Set Expectations

Initial Publication Date: July 30, 2010

Undergraduate research involves students in the creation of knowledge, requiring them to deal with ill-structured problems. To prepare them for this and other realities of the research process, it is important to help them anticipate the ways in which this type of learning experience differs from many others and offer some tips for success. It's also important to anticipate what may be different for you as well.


Set Their Expectations

There are a number of things it may be helpful to make and keep your students aware of during an undergraduate research experience, some more relevant to certain forms of undergraduate research than others. Here are a few, all related to one another:

  • Research takes time and planning. Students may know the steps of the research process, but until they engage in research themselves, they may not have a sense of the time each step takes. And previous assignments pertaining to research steps may have been more or less directed than their counterparts in your project. If students are working on an empirical project and have only ever worked with existing datasets, if they will be consutructing their own, it's helpful for them to know about the time and energy involved. If a project involves human subjects and you want your students to have the experience of getting Institutional Review Board approval (rather than your obtaining it in advance), you'll want them to know to plan time for their project to be reviewed and approved.
  • Research is an iterative process. Some of the time spent doing research is time spent on trial-and-error, doubling-back, and repetition. It is important for students to recognize the importance of this and the need to make time for it.
  • There's value to talking about and participating in works in progress. Research is the creation of knowledge, meaning knowledge itself is a work in progress. It's good for students to know this. Students will likely end their research experience with criticisms of their own work and ideas for project enhancements and improvements. In addition, the project itself may or may not wrap-up at the conclusion of any one student's participation. Help students anticipate this and see the value of the work they are doing--many other educational experiences and means of assessment condition students to see their final work (a test, a paper) as shutting a door on a conversation about a topic rather than opening one up or continuing one.
  • Research requires grappling with ambiguity. In an undergraduate research experience, the types of questions that arise are not always those whose answers are tucked away in instructors' file cabinets. And research sometimes requires students to draw conclusions when there may be no one unambiguously correct answer or when normative elements exist.
  • Teamwork and collaboration require effort and respect. Talk to your students about the role of interpersonal skills in facilitating work. And for tips on making group interactions successful, peruse the Starting Point module on cooperative learning.

Other tips for students are available at WebGURU, an online student guide to undergraduate research. While directed at students in STEM disciplines, many of its suggestions are relevant to students conducting undergraduate research in other disciplines as well.

Set Your Expectations

It's helpful to remember the five points above for your own sake, too.

  1. Research takes time and planning. Decide what aspects of planning you wish to do for your students and which you wish to do alongside them, and budget time for both instruction and collaboration.
  2. Research is an iterative process. Make time for this and understand that your students may need your help in determining when to visit or revisit a stage in the process.
  3. There's value to talking about and participating in works in progress. Your undergraduate research experience will give you many, many opportunities to reflect on both your research project and your own teaching and mentoring. Embrace this, and don't be afraid to let your students see you embrace it.
  4. Research requires grappling with ambiguity. Undergraduate research sometimes puts you in situations where you don't have the one right answer for your students--either right away or later. Make peace with this. Many questions in research--and in life- don't have cut-and-dried answers, and it may be useful for our students to understand that we know this ourselves.
  5. Teamwork and collaboration require effort and respect. You're a collaborator, so let your students see your effort and the respect you have for both them and the project.