Research News

Study shows structured training could improve quality of research mentoring

November 12, 2014
by Paul Baker

Strong research mentorship has been linked to improved mentee self-efficacy, productivity, and ultimately career satisfaction. Unfortunately, mentors usually learn their craft by doing what their mentors did, or by trial and error. So it is not surprising that mentors’ capabilities and outcomes vary widely.

To test their conviction that a systematic, formal research mentor training intervention would result in more effective mentoring, Christine Pfund of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and a team at the UW–Madison Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) adapted the published mentor training curriculum, “Entering Mentoring,” for the use of health sciences researchers. The curriculum focuses on six competencies:

• Maintaining effective communication

• Establishing and aligning expectations

• Assessing mentees’ understanding of scientific research

• Addressing diversity within mentoring relationships;

• Fostering mentees’ independence

• And promoting mentees’ professional career development.

The facilitators were trained together by UW-Madison staff for 1.5 days prior to implementing the curriculum at their individual sites. Across 16 universities, facilitators led mentors in discussion of case studies and critical reflection of their mentoring philosophy. Participants considered an intellectual framework for mentoring, explored strategies to improve their mentoring relationships, solved mentoring dilemmas, and created mentoring action plans. The team assigned 283 mentors to two groups: one that received the training and one that did not. Their mentees were not told to which group their mentors were assigned.

Before implementing the intervention, the research team measured mentors’ skills quantitatively and described mentors’ practices qualitatively. Mentors self-reported their scores on a skills inventory — Mentoring Competency Assessment (MCA) — designed to align with the curriculum’s six competencies. Mentors, in both the control and intervention groups, and their mentees took the MCA before and after the training intervention. The two scores were then compared.

Outcomes

The change in MCA composite scores was larger in the intervention group than in the control group of mentors. The team identified skill gains at each study site. Moreover, they observed skill gains in nearly every item in the MCA. The measured gains were supported by qualitative data. These skill gains were irrespective of mentor gender or career stage, suggesting that the intervention can have broad impact. Even mentors with more than 15 years of experience recognized areas for improvement in their skills and practice.

In addition to MCA skill gains, intervention group mentors themselves reported a significant increase in their awareness across the mentoring competencies and a need to implement behavioral changes. Nearly all (97 percent) of intervention group mentors reported an increased awareness, intent to change, or actual behavioral change, compared with 53 percent of the control group mentors. Most (87 percent) of the intervention group mentors reported they had implemented at least one behavioral change, compared with 42 percent in the control group.

Their mentees’ reports aligned with these quantitative and qualitative results. Of the mentees whose mentors were in the intervention group, 68 percent reported at least one positive change in their mentors’ behavior, compared with 57 percent in the control group. Further, 44 percent of mentees noted two or more positive changes, compared with 24 percent in the control group. These mentees retrospectively reported greater skill gains.

This study shows that a structured approach to training can improve the quality of research mentoring at academic institutions. Pfund says that, to her knowledge, this is the first multisite, randomized, controlled trial to provide evidence of perceived skill gains and behavioral changes, from research mentor training, based on reports from both mentors and their mentees. Given the national call to train clinical and translational researchers, this evidence is timely.

The curriculum used in the study, as well as newly adapted curricula, are accessible on the web at https://mentoringresources.ictr.wisc.edu. In addition, research mentor training for mentors across diverse disciplines and career stages is offered regularly on the UW-Madison campus in partnerships with the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, the Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning and Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE), formerly Institute for Biology Education. See www.delta.wisc.edu andhttps://mentoringresources.ictr.wisc.edu for upcoming offerings.