Authentic undergraduate research experiences expand student possibilities

Increasingly, organizations and individuals see the benefits of engaging students in research experiences beyond the typical model of having a research assistant work on a faculty guided research. The Association of American Colleges and Universities considers research a “high impact practice” meaning. The American Psychological Association similarly values research training and literacy in undergraduate education identifying it as one of the five learning goals of the undergraduate psychology major (PDF, 477KB). Psychology students are likely to participate in at least one research experience collecting data at some point while completing their undergraduate education, and many students complete two or three required projects as part of research methods or capstone courses before they graduate. In this essay, I will only consider these required courses and not independent study courses or research assistants that work in someone else’s lab.

Historically, students were encouraged to generate a research idea and test it to the best of their ability. My own research methods experience (in 1989) was a two group between subjects design with some kind of manipulation on memory that I do not remember myself. Our quickly constructed materials were intended to emulate some interesting idea from some lecture in an interesting course. With minimal control we collected enough data to allow us to run a t-test. I remember disappointment when the findings did not support the hypothesis and frustration from entering the data repeatedly because the computer program did not save output. Of course, there was no need to save them long, there was no institutional review board (IRB) approval and there was no intention to share the findings beyond the classroom. There are parallels from my experience to course based research projects even today, but there are reasons to consider alternative research opportunities such as an authentic research project where the goal of the study is to share the information publicly.

The biggest difference between my own and present day, “learning-only” research projects is that modern students can keep their data till the end of civilization by documenting their research projects using the Open Science Framework. Otherwise, in 20 years of teaching research methods courses and talking to other methods instructors, I confidently state that students rarely generate their own compelling research questions. Generating their own research materials results rarely results in strong manipulations or sensitive measures. Their projects often have low power. Finally, because student projects only need IRB approval if they are intended for public dissemination, many schools like my own have alternative ethics reviews for classroom-only projects allowing the instructor to be the ethics officer. In contrast, students who are trying to complete an authentic research project need to meet a higher standard in all these categories because publication through peer review (even conference presentations) requires increased vigilance. When considering the range of potential publication venues, I predict that vigilance is strongly correlated with status of the potential outlet. If an instructor can stand in front of a classroom and convince students that their work might be published in the top journals, students engaged in that project will display the highest concern for their data collection.

There are multiple options for engaging students in authentic research experiences in the classroom either as an independent or guided exercise. These further vary depending on student level. Options for introductory methods students must be simpler than those for advanced methods, and capstone students should be held to even higher standards. Instructors could further invite students to generate the research question or suggest one. However, my recommendation is to engage in large scale meta-science projects designed for student participation. In guide two, the Collaborative Replications and Education Project (CREP, rhymes with grape) and the Emerging Adulthood Measured at Multiple Institutions (EAMMi) projects. Others can be found listed on The Many Lab. In contrast to locally derived research questions, these projects leverage numbers of researchers to increase statistical power.

Over the past 6 years, the initials have changed from the CURP (rhymes with burp) to the Psi Chi/Psi Beta Project, and more recently the CREP (partly sponsored by Psi Chi), but the projects were consistent. Because of these and other invitations from local researchers, my students could generate data to answer a larger question. Further, they still retained their data for the purposes of classwork and conference presentations. Each semester I can stand in front of a classroom and say, “If you complete one of these research projects, at least one PhD besides me will look at your project. There is no guarantee that the findings will get published, but they might be.” In that time, about half of my students volunteered for these projects rather than generating their own ideas. Students included both the high, medium and low performing (struggling) students. Some students used the experience to really embrace the research process while others seemed to do it to make a good impression. All of the projects were presented at a conference, some submitted for publication, some still in process, fewer published; but all of those students had a chance to engage in the process. In contrast, only a few of the other students who generated their own research ideas ever submitted to a conference and none submitted for publication.  I believe that across the board, the more they did, the more they got. I would be happy to participate in research that directly measures the extended benefits of authentic versus learning only based research projects, but for now I can only offer the repeated statements from the vast majority of students who completed these studies from my own and other institutions. They learn even more than they already do. And we know that students benefit greatly from completed undergraduate research experiences.

Re posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network.

About the Author

Jon Grahe is professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University. He received his PhD from University of Toledo. He is the president of Psi Chi and the managing executive editor of The Journal of Social Psychology. He is the principal investigator for the Collaborative Replications and Education Project (CREP) and the Emerging Adulthood Measured at Multiple Institutions (EAMMi2) project and recently coauthored a book, “Designing and Teaching Undergraduate Capstone Courses.”