Undergraduate Research: Ensuring a High-Impact and Resilient Experience for All
by Helen Walkington, Elizabeth Ackley, Jenny Olin Shanahan, Kearsley Stewart, and Eric E. Hall
In this retrospective, we review two seminal papers on undergraduate research (UR) written by David Lopatto (Lopatto 2003; 2010) and discuss the importance of these articles with regard to demonstrating the benefits of UR and the qualities that make it a high-impact experience for students (Kuh 2008). We then outline how Lopatto’s papers established a foundation for more recent work on UR mentoring, including the Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan et al. 2015; Walkington et al. 2018) for UR mentorship (see Table 1 for a brief explanation). We explain how this framework can be used to deliver high-quality mentorship to help achieve the goals of UR and how it is poised to increase student accessibility to mentored research in diverse settings. We conclude by acknowledging the contributions of Lopatto’s seminal work in guiding mentoring practice within the context of current and future challenges and opportunities in UR.
David Lopatto, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Grinnell College in Iowa, has conducted research involving over 150 colleges and universities in the United States on the correlation of UR experiences with students’ learning outcomes, skill development, career choices, and attitudes. To that end, Lopatto designed several UR surveys that are taken by 10,000 undergraduate researchers annually. The results of his research in the early 2000’s laid the groundwork for more recent understandings of high-impact mentoring practices in UR.
Table 1. Ten Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors
|1.||Do strategic pre-planning in order to readily respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.|
|2.||Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.|
|3.||Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.|
|4.||Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.|
|5.||Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.|
|6.||Dedicate time as well to one-on-one and hands-on mentoring.|
|7.||Increase student ownership of the research over time.|
|8.||Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.|
|9.||Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.|
|10.||Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.|
Lopatto’s Essential Features of UR
In 2003, Lopatto outlined in “The Essential Features of Undergraduate Research” the elements of UR experiences that contribute to student success, as perceived by faculty mentors and students involved in summer research experiences (SREs) in STEM disciplines. Faculty mentors at three selective, private colleges in the US (Grinnell, Harvey Mudd, and Wellesley) identified the “essential features” of successful UR experiences. Using a leadership-based lens from organizational psychology, Lopatto divided their responses into two categories: structure and consideration. Items in the structure category facilitate the organization of the experience, such as the mentor providing students with reading material and equipping the laboratory for student research. Items termed consideration comprise the mentor’s emotional and social support of student-researchers, including conveying a sense of care about the project and the research team and being available to and interested in students. Lopatto reported that faculty mentors considered the following structure and consideration items most important for student-researchers:
(a) reading the literature,
(b) mentor and community support,
(c) student autonomy in the design and implementation of their work; and
(d) development of professional communication skills.
Particularly interesting findings in Lopatto’s 2003 article were the convergences and divergences between those mentor results and subsequent results from student surveys. Students at four colleges (the same three from the faculty survey plus Hope College) were asked to rank 45 “essential features” of successful UR, based on what the faculty mentors had identified and a review of the literature. Both faculty and student participants highly valued
(a) learning a topic area in depth,
(b) learning to work independently; and
(c) developing career plans. (Developing career plans was ranked as the highest importance for students, who saw UR as a path to career success; it was of moderate importance for faculty).
However, faculty mentors’ assessment of the critical importance of oral and written communication skills was not shared by students. In fact, 11 of the 13 features ranked most essential by faculty were structure items; student rankings differed significantly. After career goals, students placed the greatest importance on consideration items, especially their relationship with their faculty mentor.
Lopatto’s Broader Study of UR as High-Impact Practice
In light of those early findings, Lopatto broadened his study of the essential features and benefits of UR to include students at many more institutions across the US. In his 2010 article, “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience,” Lopatto reported that his previous results regarding the myriad benefits of UR were replicated in different types of colleges and universities. He also extended the implications of his 2003 work by presenting evidence of student gains in a greater expanse of UR experiences across the disciplines and in new contexts.
