I think they are both relationships between students and professionals. I think the mentoring relationship in particular is a little deeper. Usually the biggest distinction is that mentors and mentees are working together on something that is mutually beneficial to the both of them. And the mentor is very experienced and knows a lot about the project and is there to support the mentee. Good mentors put their mentees needs before their own and help them advance their mentees careers within the content of the project they are working on together. And I think that academic advising have a lot of similarities but I think that academic advisors are experts at what students could and should do to be successful like what courses to take and telling students what they should be doing and the students are coming back and reporting what they are doing, but they aren’t doing it together. So I think the big difference is that the relationship between mentors and students is that they are working on something together that they are both highly invested in that particular thing and I think advising is when the professor is highly invested in the student's outcome but I think it is a little less intense than a mentor and a student.

T. Coston: Thanks. You used the term “beneficial” to describe that mentoring relationship and it brings me to getting faculty to become mentors. The incentive and the environment you create to have faculty want to be mentors. And so do you think that sort of mutually beneficial relationship is enough or do you see that more incentive is needed in a given place on any given campus?

J. Branchaw: Well it’s really interesting because so much depends on how the experience of then before working with new students. So if it's going to be mutually beneficial, the students have to understand what they are getting into and how they should be contributing to the relationship and to the project and I think what's difficult is that the students don't know what's expected when they get into these relationships. So when that happens, there’s a distance issue between the faculty. They have to spend a lot of time and energy to help students understand what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. And I think there's a lot we can do before students engage in those kinds of relationships that get them ready to understand what they will be doing. For example, a relationship between a teacher and a student is very different from a mentor and a student. And so helping students understand the differences and expectations of their mentors when they walk into a relationship with a faculty member I think that's a huge incentive for the faculty member. Because the students are going to be ready to hit the ground running and start working collaboratively on a project with a faculty member where is in a classroom, the faculty usually have all the expertise and they are just coming to gain and learn from that person. And in the lab, they are both working on something that they both don’t know how it will turn out so they have to work together. So , when students understand that and they come into a situation with the faculty member that can be very motivating for the faculty member. So we try to create curricula and workshop for students and faculty because they both go into the relationship ready and understanding what's expected. And try to create structure in how they communicate with one another. Getting on the same page is really helpful. So when faculty have good experiences with students, I think that's a great incentive. Because then students are contributing to their work and are getting better time well spent than if they were working on their own.

T. Coston: And for those who may not have that structured classes or programs, what are some practical ways to set those expectations so that students do know what they are walking into and it can be a better overall relationship down the line?

J. Branchaw: There's lots of different things you can do depending on what you have. I think one of the basic pieces of advice that I give faculty is use a mentor/ mentee contract. It’s really a prompt to have a discussion about the expectations and the contract is just where you write down what you decided on together. And it’s a time and a place for you to ask them questions that are important to you and convey to them what it is going to be like working for you. I think another suggestion is if you already have some senior trainees undergraduates, you can think about how you can use those students to orientate the new students into the research team and create a community of scholar so trying to bring the new people on board understand how it works, that way you can engage the people who have already been through it. And it’s really beneficial to both of them to have that kind of relationship. And the one last thing I’ll suggest is somehow formalize how you do this so that everyone who comes in the lab has some type of orientation and check-ins about expectations and how we’re doing part of a regular lab meeting that everyone comes together on. Try to create a space where they are holding each other accountable so not just the faculty. So I think there are a number of things you can try and feel comfortable with. The key in the end is communication and giving folks the benefit of the doubt especially new undergraduates that have never been in this before. Try not to make assumptions about what they know and try to be as explicit as you can and encourage them to ask questions.

T. Coston: So desire is one thing, and I’m shifting a little bit here, what are some of the essential characteristics of a good mentor? When training a mentor, what are you trying to install?

