Undergraduate Research

Definition

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as: “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Similarly, Kinkead (2003) notes that Undergraduate Research (UR) can include scientific inquiry, creative activity, and scholarship that produces original work.

Defining Characteristics of UR:

  • UR often occurs outside of class (Kinkead, 2003) and enhances classroom learning (Salsman et al., 2013). It typically occurs over a long period of time (Zimbardi & Myatt, 2012).
  • UR involves a mentor who is usually a faculty member. Mentors can also be graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, or upper-level undergraduate peer mentors (Webber, Nelson Laird, & BrckaLorenz, 2013). The mentor guides the student in this experience, sometimes using an apprenticeship model (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012) or as co-learners or explorers (Vandermaas-Peeler, Miller, & Peeples, 2015).
  • Students are actively engaged in research rather than passively receiving research. Further, the answers to the research question or creative pathway are typically unknown to either student or mentor (Zimbardi & Myatt, 2012). The results or product are usually disseminated (Salsman et al., 2013).

What makes it a high-impact practice?

UR is a high-impact practice because it involves deep learning and can benefit students across disciplines (Brewer, Dewhurst, & Doran, 2012; Craney et al., 2011; Kilgo, Ezell Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015; Kuh, 2008). Studies on student and faculty perceptions as well as student performance on skill tests show that UR benefits students in many ways.

Undergraduate research increases academic skills, including:

  • Research skills. These include science, math, logic, and problem-solving skills (Bauer & Bennett, 2003) and experimental skills like design, data collection, data analysis, understanding of limitations, and research ethics (John & Creighton, 2012; Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007). Students also learn how to seek out and consume the relevant literature and learn the disciplinary language (Bauer & Bennett, 2003).
  • Communication skills. Students improve their oral, written, and visual communication skills (Bauer & Bennett, 2003).
  • Critical thinking. Students show gains in their critical thinking skills (Kilgo, Ezell Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015; Kuh et al., 2007; Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012).

Undergraduate research positively affects professional growth and development, as it:

  • Provides a stronger sense of professional identity, such as “feeling like a scientist” (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004).
  • Connects students to a community of practice, including the mentor, other faculty, and professionals outside of the university (John & Creighton, 2012; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004).
  • Encourages the ability to persist even if faced with setbacks (Hu, Kuh, & Gayles, 2007; Lopatto, 2007).
  • Increases interest in graduate school and pursuing doctoral degrees (Bauer & Bennett, 2003; Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007)
  • Predicts graduate school success (Gilmore, Vieyra, Timmerman, Feldon, & Maher, 2015; Nnadozie, Ishiyama, & Chon, 2001).
  • Helps with career and academic major clarification (Yaffe, Bender, & Sechrest, 2014; Seymour et al., 2004).

Undergraduate research positively influences psychosocial development, since it:

  • Increases confidence and self-efficacy and need for cognition (enjoying deep thinking, Kilgo, Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015)
  • Increases intercultural competence (Giedt, Gokcek, & Ghosh, 2015; Kilgo et al., 2015).

University research also increases affinity for the university as it:

  • Increases student retention by making students feel more connected to their educational experience (Kinkead, 2003).
  • Increases personal satisfaction with undergraduate experience in general (Bauer & Bennett, 2005).

Good practices in high-impact Undergraduate Research

The institution should have a culture that is supportive of UR (Baker et al., 2015; Kuh, 1995). The Council on Undergraduate Research outlined what institutions can do to support high quality UR when they released a report titled: the Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (COEUR, Hensel, 2012).