Using data collected from the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) survey, Lopatto sought to extrapolate a taxonomy of benefits gleaned from summer research experiences (SREs) in STEM disciplines to other contexts, highlighting the following learning outcomes:
(a) enhanced disciplinary skills,
(b) research literacy,
(c) communication skills,
(d) professional development; and
(e) personal gains derived from engagement in a research community.
Lopatto unpacked the benefits using data from the SURE survey to illustrate the professional, personal, and cognitive benefits gained by students during intensive SREs. Rather than conclude that such benefits directly reflect the nature of UR, Lopatto suggested that the scope of those benefits might be limited by the manner in which UR experiences were designed: as intensive summer involvement in research by upper-level students in STEM with high GPAs. Lopatto acknowledged the limitations of measuring the effects of SREs on students’ personal and professional development, as student selection of an academic home and professional pathway had already been made in many of the participants’ cases.
Lopatto proposed using traditional SREs as comparative models for describing student-researchers’ learning gains in a wider variety of contexts. He described, for example, emerging trends to recruit first-year college and even high school students into UR opportunities and suggested studying those programs as a better means of understanding the influence of UR on students’ selection of a disciplinary home or career path. He also called for diversifying participation in UR by changing key elements of the traditional research community and experience. Specifically, Lopatto provided evidence that supported:
(a) the role of peer and near-peer mentors (in addition to faculty) in advancing student learning outcomes in research communities and
(b) offering UR experiences during the academic year or embedding UR in the curriculum to enhance student learning in subsequent courses.
The Evolution of UR 2010-2020
In the decade since “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience” (Lopatto 2010) was published, the practice of mentored student scholarship has expanded further into more diverse contexts, institution types, academic disciplines, and student demographics, much as Lopatto called for. Along with the work of scholars in the UK (e.g., Healey, Jenkins), Australia (e.g., Brew, Willison), and Canada (e.g., Justice, Turner, Vajoczki, Wuetherick), Lopatto’s assessment of UR programs in the US contributed to a broad understanding around the world of the role of UR in enhancing student retention and graduation, as well as the development of highly valued skills and dispositions.
Long associated with students conducting laboratory and field work in the natural and physical sciences, UR is now practiced in every field of study and in varied epistemologies. The largest and fastest growing division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is the arts and humanities. What is now often called URSCA, undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative activity comprise a diverse array of scholarly practices that are advancing knowledge and deepening engagement in the arts and humanities, sometimes in entirely new ways made possible by technology and emerging scholarly approaches, such as collaborative projects in the Digital Humanities (Crawford, Orel, and Shanahan 2014; Klos, Shanahan, and Young 2011). Interdisciplinary scholarship, such as the integration of theatre performance and the visual arts in pre-professional health UR (Stewart 2020; Stewart and Swain 2016; Stewart et al. 2018; 2019) and the study of the humanities within neuroscience UR (Knupsky and Caballero 2020) was considered beyond the reach of undergraduates until recently. Such vast disciplinary and interdisciplinary reach is perhaps the most significant change in the practice of UR in the last decade.
Research on the benefits of UR has not only demonstrated its efficacy for students in and across all fields of study at different types of institutions of higher education, but most compellingly, for students of diverse identities and demographics. Lopatto and other researchers (Brownell and Swaner 2010; Finley and McNair 2013; Kuh and O’Donnell 2013; Linn et al. 2015) have found that students from minoritized groups (students of color, indigenous students, and low-income and first-generation students) experience the greatest gains from participation in UR, from persistence and graduation, to self-efficacy, to the pursuit of graduate study. Developing research competencies in the context of supportive relationships with mentors and peers is particularly efficacious for students from minoritized groups (Shanahan 2018; Schwartz 2012). Such findings have fueled institutions’ commitments to equity and inclusion in UR, particularly in the last decade.
