Undergraduate Research: Critically Examine the Subjects That Interest You

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The value of original research as a learning tool cannot be overstated. Students are more likely to retain information gained from independent inquiry, examination of primary source material, and experimentation than they are in a normal classroom setting.

Lectures and textbooks are a great way to introduce new subject matter, but they are a poor substitute for hands-on learning. By incorporating research programs into undergraduate curricula, universities provide students with direct experience within their academic discipline. Performing research offers a style of engaged learning that leads to deeper knowledge, longer retention, and increased satisfaction.

While science disciplines tend to lend themselves most readily to research, programs in the humanities and arts are also increasingly offering undergraduate research opportunities. Many institutions now allow undergraduate students to access archival records, collections of sociological data, and other forms of original research.

Examples of Undergraduate Research 

  • Laboratory Classes: Students work in labs, frequently under the supervision of faculty and graduate students, to conduct experiments and write up their findings.
  • Honors Research: Honors research can be done within a structured college-wide or departmental honors program or as a series of independent honors courses. Typically students will complete a thesis under the direction of a faculty member.
  • Independent Inquiry Courses: These include organized lecture or seminar courses that require students to complete a significant independent research component within the semester.
  • Independent Study: In these courses, the research project is entirely self-directed, and the goals and format of the final project are determined collaboratively between a faculty mentor and student.
  • Methodology and Research Courses: These courses cover the form and process of conducting research in a given academic discipline, and will address issues of ethics and safety (for researchers or research subjects). Students conduct original research as part of their course requirements.
  • Senior Thesis or Capstone: Many schools require capstone projects for all graduating seniors. These programs require in-depth investigation on a question or topic related to students’ major fields, and even in the case of portfolio or performance capstones may incorporate research as part of the overall project.

What Can Students Expect?

In research programs for undergraduates, students dive into the types of questions and methodology commonly followed in their academic discipline. They will explore the types of inquiry common to their field, learn how to structure a research project and formulate questions, discover how to conduct reviews of academic literature on a topic, and practice testing a hypothesis and writing up the results. Several universities offer resources to apply for grants to fund long-term projects or creative activity, which can prepare students for that process at the graduate and professional levels. In many of these classes at the undergraduate level, students will be working together on small teams, collaborating on a project, which also teaches the value of teamwork, leadership, and communication. 

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As a consequence of taking research courses, students should gain a better understanding of their chosen field. They will also develop research skills, critical thinking and writing skills, and learn organizational and problem-solving techniques. 

How Does Undergraduate Research Improve Student Outcomes?

By working directly within an academic field, rather than relying on the work of others as distilled in a textbook or the constraints of an academic curriculum, students gain a deeper appreciation for a subject, with longer-lasting retention of information. Students gain a better appreciation for existing scholarship as they learn how to critically examine the work of others, and understand better how to work in teams when engaged in collaborative research. They then can demonstrate a mastery of the information through their own reflection and reporting of their findings. By synthesizing knowledge in final research papers and reports, they also have to understand and communicate the work of others. 

Students doing research with faculty are more likely to persist, gain more intellectually and personally, and choose research related field as a career. NSSE 2007 results show that they also more frequently used deep approaches to learning and report more learning and growth from their college years.
— NSSE Research Brief #1: Promoting High-Impact Practices: Maximizing Education Gains

Engaging in research also provides students with professional-level experience in the methodologies and processes typical in the discipline, which can inspire further study at the graduate level and aid students in determining their career direction.

How Schools Implement Undergraduate Research 

Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL

The Loyola Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (LUROP) offers undergraduate research opportunities, where students work with faculty and graduate students on projects involving original research. Within this program, students are encouraged to participate in related service learning opportunities and internships to further their knowledge and broaden their base of experience.

University of Denver, Denver CO

At the University of Denver, Partners in Scholarship (PinS) connects students and faculty for research projects. Students gain valuable research experience in their major and are mentored by a faculty mentor in their field. Examples of undergraduate research project resources include: grants for research and travel, and on-campus forums to present research before then taking work to national research symposia. 

Carthage College, Kenosha, WI

Carthage students have conducted research for NASA for eight straight years, flying in zero gravity conditions aboard NASA aircraft. The research is real, scholarly and contributes to the long-term significance of spacecraft and satellite systems design in space exploration.