At the level of the student and mentor, UR should:

  • Involve mutual engagement in research by both faculty and students
    • Students are active participants who gain a sense of ownership over the project (John & Creighton, 2012; Shanahan et al., 2015).
    • Students are involved in all aspects of the research process so that they have the ability to develop skills in multiple areas (Kuh & O’Donell, 2013).
    • Students gain a sense of belonging to a community of practice by engaging with others in the discipline (John & Creighton, 2012; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004; Shanahan et al., 2015).
  • Include a quality mentoring relationship that includes dedicated one-on-one time and clear expectations for students (Craney et al., 2011; Kilgo, Ezell Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015; Lopatto, 2007; Olin Shanahan et al., 2015; Taraban, & Logue, 2012).
    • UR is a scaffolded experience where students are first taught key skills, moving toward autonomy in later parts of the endeavor (Bauer & Bennett, 2003; Gilmore et al., 2015; Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012; Shanahan et al., 2015).
    • At the same time, faculty should also pay attention to psychosocial needs (Vandermaas-Peeler, Miller, & Peeples, 2015).
  • Occur over a lengthy period of time, often over multiple semesters or a summer (Bauer & Bennett, 2003; Gilmore et al., 2015; Johnson et al., 2015; Salsman et al., 2013; Zimbardi & Myatt, 2012). The more time students spend on research, the more they benefit (Salsman et al., 2015; Taraban & Logue, 2012).
  • Engage students in an authentic research question or creative endeavor. The answer to the research question or the creative path is unknown (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012; Zimbardi & Myatt, 2012). This must be a “real research question” that is also accessible to students (John & Creighton, 2013; Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012).

At the institutional level, UR should involve:

  • A supportive campus mission and culture (e.g., Committed faculty and institution, broad disciplinary participation)
  • Administrative support (e.g., Faculty reassigned time, UR program office, travel funding)
  • Research infrastructure (e.g., Space, equipment, library resources)
  • Professional development opportunities (e.g., Research leaves, mentorship training)
  • Recognition (e.g., Promotion and tenure, faculty awards, salary reviews)
  • External funding
  • Dissemination
  • Student-centered issues (e.g., Opportunities for early involvement, peer mentoring opportunities)
  • Curriculum (e.g., Student course credit for research, course scheduling (e.g., double-prep), and managing faculty teaching loads)
  • A summer research program (e.g., Student and faculty compensation, symposia)
  • Program assessment
  • Strategic planning

Questions

Under-researched aspects

  • Inter-disciplinary research. Different disciplines lead to different UR experiences (e.g., basic versus applied research questions), but mixed models can also occur within disciplines (Zimbardi & Myatt, 2014) or in interdisciplinary areas (Lopatto, 2010). Interdisciplinary research can promote integrative thinking and can move students and faculty away from disciplinary “silos” (Davis et al., 2015; Zimbardi & Myatt, 2014). How does UR look in interdisciplinary fields?
  • Consortia. Crossing disciplinary boundaries is important, as is promoting collaborations across university campuses. How do UR collaboratives across campuses in the same university consortium work and can they expose students to new ideas and experiences (Gagliardi et al., 2015)?
  • Promoting diversity. Interactions with faculty can aid student learning in under-represented groups and in some cases underrepresented students make more academic gains than controls (Lopatto, 2007; Lundberg & Schreiner, 2004). How can institutions encourage participation in UR from historically under-represented groups (Behar-Horenstein, Roberts, & Dix, 2010; Ishiyama, 2007; Kinkead, 2003; Nnadozie et al., 2001)?
  • Mentoring. The Center for Engaged Learning’s research seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research is addressing the gap in research on mentoring UR. Mentoring structures that include multiple mentors and peer mentors traditionally have been understudied (Lopatto, 2010; Packard et al., 2014). How are universities evaluating UR mentoring by faculty? How do faculty find the time needed to invest in high-quality UR mentoring (Evans, 2010)? What mentoring factors most strongly influence student learning (Lopatto, 2007)?
  • Supply/demand. Are universities meeting the UR demands of students (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012)? CURE (Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience) may expose more students to UR but more research needs to be done on CUREs’ effectiveness and feasibility (Lopatto, 2010; Lopatto et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2015). How can UR be accomplished online and how does it affect learning outcomes (Shanahan et al., 2015)?
  • Social sciences and humanities. There is a lot of research on STEM disciplines, but more UR research is needed in the social sciences and particularly the humanities (Craney et al., 2011; Davis et al., 2015; Ishiyama, 2002).

