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How to Engage Undergraduates in Research

"Why not have all incoming students join with the faculty right away as young scholars in the discovery of knowledge, in the integration of knowledge, in the application of knowledge, and in the communication of knowledge? Why not have these four dimensions of scholarship become the four essential goals of undergraduate education?" (Boyer, 1997, p. 79).

Like research itself, planning undergraduate research experiences involves creativity, attention to process, and flexibility. As a form of inquiry-based learning, undergraduate research experiences require faculty to prioritize facilitating the discovery of knowledge on the part of students over imparting existing knowledge directly. Here are some key steps in creating a successful undergraduate research experience for you and your students.

Undergraduate Research in Psychology
A faculty member and students explore finger length ratio as a predictor of individual difference variables. Photo courtesy of Randolph College.

Identify Learning Objectives

Undergraduate research experiences engage students in the creation of knowledge, which to some may be motivation alone for such experiences. As a pedagogical practice, though, undergraduate research has an added benefit-it can be a tool for achieving a number of learning objectives, and in a way that often demonstrates their relationships to one another. Because there are so many forms and levels of undergraduate research experiences, to choose among them you must reflect on what you want your students to learn and the weight you wish to give to each learning goal. For instance, in an intermediate-level course, how much attention do you want to give to having students identify research questions and hypotheses on their own relative to collecting and interpreting data to test those hypotheses? Decide on your learning objectives before you decide on the form and intensity of an undergraduate research experience.

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Choose the Form and Intensity of the Undergraduate Research Experience

Undergraduate research experiences can vary in both form and intensity. When they are structured properly, class-based activities (naturalistic observation, surveys, quantitative writing assignments, and experiments) can be undergraduate research experiences. So can class-based research projects (term papers, service learning, community-based and campus-based learning), capstone experiences (senior and honors theses), and out-of-class student/faculty collaborative research (like summer research experiences). For each of these forms of undergraduate research experiences, you can use your identified learning objectives to determine the intensity of both the overall research experience and of each of its parts.

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Determine Project Needs

Some undergraduate research projects require or benefit from special materials and resources. For instance, field work projects may involve off-campus travel. For campus- and community-based research projects, students may better understand the context and relevance of assignments when they have opportunities to meet and interview those organizations and communities who stand to be affected or served by the research. Other projects may require the use of laboratory equipment. Some projects may be best managed when class size is limited and/or when the class meets once a week for a long period rather than three times a week for shorter periods. Not all needs come at a financial cost, but perhaps there are internal or external funding options for any of yours that may.

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Set Expectations-Yours and Theirs

Since undergraduate research teaches disciplinary practice, it is as critical to prepare students to both expect and tackle the real-world challenges of the research process as it is to set expectations about outcomes. Undergraduate research requires students to deal with ill-structured problems. While faculty may have lots of experience dealing with ill-structured problems in their own research, students rarely see evidence of this in traditional chalk-and-talk classroom environments. To maximize the benefits of an undergraduate research experience, it's important to condition students to the fact that research is an iterative process that involves grappling with uncertainty.

For faculty, the process of developing an undergraduate research experience for students can often feel like an ill-structured problem of its own. For undergraduate research experiences to be successful, it is critical that faculty and students identify and communicate what is different about this learning experience.

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Structure the Critical Elements

While experiencing triumphs and pitfalls is common to doing research (and learning that fact can be a goal of its own), research in your discipline does follow a process, and this process suggests a variety of ways to offer structure to an undergraduate research experience so it can be successful.

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Provide the Right Support

While it is important to the success of an undergraduate research experience to set expectations about the real-world challenges of the research process, it is also important to ensure that students have the right support for dealing with those challenges. Furthermore, undergraduate research involves student-faculty collaboration and sometimes also student-student collaboration, and these types of partnerships may be new to students. For a given research project, you'll want to identify the parts of the experience for which students are most likely to need support and design ways to make the sources of that support transparent and accessible to them. Fortunately, there are many existing support practices and support structures that you can use.

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Assess the Experience

You need to assess the undergraduate research experience at several stages and in several ways to fully understand the nature and extent of student learning and to reflect on and refine the way your use this pedagogy. If your students are participating in a work-in-progress, you'll want to determine the quality of and progress on the project to date so you can explore the best ways to extend and improve it. From short-step assignments to research proposals and papers and informal written reflection pieces, there are a number of ways to assess the overall undergraduate research experience as well as individual parts of it.

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Further the Experience

There are many ways for both you and your students to further your involvement in undergraduate research. Perhaps you both wish to disseminate or extend your work. Professionals present and publish their research, and so can students-even beyond their own campuses! There are numerous resources for students and faculty who wish to publish or present research. Also, for undergraduate research experiences that are parts of a work-in-progress, one can think about ways to advance the project by dealing with its next stages in other learning environments. For instance, a student who started an undergraduate research project in a service-learning course could finish it in an honors or independent study experience in a subsequent semester. There are a number of organizations, opportunities, and programs available to support and inform faculty and students engaged in undergraduate research.

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