Supporting Undergraduate Research Students: A Holistic Check-in Form

This post is about a form that Vashti Sawtelle and I developed for use with our undergraduate research mentees at Michigan State in physics education research. At the beginning of each semester, we ask students to fill out this form. 

Why Did We Develop This Form? 

As research advisors, we want to support students holistically. Yet, some students may not be aware that they can talk to us about topics outside of research (e.g. study skills, time management, etc.). To the extent that research students want holistic support, we want to send them the message that we can discuss these broader topics. 

We have four main questions that we ask students to fill out. I will go through each question and its respective reasoning. We have found this form to be particularly helpful in prompting conversations that have allowed us to better support our students. I will also provide a link to a Word document of our forms at the end of this post. 


It is important to note that this form was developed in the context of a large research university. We expect much of it could still be helpful across different kinds of colleges. However, some of our reasoning is based on the large research university context. In addition, students typically work with us (paid) for 5 hours/week for one semester and then scale up their hours over the summer if they choose to continue working with us.  

Vashti and I do a lot of messaging in our meetings with students to let them know that we care about broader holistic topics. This form is one piece of a wider set of things that we do to support research students to have good experiences with us and in college in general.

Questions on the Form and Reasoning

Question 1: What other mentors (students, staff, faculty, and/or other positions), if any, do you have at Michigan State? What kind of mentorship do they provide ? Are there others outside of Michigan State that provide you with certain kinds of helpful support? What kinds of support do they provide?

In this question, we are really trying to understand what other support a student has. We are at a large research university where students can fall through the cracks mentorship-wise. We have sometimes had students who answer “none” to this question. If students have little-to-no other support, this helps us to understand that we will want to devote more time in meetings to talking about topics beyond research. We have other students with a strong mentorship support network. Although we are always happy to talk about things outside of research, these students may not need this additional support as strongly. In fact, they may prefer not to talk about their courses as they already are talking to someone else about that.

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Question 2A: What courses are you taking? What time do you estimate these courses will take, on average, each week?

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Question 2B: What other major time commitments to you have (e.g. job, leadership in a club or sport, arts, etc.) What time do you estimate these commitments will take, on average, each week?

We ask students to estimate their course and commitment load for a few reasons. One reason is that it helps students in planning out their weeks and thinking about time management. Another reason is that it helps us understand, as research mentors, whether they are taking on a particularly heavy load. This helps us with advising. It also helps us in supporting them to commit to a reasonable amount of research hours each week. If we notice a lot of hours are devoted to a job unrelated to a student’s career directions, we can also think of creative ways to support their employment in directions they care most about. 

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Question 3: What courses did you take last semester and what were your final grades?

Grades don’t always represent all aspects of learning (e.g. your professor may or may not reward your skill development in figuring out how to more effectively manage your time). However, if you are struggling with your grades, we want to support you in strategizing how to improve. 

We have found that students may not always communicate that they are struggling with their grades, particularly early on in the mentoring relationship. We want to make sure that we can support them to drop classes if this is needed. We try to emphasize to students that grades are not necessarily the best measure of learning. However, we do not want them to take on research with us at a detriment to their grades. We see ourselves as mentors who support students in learning how to be successful at the academic college game. 

Some of our students have had difficult semesters with respect to grades. We have never stopped working with a student due to low grades. We check in with them about the underlying reasons. Did they have some difficult health/life/family things that made the semester hard? Do they need to work on an improvement plan around some holistic skills (e.g. time management, organization, etc.)? Do they need support in navigating an unreasonable university structure?

We also ask: Is research with us causing a problem? Although it could be possible, in practice we have never had an instance where a student’s research with us was determined to be the issue. We have found that research typically plays more of a positive role - a place where students can experience success and encouragement. If a student is struggling academically, we might devote more of our weekly research mentor meetings to helping them develop a strategic plan for academic improvement. For instance, 20 minutes of the 60 minute meeting might focus on strategic planning. This strategic planning might involve something as detailed as filling out a spreadsheet of goals for the week (e.g. “ask someone in your class to form a study group.”) We may also encourage them to lower their research hours with us somewhat if it is feasible, given their financial needs.

Question 4: Do you have any topics or worries about the coming semester that you would appreciate support around? (e.g. time management, organization, a particularly difficult course, collaboration skills, thinking about next steps after college, etc.) Please explain a little. 

The reason behind this question is straightforward. We want to send the message to students that they can ask us questions beyond research. In particular, it is helpful to know if they have already identified something that they are interested in or worried about for the upcoming semester. This allows us to follow up during our weekly meetings. For instance, a student may be graduating soon and have worries about next steps. Or, a student might know that they failed a course and will need to re-take it. This helps us be more direct and strategic in mentoring meetings. 

Links to Resources and Social Media Contact Info 

If you would like to download our beginning-of-semester form, you can do so [here]. We also sometimes use a mid-semester check-in form. That form is fairly similar and can be found [here]. It also asks students to reflect on something that they feel proud of. If students are unsure what kinds of holistic skills they might consider working on, here is a [resource] they can use.

I hope to write a follow-up post in the near future about how I specifically support students in time-management during one-on-one planning conversations. So, stay tuned! 

If you have other questions that you ask students, we’d love to hear! You can tweet at me (Angie) @SFOregonian or leave a comment here on this blog post --

Acknowledgements: These ideas were informed by Angie’s involvement in the Compass Project and Access Network communities. For more information about how members of these communities have worked on supporting students to grow their holistic skills and reflect on that growth, see [this article] in the American Journal of Physics.