Controversies

  • Faculty support. Some faculty are compensated for UR and others are not (Baker et al., 2015), and some faculty are hesitant to take part in UR because of a lack of time (Johnson et al., 2015; Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012; Vandermaas-Peeler, Miller, & Peeples, 2015). How can we give faculty the time to engage in UR while also rewarding them for their efforts?
  • Recognition. In some schools UR is valued more than others in the promotion and tenure process (Baker et al., 2015; Johnson et al., 2015; Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012). Many institutions struggle with ways to evaluate faculty work in UR (Evans, 2010). How can UR mentoring be evaluated and recognized?
  • Teaching or scholarship. There is a tension between whether UR is scholarship for faculty or an educational experience for students (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012). This relates to the difficult balance between having students engage in authentic research questions developed in collaboration with faculty or having them design their own research question (Behar-Horenstein, Roberts, & Dix, 2010; Zimbardi & Myatt, 2014). Is one approach better than the other or do both work in different contexts or with different students?
  • GPAs. There is a tension between choosing students with high GPAs versus students with lower GPAs (Taraban & Logue, 2012). Generally, surveys show that most students who engage in UR are those with higher grades (Webber, Laird, BrckaLorenz, 2013). Is the goal of UR to help honors students get into graduate school or to help less high-achieving students get the most out of their undergraduate degrees?
  • Team Mentoring. In some disciplines there is a team approach to mentoring. Teams can allow undergraduates to talk with many people working on the research task and can promote a community of practice (John & Creighton, 2012; Shanahan et al., 2015). However, undergraduate students can also feel second-best to graduate students who often get the mentor’s attention (Lopatto, 2007; Webber, Laird, BrckaLorenz, 2013). How can undergraduates get the most out of their UR experiences in team environments?
  • Direct versus indirect research measures. Much of the research has focused on self-reported attitudes and beliefs rather than more direct/behavioral measures (e.g., what specifically do good mentors actually do; what skills do students actually possess pre- and post- experience, Gilmore et al., 2015; Ishiyama, 2002). Finding a way to assess students across different research projects or different disciplines is difficult. Most researchers rely on a more indirect assessment of student learning, particularly when it comes to measuring psychosocial development (e.g., attitude toward research, maturity, Lopatto, 2007).

Boundaries or Intersections

Undergraduate research can move beyond the campus and enter more applied settings via community-based studies and study abroad. Another interesting intersection is with learning communities. Students live on campus with other students who are also engaging in UR, creating a community of practice on campus.

  • Community-Based UR and Study Abroad UR:
    • Moving away from campus can make the research “messier and less predictable” and can require a lot of pre-planning (Gustafson & Cureton, 2014, p. 59). Critical reflection and the ability to be flexible are key (Gustafson & Cureton, 2014; Houser, Cahill, & Lemmons, 2014).
    • Community-based undergraduate research that clearly brings student learning off-campus can help students apply theory to the real world (Cooke & Thorme, 2011; Gustafson & Cureton, 2013). Students will often work with a community partner on a research project. Students will need to learn skills in maintaining that partnership over time (Cooke & Thorme, 2011).
    • More students are engaging in UR while abroad than ever before (Giedt, Gokcek, & Ghosh, 2015). In some cases, the students study abroad on their own while the mentor remains on campus. The distance from the mentor can pose logistical challenges, and students also need to work to find time for their research (Gustafson & Cureton, 2013). In other models, students and faculty conduct research together while abroad. Here, students may come from the home institution of the faculty member or have been recruited at the national level as occurs in international Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). While more research needs to be done on international UR, it appears that students benefit from these experiences in much the same way as they do at home (e.g., learning how to conduct scientific experiment). Some of the same challenges from on-campus UR still exist (e.g., wanting more time with mentor, Gustafson & Cureton, 2013; Houser, Cahill, & Lemmons, 2014). There are also unique benefits to international UR, like linguistic and cross-cultural competence (Giedt, Gokcek, & Ghosh, 2015).
  • UR Learning Communities: On-campus opportunities for engaging more students in research can happen in learning communities. One university exposed first-year students to research through a learning community where each faculty member worked with one or two students (Kaul & Pratt, 2010). All students met regularly with faculty mentors, accomplished assigned research tasks, took part in a 1 credit hour course with peers, and provided a tangible outcome at the end of the semester (e.g., oral presentation). Students also attended faculty-led research presentations. UR Learning Communities provide students with a community of practice that encourages deep engagement and inquiry and often gets students involved in UR much earlier in their undergraduate careers.

