Strategies for Engaging Undergraduates in Research

The optimal context for students to engage in undergraduate research and creative scholarship is one that combines the settings outlined in student development theory with the structure described in the research skills development framework.  A way to align the principles of these two theories is to create a framework that categorizes undergraduate research programs, activities, and courses. Hodge, Pasquesi, and Hirsh (2007) developed a Student as Scholar Model of undergraduate education that is useful here as a framework for categorizing undergraduate research opportunities as foundation, intermediate, and advanced. A summary of these categories is offered below:

Foundation

Research programs, activities, and courses at the foundation level should be highly structured by faculty and guided by disciplinary standards. The key for success at this level is to not only have students complete simple research activities, but to have them see and understand how important rigor, academic integrity, and responsible conduct of research is at this stage.  Faculty modeling of behavior and work is crucial in this area. Other key characteristics and suggestions:

  • incorporate inquiry based learning (see Justice et al., 2007)
  • frequent and consistent feedback
  • clear directions and guidance
  • assessment of student performance that rewards effort along with outcomes
  • break down the activities into smaller components so students can understand how each step build towards a greater project

 

Intermediate

At this level, students should be ready to take more responsibility for their own learning and need less guidance, structures, and scaffolding.  The role of faculty transitions to that of facilitator when it comes to research programs, activities, and courses.  Some modeling of behaviors and activities will be needed, especially when new knowledge and techniques are introduced, but the mentoring role will be to answer questions, offer appropriate challenges, remove overly-burdensome roadblocks, and ask the right questions.

 

Advanced

Students at the advanced level are typically initiating their own research projects, with, and sometimes without, the guidance of a faculty mentor. Students that are ready for research at this level demonstrate advanced levels of specialized knowledge and research ability that they may call on to frame their research questions. Their research projects may involve critiquing existing research, discovering new information, or applying their learning into other disciplines and fields of study.

Accurately and effectively planning research and creative scholarship activities, whether it be for a program, course, or co-curricular activity, is a complex process and thus requires nuanced approaches.  Rarely can the same methods be used without making adjustments – best practices are good for guidance, but should not be used wholesale.  It requires understanding the characteristics of your student population, the minimum knowledge, skills, and abilities required to assist with and/or conduct the research, and creating structures that account for student development and research skills development.

Conclusions

The framework outlined above is instructive for developing appropriate strategies to engage undergraduate students in undergraduate research and creative scholarship. Up to this point we purposefully haven’t offered any models of undergraduate research because too often models and best practices can stifle innovation and strategic thinking when referenced right away.  However, after a foundation of knowledge is acquired models can be useful tools, therefore, the next section will look at some common models of undergraduate research and creative scholarship.

Next – Models of Undergraduate Research

References

Hodge, D., Pasquesi, K. and Hirsh, M. (2007) From convocation to capstone: developing the student as scholar. Keynote address at the Association of American Colleges and Universities Network for Academic Renewal Conference, April 19-21, Long Beach, California.

Justice, C., Rice, J., Warry, W., Inglis, S., Miller, S., and Sammon, S. (2007). Inquiry in higher education: Reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods.  Innovative Higher Education, 31(4), 201-214.