The Facilitating Effective Research Program @ MIT

rhinos_1In most science and engineering fields, success in research (in both academe and industry) requires not only advanced domain-specific knowledge and sophisticated experimental and analytical skills, but mentoring and managerial skills as well. Graduate students and post-docs here at MIT (and throughout the US) often have their first professional mentoring experiences when they are given responsibility for the day-to-day supervision of undergraduates in laboratories and/or other research environments. These close working-relationships between graduate students/post-docs and undergraduates can be very rewarding for all parties, but often graduate students and post-docs are given little explicit guidance or advice about planning research tasks, or how best to guide and manage undergraduate students.

In order to support graduate students and post-docs from across the Institute in their roles as undergraduate mentors, the Teaching & Learning Lab (TLL) and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Office in Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming (UAAP) offer the Facilitating Effective Research (FER) Program. The FER Program strives to make the undergraduate research experience more meaningful for the undergraduate researchers, more rewarding for their graduate student and post-doctoral mentors, and more productive for everyone involved.

The Program provides a forum for grad students and post-docs to consider and discuss the issues and factors inherent in the effective mentoring of students and the management of research activities. The goals of FER are that, by the end of the workshop, participants will be able to:

  • Effectively communicate their expectations for the advising relationship with their advisees;
  • Align their expectations with those of their advisees;
  • Articulate qualities of effective mentors;
  • Describe the negative effects of, along with strategies to mitigate, stereotype threat;
  • Define research projects in terms of manageable scope;
  • Define milestones to measure research progress;
  • Adjust projects based on achievement of milestones.

The program provides opportunities for participants to hear from a panel of experienced MIT mentors and advisees, and to ask questions of and receive advice from the panelists. During this portion of the program veteran advisors describe how their approaches to mentoring and project supervision have changed over time. Veteran mentors offer their strategies for supporting student researchers with a range of experiences, and overall, provide valuable insights for participating graduate students. The seasoned undergraduates who are selected for the program have often worked in multiple labs and on multiple projects, and are able to reflect on what has worked for them and why. Program participants value the inclusion of “real” undergraduates who can answer direct and specific questions from the student’s perspective.

Each offering also includes information and discussions of topics of particular interest to the current participants. In the most recent FER offering during the week of 31 October 2016, we spent time discussing John Keller’s [1,2] and Rolland Viau’s [3] models of motivation and how those models could be applied to motivate and support advisees’ research.

The FER Program has been offered approximately 30 times since 2007 and has assumed a variety of formats – from four one-hour sessions spread over four days to two 1.5 hour sessions offered over two days.

While UROP and MSRP (MIT Summer Research Program) mentors are the most common participants, the program can be tailored to meet the needs of particular groups (post-docs, graduate students, or junior faculty) from individual departments or labs, or to support mentors in specific programs or other initiatives at MIT.

The next FER sessions for the MIT campus will be offered during IAP 2017. Please contact the UROP Office for schedule details. And, as always, please contact us at the Teaching & Learning Lab if you have any teaching and learning questions!


  1. Keller, J.M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of motivational design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2-10.
  2. Keller, J.M.:
  3. Viau, R., (2009). La motivation en contexte scolaire, 2nd edition, de Boeck.

Parts of this post originally appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXI, No. 3, January/February 2009.

(“Rhinos, Kruger National Park, South Africa” from Mack Sheldon / cc by-nc-sa)

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