Key Scholarship

Lopatto, D. (2010). Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience. Peer Review, 12, .

Lopatto (2010) described the benefits of UR and that standardized measures of those benefits can be accomplished using online assessments like the SURE survey. He also discussed the importance of a research community that can include peer mentors. The author also focused on the importance of integrating UR into the curriculum during the academic year. One potential model is CURE. He concluded with a discussion of future directions that includes interdisciplinary research.


Bauer, K. W. Bennett, J. S. (2003). Alumni perceptions used to assess undergraduate research experience. The Journal of Higher Education, 74, 210-230. doi: 10.1353/jhe.2003.0011

Past studies have examined current students’ perceptions of UR. These authors asked University of Delaware alumni about their participation in a number of campus activities, including UR. They were asked to rate whether their skills were enhanced because of their undergraduate degree on 32 items (e.g., write effectively, use statistics or math formulas, carry out research, maintain openness to new ideas, etc.). Some participants had participated in the university’s formal UR program (URP alumni), some stated they had engaged in UR but were not in the formal program (self-reported UR), and some had not engaged in UR (non-research alumni). URP alumni reported the most benefits from engaging in UR when compared to the other two groups, particularly for those who had completed a senior thesis. Both research groups stated that they were better able to carry out research than the non-research alumni group, with the highest scores from the URP alumni. URP alumni also scored higher than non-research alumni on other skills like intellectual curiosity, acquiring information independently, acting as a leader, and speaking effectively. For all alumni who engaged in research, those who participated for longer expressed greater benefit from the experience. UR had clear benefits for students as measured by their attitudes and self-reported skills.


Gilmore, J. Vieyra, M. Timmerman, B. Feldon, D. Maher, M. (2015). The relationship between undergraduate research participation and subsequent research performance of early career STEM graduate students. The Journal of Higher Education, 86, 834-863.

While many studies on the benefits of UR have used self-report measures, this study used research skill performance in graduate school as its main measure. All students were first year graduate students in a STEM program. They wrote research proposals at the beginning and end of their first year of graduate school. Some of these students had engaged in UR as undergraduates and some had not. Two trained raters independently evaluated the proposals using a pre-established rubric (composed of four subscales) and inter-rater reliability was high. On the pre-proposal, students with UR experience outperformed those without UR experience on 3 of the 4 subscales (Data Presentation, Results, Total Score). On the post-proposal, students with UR also outperformed the other group on all parts of the rubric except Introduction and Context. The authors underscored the importance of UR for successful graduate school performance.


Kinkead, J. (2003). Learning through inquiry: An overview of undergraduate research. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 93, 5-17.

Kinkead (2003) defined UR, explored its importance in the undergraduate experience, and identified key UR programs at various institutions. She noted that although the elite students (honors) are typically engaged in UR, at risk and underrepresented students also benefit from engaging in UR. Kinkead (2003) also discussed institutional UR issues like administration, funding, and resources.


Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6, 297-306. doi: 10.1187/cbe.07-06-0039

Students engaging in summer research completed the SURE (Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences) and an altered version again 9 months later to see if their perceptions changed over time. Students reported similar gains on both surveys on items like understanding of the research process and readiness for more demanding research. Some participants engaged in summer research programs away from their home institutions. These students reported higher scores on clarifying their career path, science writing skills, and self-confidence. These students were also more likely to finish their research project in the summer when compared to students who stayed at their own campus. Minority students reported similar gains (if not greater gains) than other students. Further, a comparison of summer survey and follow-up survey results showed that student perceptions were stable over time. The author concluded with a discussion of methodological issues in UR research.


Olin Shanahan, J. Ackley-Holbrook, E. Hall, E. Stewart, K. Walkington, H. (2015). Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentors: A review of the literature. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 23, 359-376. doi: 10.1080/13611267.2015.1126162

The authors conducted a literature review that focused on UR mentors’ practices. They wanted to know what effective mentorship looks like, because mentorship is the basis for successful UR. They described ten salient mentoring practices: strategic pre-planning; clear and well-scaffolded expectations; teach technical skills, method, and techniques; balance rigorous expectations with emotional support; build community among team members; dedicate time to one-on-one mentoring; increase student ownership over time; support student professional development; create opportunities for peer-mentoring; and guide students through dissemination.


Russell, S. H. Hancock, M. P. McCullough, J. (2007). Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316, 548-549.

The authors’ paper focused on UR in the sciences and included surveys of 15,000 students and mentors. They found that UR students are demographically diverse, are mostly juniors and seniors, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to want to obtain a higher degree than non-researchers. The authors described several positive outcomes of engaging in UR, including increased confidence and a clarified interest in STEM.


Seymour, E. Hunter, A. B. Laursen, S. L. Deantoni, T. (2004). Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three year study. Science Education, 88, 493-534. doi: 10.1002/sce.10131

The authors studied the costs and benefits of engaging in UR. The student participants were engaged in a summer research program for rising seniors at one of four liberal arts institutions. Students were positive about their experiences. The largest reported gains were in confidence at working as a scientist. Students noted that their research and problem-solving skills were enhanced as was their disciplinary knowledge. Many students also discussed large improvement in their communication and lab skills. Students valued the time with their mentors as well as working with other colleagues. Several also gained clarity regarding their career pathway and felt better prepared for graduate school. The authors also discussed their plans for further research with these data.


Taraban, R. Rogue, E. (2012). Academic factors that affect undergraduate research experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 499-514. doi: 10.1037/a0026851

These researchers used the Undergraduate Research Questionnaire (URQ) to assess the cognitive benefits of engaging in UR. The URQ’s subscales are Academic Mindset, Research Mindset, Research Methods, Faculty Support, and Peer Support. Biology and psychology students participated in the study. More research hours and lab course credits were related with higher enthusiasm for research. The frequency of faculty hours also mattered. More hours meeting with faculty was related to higher scores on Research Mindset and Research Methods. GPA also predicted scores on all five subscales, indicating that students with higher GPAs benefited more than those with lower GPAs. The authors conclude that we need to pay attention to student differences in UR.


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Model Programs

The National Science Foundation gave Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) to ten research-intensive universities:

 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has given grants to several universities to support their UR programs:

 

US News & World Report Ranks Colleges Based on Their Undergraduate Research Programs (2015):


Undergraduate Research in SoTL as a High-Impact Practice

by Jessie L. Moore The 2016 Pre-ISSOTL Council of Undergraduate Research Symposium challenged participants to consider the intersections between Undergraduate Research (UR) and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Although some might suggest that work at this intersection is underdeveloped and …


George D. Kuh

George Kuh on High Impact Undergraduate Inquiry

On July 25, 2016, George Kuh presented at the Center’s Conference on Excellent Practices in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. His closing keynote (video below) focused on “Ensuring that Undergraduate Inquiry is a High Quality High-Impact Practice.”


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Undergraduate Research

Reference List

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The Center thanks Meredith Allison for contributing the initial content for this resource.