For students who have little experience with undergraduate research projects, it is important to model that process and provide guidance throughout. Constructive student-faculty interaction allows for a meaningful mentoring process and shows students that the instructor is a partner in the research process. I begin my course with an assignment designed to open up channels of communication. Students are required to write a letter of introduction that is somewhat autobiographical. I ask them to boast about their accomplishments, tell me about their family, and explain why they chose to study economics, what courses they have taken and which was their favourite. I also ask them to describe what topic they would like to explore for their research and what they think will be the hardest part of completing the project. Finally, because I want them to be serious in response to these questions, I provide them with a required word count, no less than 1000 and no more than 1500 words. On the second day of class, I provide a similar letter written by myself to them. I have found that this simple act provides me with great insight into the very factors that are likely to inhibit or enhance their success in the project and it immediately allows me to talk with rather than at my students.
Throughout the semester other exercises and activities are designed to model the research process as typically collaborative, suggesting that they need to involve me in their research and not simply report it to me. For example, after the first week in the semester I share one of my current or recent projects bringing a large accordion folder of materials to class. I explain how I got started on the idea, show them the various outlines, false starts and other documents I used to get down to the important research question. I also make it a point to share with them a version of one of my papers that has been marked up significantly by a co-author as well as referee reports of submitted work. The importance of sharing this information cannot be overstated. Students see that we have the same struggles with research as they will have and it humanises us in their eyes. This reinforces the commonalties that are introduced using the letter of introduction and helps to build a community of scholars.
At critical times during the semester I require one-on-one meetings with each student, typically lasting up to 30 minutes. At the beginning of the semester these meetings are designed to encourage students to brainstorm potential project ideas. Later in the semester these meetings provide the opportunity to effectively gauge students’ progress and provide them with reflective guidance; nurturing weaker students, pushing stronger ones to take their analysis to a new level. Because previous exercises have already opened up the lines of communication, these meetings are very productive.