J. Branchaw: Well I don’t know how much you can instill but they always have to balance the students needs, the project’s needs, and their own needs. I find that, if you are going to sign on to be someone's mentor, in my mind what you are signing on for is thinking about the students needs first. It not always be the drive in every decision that gets made but I think it’s that keeping them always in mind is important. Good mentors also are great communicators. It doesn't have to be one on one verbal communication all the time. It could be instant messaging or emailing to keep in touch with the student at all time so that they know what’s going on. I think good mentors are able to set realistic goals for their students and help students set those goals for themselves so that they can become more independent. But students don't know what they don't know. So mentors are there to help them understand why they are doing what they are doing, and how and when they are doing it. So those are some things I think are really important. When mentors go through training, we try to get reflect and think deeply about those things. Some of them are doing it naturally and others are kind of doing it but they have to think about it more explicitly and once they do that, they do it more. There’s a lot of awareness and metacognition around how what mentors are doing affects their students that can go a long way. And there doesn’t have to be a lot of formal training rather than more reflection. I think the one last thing I would say is that every student is different and every mentor is different. So flexibility is important. If you find it is not working out between you and a trainee, the trainee may need to find a better mentor. And only the trainee and the mentor can make that decision. So I don't think the relationship needs to fail I think it should advance and move on if things aren’t working.

T. Coston: Absolutely. You talked about how much mentoring matters. I’m interesting in, for those places who may not have that culture of mentoring how would a faculty member go about trying to facilitate that culture on their campus? Where would they start?

J. Branchaw: I think a good place to start would be with discussions with colleagues. I think it's easy depending on what kind of institution you’re at for faculty to talk about research. But we don't often talk about mentoring and how it’s going with the student in my lab or research team. And I think that's a easy low bar. If you are having a challenge, go talk to a colleague down the hall about it and make that part of the conversation and talk about how to do it well. That gets people interested in it. And when they have good ideas they can share. So it builds community around the idea of supporting students in the beyond the classroom learning experience. I’ve also seen if you have a regular book group or journal club kind of format, you can make a suggestion about how doing undergraduate research can build students self efficacy and build their confidence. And so just reading one paper may get people interested and then you can read some more papers. So these are the kinds of things that are easy to do. You can fit them into existing structures in your departments. And so that can kind of get the ball rolling in a way. The first thing to do though is create kind of a buzz about it. Talk to one another about it. It's not usually a foreign concept. But tis not something we talk about explicitly or critically usually. We don't think carefully about what didn't work with the student and how it can be improved.

T. Coston: And I like those ideas. They’re simple, practical approaches that faculty can pick up. If somebody is really trying to facilitate this mentoring aspect on their campus, where would you direct them?

J. Branchaw: We have a lot of resources on mentoring available from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I can send some links that are online and easy to grab. The name of of the curriculum we have is entering mentoring and entering research. There’s also a online or medical goal here, has an online mentoring website that talks about the steps of mentoring relationships and how you can start it, how it is to be in the middle of it. And over the course of a couple of projects, and how you close it out. Or how your trainee has moved on to something else. Maybe they moved on to medical school or graduate school or something. And how do you continue to support them. Really good mentors are life long partners. And this website I'm referring to kind of lays out those phases. It offers advice as to what mentors and mentees go through and resources for if you want to do something a little more formal on your own campus. Those are a few things that we have worked on that can help. There are also websites from other folks across the country that have given their input. So I would be more than happy to send those links.

T. Coston: Great! And I actually had to the opportunity to meet Steve Lee and talk with him about some of tools that he uses out there. So I agree with you. He definitely has a lot out there to contribute.

J. Branchaw: Yeah he’s great!

T. Coston: In this new year, I will give you the opportunity for kind of a new year’s wish. So in this area I’ll focus on student mentoring. If you could have any wish in this area, what would you want to see?

J. Branchaw: I think that my wish would be that institutions would be able to take a more systematic approach in supporting their students and their mentors. That they embark on these relationships and that we all have this notion that the faculty know what to do with these students. And we don't wanna mess with their freedom to do research. But my wish would be for us to be able to look back and see how we can structure for faculty and students that can be adapted by any institution in ways that can increase the chance that the relationship can be successful. And I think it's a I hope it can work type situation. And so my wish would be that we shift from it’s a hit or miss kind of thing to it may work out if we approach it in a systematic and thoughtful way. And provide people with the needs to make that happen.

T. Coston: Well I think that is a great way to end our conversation. I have been speaking with Dr. Janet Branchaw, Assistant professor of kinesiology and education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And I appreciate the time we took to speak with me.

J. Branchaw: No, Thank you! I love talking about this so I hope it was helpful.

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