The value of equity in accessing UR opportunities has motivated another major shift in this high-impact practice, especially in North America: students engaging in authentic research as part of their curriculum. In the US especially, most UR funding has traditionally come from governmental organizations dedicated to the advancement of science (e.g., National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health). In a competitive grant-funding landscape, UR has typically been available to a small number of students recruited for highly selective programs; those who are offered the chance to work with a faculty mentor on grant-supported research are disproportionately from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds and have high GPAs. As a result, mentored scholarly work has often been inaccessible to students from underserved and minoritized groups who could benefit most from the experience. US government-funded programs for diversifying the STEM research community and workforce—namely, the federal TRIO programs, which include McNair Scholars—have sought to remedy the disparity and have made notable progress in the programs awarded the support (Watson 2020). Unfortunately, such support rarely extends beyond STEM disciplines and the grantee programs.
The surest means of addressing the UR equity gap across disciplines and institutions is embedding meaningful scholarly work in the curriculum, especially through course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs), which engage every student in a course in the research process. Assessment of CUREs indicates that students learn critical research skills, report excitement about the inquiry process, and demonstrate greater independence and confidence in taking on challenging assignments (Dolan 2017; Auchincloss et al. 2014). CUREs can be designed in any discipline and at various levels of the curriculum to support students’ gains in scholarly skills, more positive attitudes toward research and writing, and increasing self-reliance in academic work. At its best and most equitable, UR is fully incorporated into the curriculum, providing students with a continuum of experience, from their first to last semester, that allows them to develop the skills essential for successful research as well as an understanding and appreciation of the value and benefits of participating in research (Hensel 2018; Wuetherick, Willison, and Shanahan 2018).
Research scaffolded in the curriculum and other defining features of successful UR were explored by CUR in its 2012 publication Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (COEUR) (Hensel 2012). CUR meetings and institutes have included for many years robust offerings on scaffolding research in the curriculum, from the first to final semester. Widely utilized models from the UK, such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme project publication Developing and Enhancing Undergraduate Final-Year Projects and Dissertations (Healey et al. 2013), and Australia, especially the Research Skill Development Framework (Willison and O’Regan 2007; Willison 2018) guide faculty in redesigning curricula as progressive UR experiences for all students in their programs.
As these myriad publications have made evident, the comprehensive set of contexts, forms, and purposes associated with the concept of “undergraduate research” in the last decade refer to an entirely different educational practice than Lopatto first studied in the early 2000s. With remarkable foresight, however, Lopatto’s 2010 work accurately predicted UR’s new directions far beyond the boutique experience that a small percentage of highly successful science majors had been granted a generation ago. UR has evolved, and is expanding still, into integrated and integral aspects of higher education, with diverse types of institutions demonstrating broad-based student adoption, faculty development and advancement, and administrative leadership (Rowlett, Blockus, and Larson 2012).
Lopatto’s calls for expanding UR to more disciplines, for a greater diversity of students, and in new contexts (e.g., lower-division coursework) continue to characterize the leading edge of UR practice and scholarship. Award-winning UR mentors have called for participation of more diverse students in UR, especially students of color and first-generation and low-income students, but also academically average students (i.e., not just honors or high-achieving students) (Shanahan et al. 2017). These mentors also forecast more multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, international, and cross-institutional UR, as well as further efforts to embed UR experiences in curricula.
Establishing Mentoring Practices as Vital to High-Impact UR Experiences
By assessing the essential features and benefits of UR, Lopatto helped to establish its value as a high-impact practice that could and should reach abundantly more students. Simultaneously, Lopatto’s and many others’ research findings made clear the primacy of faculty mentors in UR. As was evident in Lopatto’s (2003, 2010) surveys of student experience and measurements of student learning outcomes, the quality and gains of UR experiences could not be separated from the competence and personal consideration of mentors.
Mentor-student relationships and mentor competencies in guiding research processes continue to be recognized as critical to successful UR experiences. Now that the benefits to students of participating in UR have been well established across institution types and demographic groups, researchers have been attending to the mentoring praxes that support the best outcomes. Vandermaas-Peeler, Miller, and Moore (2018) and the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) “How to” book series (e.g., How to Train Undergraduates in Research Integrity and the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2019) exemplify this recent shift from a focus on student learning outcomes to descriptions of how effective mentoring practices facilitate and maximize the achievement of those outcomes.
