Monday, July 6, 2015

Attention Mentors: "Failure to Encourage is Taken as Discouragement"

Contributed by Brett Morris

Academic mentors play a pivotal role in the development of undergraduates in STEM fields as professors, research advisors, teaching assistants and role models. One of the most important responsibilities of academic mentors is to provide constructive feedback on student performance in research and in classes, and the delivery of feedback can be critical to achieving its intended outcome.

Elaine Seymour (1995) conducted a huge series of interviews of undergraduates who pursued STEM degrees to find what may have caused some students to switch out of STEM majors while others persisted through to graduation. Seymour's interviews noted that female students and students of color were disproportionately more likely to feel discouraged by their mentors' lack of encouragement. That is not to say that the students craved praise that they did not receive, but rather that students who needed and sought reinforcements in self-confidence from mentors often did not receive it. Seymour suggests that even in the absence of negative criticism, lack of encouragement is perceived as discouragement.

A complementary result was found in Cohen, Steele & Ross (1999), who studied the response of students to criticism as a function of the students' and mentors' races. Black and white students were prompted to write an essay, which received critical feedback for revisions. Afterwards, a survey polled how biased the students perceived the white reviewer to be, and how motivated they were to complete the task after receiving the review. The feedback was returned in one of three flavors, either (1) unbuffered criticism, (2) criticism with general praise (a positive buffer), and (3) criticism with acknowledgement that the reviewer is judging the work against high standards, and with assurances that the students were capable of producing work that reached those standards.

Cohen et al. find that when students are presented with unbuffered criticism, black students feel that the reviewer is biased and feel unmotivated to complete the task, compared to black or white students who received criticism with a positive buffer or with assurances and high standards. This affect can be ameliorated simply by adding a positive buffer to criticism or preferably by assuring that students are being held to high standards and that they are capable of meeting those standards. Again, feedback without encouragement is disproportionately perceived by underrepresented minorities as discouragement.


Discussion Questions

  • How is feedback in the coursework that you assign (grading, annotations on submitted papers) perceived? Is it "cold", "indifferent", and "intimidating" as Seymour's subjects so often felt?
  • How often do you directly, verbally acknowledge the difficulty of your research mentees' tasks with them, and reassure them that they have the skills to complete their tasks?
  • Have you ever discussed with your capable students that they are capable of pursuing STEM degrees? Have you expressly encouraged them to do so?

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