Structure the Critical Elements

Initial Publication Date: July 30, 2010

For students to participate meaningfully in the creation of knowledge and to realize the full benefits of the endeavor, an undergraduate research experience must generate in students a true sense of ownership of the project. This means that students should have some influence over the venture. Practical considerations may limit the openness of different stages of the research process to the student, but thoughtful reflection on features of inquiry, as well as on your choice of learning objectives and project form and intensity can help inform your judgment of where to provide the best structure for your students while also ensuring their sense of ownership in the work.

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Consider the Features of Inquiry and Your Learning Objectives

The National Research Council (2000) identifies five essential features of classroom inquiry. Reproduced from their report Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, they are:

  1. Learner engages in scientificially oriented questions.
  2. Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions.
  3. Learner formulates explanations from evidence.
  4. Learner connects explanations to scientific evidence.
  5. Learner communicates and justifies explanations.

Consider how these forms of inquiry are aligned with the steps of the research process, and recall the weight you chose to give to each step when you identified your learning objectives. Table 2-6 of the report explains how you can vary the level of structure you provide for each of these five features. Consider it a menu of options you can match to your learning objectives. For instance, consider the first feature. Do you want your students to learn to frame research questions for themselves, to refine a broad one you have provided, or to stick to a specific question you have chosen - but to have a sophisticated understanding of why it is clear and worthy of investigation? Answer this, and then consider the second feature. Proceeding in this way will help you identify what aspects of the project to structure tightly for your student and which to leave more open to them. It will also help you identify the where and how to support your students with time, resources, and educational scaffolding.

Recall Your Selection of Form and Intensity

Your selection of the form and intensity of your undergraduate research experience can also help you identify ways to structure the project to promote learning without compromising a student's ownership of the research experience.

Here's an example: If you are bringing students into a work-in-progress, understand they they will need to know the stage at which they are entering the project. They will need time and resources to familiarize themselves with the work done to date, but will also need time to make their own contributions as well. Here, incoming students may not participate in the actual process of writing a literature review, but will need to familiarize themselves with the relevant literature. If other students were involved in earlier stages of the project, they can serve as peer mentors to the new students, familiarizing them with the background for the project and assisting in training needed for any equipment or techniques. This approach has the additional advantage of giving veteran students on the project practice communicating with others about their research.

For some undergraduate research experiences, you may find it valuable to delineate responsibilities with an undergraduate research student contract (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jul14 10).

Lean on Supporting Pedagogical Practices

Several of the innovative pedagogical practices described in the Starting Point project can help you develop means to assist students in stages of the undergraduate research experience. If you've identified the levels of direction and structure you wish to give to each stage of an undergraduate research experience and are developing ideas for how to best provide them, perhaps some of undergraduate research's related and supporting practices can offer some guidance.