Work by Shanahan, Ackley, Hall, Stewart, and Walkington (2015) to identify the most effective and corroborated methods of UR mentors as reported in the literature, resulted in a framework known as the Ten Salient Practices of UR Mentoring. Those ten practices include both structure and consideration elements, though not as distinctly separate categories. Shanahan et al (2015) found that structure and consideration are complementary and reinforcing elements of mentor practice. For example, “strategic pre-planning” (Salient Practice 1) balances the needs of the individual student (a consideration item) with a guiding framework for the experience (a structure item); recognizing “peers and near-peers as important in building community among students” (Salient Practice 5) facilitates opportunities for mentors to establish a supportive research community (consideration item) while providing the structure necessary to engage multiple students in UR (structure item); helping students develop their own mentoring skills (Salient Practice 9) supports the development of student autonomy (consideration item) with intention and guidance (structure item). Not surprisingly, practices which require structure and consideration elements to coalesce have been deemed by UR mentors as among the most challenging practices to implement (Walkington et al. 2018). Work by Walkington, Stewart, Hall, Ackley and Shanahan (Walkington et al. 2020) interviewed 33 international mentors who had won national or institutional awards for their undergraduate research mentoring. However, a defining characteristic of the award-winning mentors who employed the salient practices was the ability to balance structure and consideration items such that a student simultaneously experienced a sense of freedom and control within the research process throughout the mentored experience.
The Ten Salient Practices framework has demonstrated efficacy in guiding mentor practice in previously understudied disciplines such as writing studies (Moore et al. 2020), dance and theatre (Shawyer et al. 2019), and education (Walkington and Rushton 2019), as well as in new contexts such as study abroad programs (Hall et al. 2018, 2020) and co-mentoring situations (Ketcham et al., 2017; 2018). Publications on CUREs and other curricular forms of UR likewise emphasize the distinctive role and praxes of the mentor (Dolan 2017; Hensel 2018; Shanahan 2012).
Mentoring Practices in the Face of Current and Future Challenges and Opportunities
The focus of academic research on UR, from initial work on reporting UR benefits, to more recent studies exploring how mentors can help bring about positive outcomes with diverse groups of students in various contexts, continues to evolve. In this context, there are ongoing efforts to identify and develop high-impact UR mentoring practices. For example, the Spring 2020 “Undergraduate Research in the 21st Century” themed issue of the journal Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research (SPUR), featured articles on how mentors can support UR across the curriculum, help undergraduate researchers leverage their UR skills for the workforce, and engage students in interdisciplinary UR. The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the majority of in-person teaching, learning, and research at colleges and universities across the world in the spring of 2020, and the likely continuation of online higher education in 2021 shows that the need for agile approaches to teaching, mentoring, and conducting scholarship is more evident than ever.
However, the pivot to online learning has undermined some of the advances in UR by cutting short and eliminating many grant-funded and even curricular opportunities. A recent survey from the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research of more than 1,500 undergraduate students found that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many to delay graduation or lose a research internship or employment, and the effect was more pronounced among lower-income students (Aucejo et al. 2020). Moreover, a series of reports by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium reported that COVID-19 differentially affected student learning based on social identity and life responsibilities, such that Black, Latinx, low-income, first-generation, and non-gender-conforming undergraduate students were significantly more likely to struggle with academic progress and had more depressive symptoms than their peers in non-minoritized groups (Chirikov et al. 2020). Other students reported that UR, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, was significantly altered, severely curtailed, or altogether cancelled during the spring and summer 2020 terms (Metzler 2020). For STEM and lab-based UR, COVID-19 forced immediate shifts in the way mentors worked with their mentees under stay-at-home orders, severely interrupting their ability to meet in-person; as a result, undergraduate students reported a significant decrease in satisfaction with their mentor as a result of the pandemic (Trego et al. 2020).