I would also like to acknowledge Jon Bender, a former middle school physics teacher, who originally had the idea of creating a holistic skills rubric. This rubric was adapted for use by undergraduate physics majors in Compass by Dimitri Dounas-Frazer and Geoff Iwata and was subsequently modified by John Haberstroh and Joel Corbo, resulting in the 2012 version that I linked above.



Wow, where do I begin? This was my first time attending SACNAS and it was lovely. I’m thankful to Ximena Cid, who invited me to come. She organized a session on Indigenous Physicists. Corey Gray, Ximena, and I all gave talks in this session that centered culture and family stories. Corey was part of the discovery of gravitational waves. His mom actually translated the LIGO gravitational wave announcement into the Siksika language. He shared a video of her reading the announcement. Here’s a photo of Corey, Ximena, and I at the SACNAS Pow Wow.

I told folks who attended our session that I would try to put together a few resources here.

If you’re interested in learning more about my tribe, The Chinook Nation, there’s a few resources you can look at. We have an instagram account, @everydaychinook. There is also a new-ish documentary, Promised Land, that follows our fight and the Duwamish Tribe’s fight for federal recognition. An anthropologist, Jon Daehnke, has had a long-term partnership with our tribe that resulted in a 2017 book called Chinook Resilience: Heritage and Cultural Revitalization on the Columbia River. I mentioned how important canoe culture is to our tribe and many Pacific Northwest Tribes. There’s a whole chapter in the book about that. Chapter 5 is titled, “There's no way to overstate how important Tribal Journeys is": The Return of the Canoes and the Decolonization of Heritage. In 2015, we sent a letter a day to President Obama for 80+ days to argue for our federal recognition. In these 80+letters, we share a lot of our history and culture. For instance, below is an excerpt from one letter about a 1999 canoe naming ceremony I was able to attend. I love the meaning behind Skakwal’s name.

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Our tribe has just started a renewed push through the court system for federal recognition. We are hopeful about this, but it is a long process. Other northwest tribes have been showing up outside of the Washington State courthouse, standing in support of our cause. You can read more about that here.

In terms of the work I shared on supportive communities, I encourage you to read the blog post below this one. In that post, I share some of the best resources I’ve written with colleagues on these topics.

I raise my hands to Ximena and SACNAS for their hard work in creating supportive spaces for marginalized folks in physics and science more generally.

Intentional Design Toward Supportive Communities in Physics Education

Today, I'll be at Stanford to give the Physics Department Equity and Inclusion Seminar. I'm looking forward to talking with folks about intentional design of supportive communities. At the end of a talk, I like to refer people onto further resources. Here, I've collated some relevant resources.

(1) A 6-page general audience article that I wrote about designing educational experiences with the goal of supporting students to do things that they are proud of.

(2) A 4-page general audience article that I wrote with Gina Quan: "Creating Together in Compass: Strategies to Support Participation." We discuss the jargon buzzers idea as well as other strategies toward creating a community where we hear everyone's voice.

(3) A 15-minute podcast episode and 2-page general audience article about making research groups productive and supportive spaces.

Then, I also wanted to link to this Physics Teacher article by Johnson et al. (2017) titled, "Common Challenges Faced by Women of Color in Physics, and Actions Faculty Can Take to Minimize Those Challenges." In this article they describe, "the characteristics of a department where women of color report that they are thriving."

Designing Educational Experiences for Proudness

Today, I'm excited to be the speaker for DePaul University's Physics Department Colloquium. I'm going to talk about my research on students' experiences with challenge in college physics. I always try to share some practical resources at the end of my talk for people who are interested in further information. In this case, I wanted to share with folks this 6-page general audience article that I wrote about designing educational experiences with the goal of supporting students to do things that they are proud of. Soon, I'll also be able to share a full journal article on the research side of things!

How to Get the Most Out of Your Research Group Experience

I wrote a really short and readable two-page article on the following topic: how do we make research groups supportive spaces for feedback on work-in-progress? The article focuses on some principles that the presenter can keep in mind to get useful feedback. Below is an excerpt, or you can click here to get the full two pages. This article was originally published in the Physics Education Research Consortium of Graduate Students (PERCOGs) Newsletter. PERCOGs puts a lot of awesome things into the world - check them out!

"Flower" by Flickr User solarisgirl. CC BY-SA 2.0

"Flower" by Flickr User solarisgirl. CC BY-SA 2.0

Piecing Together Podcast: Inaugural Episode

The very first episode of the Piecing Together Podcast is here! In this episode we talk to the Functions Research Group, a mathematics education research group at the University of California, Berkeley. The group discusses some of the hard work involved in creating a supportive space where people can receive feedback on work-in-progress.

The Functions Research Group in action.

The Functions Research Group in action.

Like what you hear? Support the Piecing Together Podcast by giving us positive feedback in the comments, below, or on Twitter @PiecingAudio. You can also donate here. We're primarily a volunteer effort, so donations help a lot!

Vocalo Storytellers: Partnership Between the American Indian Center of Chicago and Northwestern University

Last Spring, I was a part of storytelling program through Vocalo, a local radio station here in Chicago. My piece was about a partnership between the American Indian Center of Chicago and Northwestern that involved tapping maple trees on campus. It was also more generally about what it means to keep culture alive while living in a city like Chicago. Last Fall, Vocalo played clips from our pieces on air. You can listen to an interview with my fellow storyteller, Ayinde, and me, here. Ayinde's piece is also really interesting and has some related themes, but if you want to skip to my part it's at 9:50.

You can also listen to the full piece here: