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.