As is the case in many challenging circumstances, the current reality of a global health crisis and the resulting need for physical distancing have also led to innovation and some positive changes, including in UR. At universities where UR was already well integrated into medical research, undergraduate students were quickly incorporated in COVID-19 research teams. For example, in May 2020 at Duke University, the Bass Connections research program pivoted to support COVID-19 research; within a few months, 13 teams composed of undergraduate and graduate students, led by faculty and community members, were conducting remote COVID-19 research. At Oxford Brookes University in the UK, students, staff, and graduates have been involved in developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, working in front-line NHS roles, and conducting testing and research to understand how children’s development has been impacted by the lockdown.
UR not directly related to coronavirus research has also changed in some promising ways. At Elon University, many mentors found the remote format of the summer UR program helped flatten the mentor-mentee hierarchy, making students more willing and prepared to take ownership of their projects. Students also engaged issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their research topics as a result of high-profile racial injustices in the US and Black Lives Matter marches throughout the summer.
At other institutions, the effects of the pandemic have opened new approaches to integrating UR in the curriculum. Education majors at Bridgewater State University (BSU) have shifted their UR to studying elementary and secondary school teachers’ changes to curricula, pedagogies, and online-classroom practices for remote learning in the pandemic. As a BSU faculty survey in August 2020 indicated, course-based and co-curricular UR is taking on issues of racial justice more explicitly, and campus symposia this academic year will feature students’ anti-racist and decolonial research (Shanahan et al. in press). Similarly, at Roanoke College, research in the curriculum has proven a critical point of infiltration to begin efforts to decolonize curricula, both within and across disciplines.
The changes required to mentor UR safely and often remotely, from complete overhauls of in-person research design to countless minor adjustments in methods and habits, illustrate the importance of continuing to develop UR within the context of a rapidly evolving landscape in higher education. The early successes being reported among the many challenges to mentoring and conducting research attest both to the strength of the existing foundation of UR, and the benefits of being able to pivot quickly with flexible models and approaches.
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Helen Walkington, PhD, NTF, PFHEA is professor of higher education at Oxford Brookes University, UK, where she teaches geography and carries out research into higher education pedagogy. In 2018 she received the Taylor and Francis Award from the RGS-IBG for sustained contributions to teaching and learning in higher education. (Corresponding author: email@example.com; @ProfHWalkington)
Elizabeth Ackley, PhD, is the Brian H. Thornhill associate professor in health and human performance and director of the Center for Community Health Innovation at Roanoke College. Liz’s research focuses on the interaction between “place” and disease, and facilitating high-impact mentoring practices in translational research.
Jenny Olin Shanahan, PhD, is assistant provost for high-impact practices at Bridgewater State University, where she supports undergraduate research, the honors program, national fellowships, and a research internship program for students from underserved groups. Dr. Shanahan’s research focuses on inclusion and equity in high-impact practices for all students, especially students from underserved groups; excellence in mentoring undergraduate research and creative scholarship; and scaffolding research and inquiry across curricula.
Kearsley A. Stewart, PhD, is professor of the practice at Duke University with joint appointments in global health and cultural anthropology. Stewart’s current research interests include the ethics of HIV/AIDS clinical trials in Africa, community-engaged sickle cell disease research in Africa, global health pedagogy, and global health humanities. She is co-director of the Duke Health Humanities Lab and faculty associate with the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine. She is an award-winning educator whose classroom practice engages innovative arts-based teaching pedagogies to improve ethics health education.
Eric Hall, PhD, is a professor of exercise science at Elon University. His primary research interests are in the area of physical activity and mental health, as well as the impact of concussions in student-athletes. Additionally, he is interested in the influence of high-impact practices on student development and the role of faculty in mentorship of high-impact practices. At his institution he has received awards for his mentorship of undergraduate students and scholarship.
How to cite this CEL Retrospective:
Walkington, Helen, Elizabeth Ackley, Jenny Olin Shanahan, Kearsley Stewart, and Eric E. Hall . 2020. November 12. “Undergraduate Research: Ensuring a High-Impact and Resilient Experience for All.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog). https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/undergraduate-research-ensuring-a-high-impact-and-resilient-experience-for-all.