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Why Use Undergraduate Research Experiences?

"It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it" (Bronowski, 1975).

Undergraduate research enhances student learning and development and can also benefit faculty, institutions, and the community.

UR in Psych
Psychology students perform a content analysis of gender stereotypes in children's programming. Photo courtesy of Randolph College.

Undergraduate Research Helps Students Learn Content and Practical Skills

In an undergraduate research experience, rather than solely imparting facts about a topic to students, faculty help students learn about that topic via a process of discovery. And rather than simply telling students about how and why a given process of discovery is used in a discipline, students learn about that process by being involved in it.

Undergraduate research can be valuable to all students, not just those bound for graduate school or research-oriented jobs. We are lifelong consumers of the knowlege that comes from research. Knowing something about how research is conducted can help students develop the skills necessary to evaluate claims from research that stand to affect their day-to-day lives. Also, research experiences that require developing familiarity with special software, equipment, or techniques may be looked upon favorably by prospective employers.

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Undergraduate Research Promotes the Cognitive Development of Students

Undergraduate research helps students transition from being novice learners to expert learners. Expert learners understand how a discipline is organized, and as a result their future learning is enhanced by their ability to place new information in the context of that structure (National Research Council, 2000). Research experiences can reveal how a discipline is organized and reinforce that understanding by giving students the opportunities to use that organizational structure to ask and answer questions.

Of the three learning domains, this novice-to-expert learner feature of undergraduate research promotes the cognitive one. In an undergraduate research experience students can progress through each of Bloom's (1956) six stages of cognitive learning: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Evidence from Kardash (2000), Ishiyama (2002), Bauer and Bennett (2003), Lopatto (2003, 2004, 2006), and Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour (2006) suggests that undergraduate research experiences can promote cognitive development.

Undergraduate research also encourages metacognition, or thinking about thinking. When students understand how they learn, and how best to learn, they can enhance their own learning. Successfully developing a research plan, following it, and adapting to the challenges research presents require reflection on the part of the student about his or her own learning.

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Undergraduate Research Promotes the Affective Development of Students

Undergraduate research promotes the affective learning domain. At the low end of the affective domain is sensitivity to and tolerance for concepts. At the higher levels are: responding to ideas, valuing, organizing (connecting those values into a preexisting set) and characterizing (acting in accordance with those values). Faculty have two reasons to care about the affective domain: we want students to place what they learn in the greater context of their lives and decision-making, and we want to foster these skills to develop more responsive learners in our classrooms.

Undergraduate reseach promotes student judgment and encourages students to make meaning for themselves of what they learn. It requires students to grapple with the unknown and to draw conclusions when there may be no one unambiguously correct answer to a question or when there may be normative aspects to the evidence at hand. William Perry (1970) identified four stages of college student development: dualism, early multiplicity, late multiplicity, and contextual relativism, and Nelson's (1989) variant of this idea emphasized facilitating transitions from lower to higher levels of development. Undergraduate research can do just that-students learn that knowledge is not simply a mass of information and that answers are not simply right or wrong (dualism), but that knowledge is contextual and that careful judgment can and should be exercised when evaluating knowledge (contextual relativitism).

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Undergraduate Research Develops Sense of Self

Undergraduate research develops a student's sense of self in a variety of ways. By working on ill-structured problems under the mentorship of a faculty member, students not only gain experience working with others and working independently, but develop self-confidence, a sense of ownership of their work, and improved communication and professional skills useful beyond the academic discipline or a research environment. Undergraduate research student participants report all of these gains, as well as a stronger sense of their career and graduate school plans (see Bauer and Bennett, 2003; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, and DeAntoni, 2003; Lopatto, 2003, 2004, 2006; and Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour, 2006).

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Undergraduate Research Benefits More Than Just Students

Undergraduate research can serve faculty, institutions, and the community.

A thoughtfully-designed undergraduate research experience can help teaching complement research rather than compete with it. Faculty who participate in undergraduate research can and do co-author papers with students. And both collaborating with students and assessing student learning from undergraduate research experiences (both the final product and individual stages of the experience) can heighten a faculty member's awareness of student learning needs and outcomes, potentially improving teaching in courses that don't involve undergraduate research.

Postsecondary institutions and the community can benefit as well. Undergraduate research improves college student retention (Nagda, et al. , 1998), and community-based and campus-based research can produce outcomes that influence leaders' decision-making (Paul, 2006).

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