It is difficult to effectively advise students online. And with the increasing enrollment in online degree programs over the past decade, with the number of students suddenly being pushed online during the epidemic, university professors now face an unprecedented challenge: how do you do when you don’t see many of your students in person often? Do you build supportive relationships with them and guide them to successfully complete their degree and advance in their careers?
Although mentoring can take multiple forms in higher education, that challenge is particularly prevalent in formal academic mentoring relationships, such as those involving thesis or research advice and referring to a lab or research group.
My department launched its first online accelerated postgraduate degree program in the spring of 2020, which coincided with the first days of the epidemic. The program has grown rapidly and enrolled more than 150 graduate students in its first year alone. Soon I found myself chairing a thesis committee and regularly advising students online. There was a lot of pressure and anticipation as to what mentoring really meant to me and how I would do it when my students lived across the country — and everyone began to think about social distances, lockdowns, and a new normal way of life. – Changing the requirements of the mask.
Thinking about my own undergraduate studies, my favorite moments included personal interactions with two of my mentors. I remember holding research meetings on my academic father’s shady courtyard; The Midwest summer sun and wind hugged me when I figured out the subjects of a study. I remember the conference hotel room where my academic mother would tell me for hours on end how to deal with the systematic biases in the academy that I would soon see as a color faculty woman. These places hold the memory of my tears and laughter as a graduate student and I knew I wanted to create a similar experience for my own students. Even if I don’t meet them in person. Especially in the midst of a global epidemic.
Fast-forward 18 months later: The undergraduate students I recommend have presented at 21 local and 13 international conference presentations and have won three prestigious awards from the university and a national honors association. And I have received an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from my organization.
My students and I are now collaborating on five journal articles and 13 conference proposals as we prepare their applications for doctoral programs. If anything, the virtual and distant nature of our relationship has created separate opportunities for sharing and connection that would not otherwise be possible. Here’s my recommendation for how I did it and for other faculty members who want to build a strong advisory relationship.
Create an online community. Mentoring, first and foremost, creates an inclusive environment where students feel they belong. Most of my students are full-time working adults who try to spend time at night and on weekends for their postgraduate degree. While they appreciate the flexibility of our asynchronous online program, they also feel isolated and want to connect and engage with faculty, other students and the program in general.
With that in mind, I created an online community space for my mentions in the form of Discord Server and we use it as our main communication channel. We share information about thesis process, common resources, events and opportunities that can benefit students. Each student has their own personal channel on Discord to communicate with me, which becomes a way for us to keep track of shared documents, questions and answers, meeting agenda, notes and progress. What we all enjoy the most though is the social aspect of it. We sympathize with each other and celebrate. We share anything from inspirational quotes to catchy nicknames to inspirational cornholes. We cherish the supreme moments with pictures of our kids falling asleep in one hand and work on our research project in the other.
Connect with students as a whole. The No. 1 goal of my personal mentoring practice is to lift students up and challenge them to reach new heights. I firmly believe in the motto of my graduate Alma Mater, “If there is light, we pass it on to others.” My ultimate job as a consultant is not to pass knowledge or skills but to pass the light. I want to help my students find their own strengths and bring out the best in themselves so that they can later find the best in others. In scholarly terms, I help them build their learning identity so that they can become lifelong learners.
I have noticed that my online students tend to be more conservative about their scholarly identity than traditional undergraduate students, probably because of their unconventional ways or guilt that they cannot fully dedicate themselves to their educational pursuits. I constantly remind them that they have already overcome the obstacles to get here and assure them that they will be able to overcome the challenges ahead – that they are much more capable than they thought. “If you can do better than that, why settle for a minimum?” I tell them.
I show their progress by having check-in meetings with each student each week – often in the form of 30-minute zoom calls, but sometimes quick check-in at Discord. In addition to content-specific discussions about their research, I answer questions, clear up confusion, listen to their concerns, respond, tell personal stories, and more. My students know I’m here for them, just a discarded message away.
Facilitate team-building and collaborative activities. Learning from peers is just as important as learning from professors – if not more so. By choosing to work with me, all my students have some similarities, either temporary or systematic. I help them make those connections and I facilitate activities that let them know and collaborate with each other.
We schedule monthly research group meetings and fortnightly writing. We respond to each other about our writing and presentation. We have ridiculous presentations for thesis defense. We work together on conference and journal submissions. When I collaborate with them for the first few submissions or invite them to join me, after a while, they start taking initiatives and start planning their own collaboration with each other. All this is done online via Zoom and Discord.
By the time they graduate, my mentors have a number of items in their CVs that can help strengthen their application to doctoral programs. But above all, I think the best way is for them to realize that my research group will always be their academic home, even after they graduate. My students will grow up in their own direction and follow their own passions, but the experiences and connections they share here can stay with them as long as they seem useful. This is truly a community of future scholars that I am developing and supporting.
Have fun and be authentic. After all, people learn best when they have fun. After all, we do it because we want to. I never make life romantic at the academy and often, I work too hard to do shows. Instead, my mentors see me in my most authentic moments (e.g., a sick baby and barely sleeping for days on end due to difficult times). They have heard my complaints about the rogue reviewer No. 2 and the selected editors.
On difficult days, I share inspirational quotes to keep the gang going. We celebrate birthdays and throw back-hole-in-one cornholes. My students gave me the nickname Mighty Mai T, and they still have to come up with a logo design for our research group T-shirts, because they are much better at memes and graphic design than I am.
When I know they want to apply for a higher rank PhD. Program, I am open and up front with them about the potential competition they will face. I tell them, “I know you’ve already worked really hard to balance academics, life and work. But if that’s your goal, you’ll have to work harder to compete with those full-time students in their CVs with more credit.” Will be. ” My students understand that academies are not all rainbows and unicorns, and they are ready.
If you are worried about giving advice to students online, don’t do it. My online students gave me more than I gave them before meeting them in person.