Nurturing Independent Learning in the Undergraduate Student in History: A Faculty–Student Mentoring Experience

Aug. 01, 2012

Source: Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, Vol. 20, No. 3, August 2012, 361–378
(Reviewed by the portal team)

In this article, undergraduates and a history professor planned for and carried out research in the Belgian State Archives in an attempt to answer the call from the Boyer Commission’s seminal report that identified the need for meaningful undergraduate research opportunities in the American higher education system.

The authors identified two sets of goals for this project; one set for the students and one set for the professor.
They wanted students to learn how to (a) participate in the planning of a multiinvestigator research project, (b) learn a set of discrete historical research skills, (c) build a sense of teamwork, and (d) develop autonomy as researchers.
The instructor was interested in finding out how students approach research problems in an applied setting with an eye toward improving the way research problems are taught to students, secondly, he wanted to determine how research skills could best be taught to students outside of the classroom, and finally, he wanted to determine what, if any, were limitations of teaching research skills in a short period of time.

The authors used a variety of methods to carry out the project and analyze its success. These methods included informal interviews, group discussions, and analytical narratives written by the students.


The authors found that both mentoring and student research project goals were attained in this hands-on, original document experience. The students’ confidence and understanding were enhanced as they personally took responsibility for accurately entering data, and saw themselves as key players in the project while working closely with the professor. Student involvement, not only in the planning stages, but also in shaping the direction of the project, ultimately provided students with a strong sense of ownership, a key component for undergraduate mentoring that creates a better experience for the undergraduate and faculty directed project.

The authors concurred that faculty–student mentoring can provide a viable outlet for teaching that engages students with primary materials, an experience essential for twenty-first century history researchers.
In addition, the team size of four students and one professor was a successful ratio in this research experience, and the authors suggested that other mentored research projects visiting foreign archives would do well with a team constructed of a similar faculty–student ratio.

The findings reveal that group discussions were a medium that helped provide immediate feedback for the professor on ways to improve the project as well as immediate feedback for the students on their performance. These frequent conversations contributed to project changes. These discussions helped the professor to see what questions the students had and adjust his teaching methods to meet their needs.
This mentoring experience allowed students to gain essential research skills that enhanced their historical training. The students learned the specific skills the authors had intended: collaboration, archival procedures, reading and handling of rare documents, organizing data, and how to do personal research.
The authors argued that archival research mentored by a faculty member is helpful not only for students, but also for a professor as he develops his teaching methods, particularly to include student primary document interaction. While primary source research can be simulated in classroom settings, intensive archival research experiences in a mentoring situation allowed students to acquire autonomy more quickly and to retain the research skill set over time.

In addition, the faculty–student mentoring experience helped students acquire archival skills during their preparation for, and research at, the Belgian State Archives that allowed students to transfer their new skills to other academic and workplace settings.
Furthermore, the professor taught students to interact with Belgian archivists and other scholars who were working in the archives and how to analyze primary documents. Through the mentored research experience, the professor relayed to students his enthusiasm for archival work.
The authors found that mentoring helped the undergraduates transition from the consumer to the producer phase.
While undergraduates did not feel completely autonomous after the mentoring experience, there was no doubt that the students improved their historical skills and developed a strong sense of independence that informed their own research.
In general, the authors found that undergraduate teaching and research were improved through mentorship.

Conclusions and Implications for Further Research

The authors' experience confirmed that mentored undergraduate research is applicable to history students.
Overall, this research experience was a success because students were able to gradually work toward autonomy in a specific archival skill set and then implement those skills in their research. The merging of formal and informal learning, both in preparation for the research experience and during the actual data collection phase, brought learning into context.
The authors conclude that the experience was mutually beneficial to the students and the faculty member, and it acknowledges mentoring as a meaningful pedagogy for higher education and undergraduate archival research.

Updated: Nov. 30, 2016