Departmental Best Practices
Follow the guidelines below to encourage a positive culture of undergraduate research in your department:
Building Departmental Culture for Student Research
1. Discuss with faculty how student involvement in research relates to department goals
Faculty will be more motivated to engage in student research if they see the value of the activity either for the field, the department, or themselves.
- What possibilities are there for student research to help faculty advance their own research agendas?
- Does student research teach skills that are of value to your major and/or to the employers who seek out your students?
- Do you want undergraduates to engage in research so that you can identify those best suited for your PhD program?
2. Define what you mean by student research
What does it mean to “do research” in your field? Research involvement can be thought of as a skill progression from exposure, to experience, to expertise:
- At the exposure level, students develop component skills, such as quantitative literacy, through general education courses outside the major and engage with the research literature in content courses within the major. At this level, students gain an awareness of a few types of research questions and methods, but have a narrow view of research in the field and limited hands-on experience.
- At the experience level, students gain a broader and deeper understanding of research. For example, they may take a research methods course, shadow someone who works in a lab, or write a literature review. At this level, students expand their ability to think like a researcher and carry out many steps of the research process in their discipline, even if they don't bring the project to full completion.
- At the expertise level, students conduct a mentored individual or classroom-based research project where they gain hands-on involvement with all or most of the steps in a research project. At this level, they become a novice researcher.
As a department, it's important for you to decide which level is feasible and desirable for most students in your major to reach. Setting clear goals about how many students you would like to see at each level of this continuum will guide your decisions about research in the curriculum and how to support faculty who are mentoring students outside of class.
- What level (exposure, experience, or expertise) would the department like most students in your discipline to reach?
- What level of research involvement is feasible, in terms of resources, space, and faculty time? How many students could the department reasonably accommodate at each level?
3. Incorporate research into the undergraduate curriculum
Strategically incorporating research into the curriculum can be a time-effective way to introduce a larger number of students to research. Having students practice research skills in lower-level classes makes capstone research projects more feasible and better prepares students to undertake research projects that are mentored outside the classroom. You department might consider making a research skills curriculum for undergraduates that corresponds with the overall learning outcomes for the major. Facilitate conversations among faculty who teach classes at different levels to decide which research skills are important to introduce, practice, and master at different levels in the curriculum.
- What research skills and dispositions are important for students in the major? What research skills and dispositions are important for non-majors taking classes in your department?
- What avenues (undergraduate studies committee, departmental teaching colloquia, etc.) are there for current collaboration among instructors on department-wide teaching conversations and initiatives?
- Which research skills and dispositions do the instructors of students "downstream," such as capstone research projects or faculty mentors of undergraduate researchers, wish their students had more practice with? How could you incorporate this into earlier courses?
- Graduate Research Consultants: these graduate students provide additional support to faculty wanting to incorporate research into their classes.
- Research Bytes: these short videos provide a basic overview of specific research skills. Many of them have accompanying worksheets, and would be a good tool to supplement instruction in the class where the skill is introduced, serve as a reminder for a skill learned in an earlier class, or get non-majors caught up on skills required for upper-level classes.
4. Faculty recognition
Review your department’s annual faculty evaluation plan, your department’s promotion and tenure document, and your department’s post-tenure review document to determine whether faculty are asked to report their involvement in student research and whether this is appropriately taken into account when evaluating faculty. Revise your documents accordingly if they do not reflect the value of student involvement in research. Be sure that new faculty in the department are aware of how mentoring undergraduate researchers will count toward promotion and tenure requirements.
In addition, consider nominating your faculty for research mentoring awards and/or consider creating an internal award to recognize your faculty’s efforts.
- Is there a clear place where faculty should report mentoring undergraduate researchers in your department's evaluation documents?
- How is undergraduate research mentoring reported to the department? Should the report be quantitative (i.e. number of students), qualitative (evidence of student outcomes), or both?
- Does your disciplinary society have awards for mentoring undergraduate researchers? Who is in charge of nominating faculty for these types of awards?
- Faculty mentoring award: K. Barbara Schowen Undergraduate Research Mentor Award
- Grad student/ staff award: Undergraduate Research Mentor Award
5. Tracking and evaluating student research involvement
Given that you have likely decided that student research involvement has value to your department and your students, you will likely want to track that involvement and document student outcomes. This indicates the need to evaluate both the quantity of student involvement in research as well as the quality of student involvement. There are a variety of options for tracking data about student learning:
- Course enrollment: the number of students participating in undergraduate research can be easy to track if student research involvement is tied to a course or individual enrollment. In this situation, you can simply pull the enrollment numbers from enroll and pay each semester and examine trends and changes in student research involvement over time.
- PRO system: If not tied to an enrollment, then the easiest tracking method would be to have faculty track their research mentoring activities in Professional Records Online (PRO), although you may need to provide guidance on how faculty should identify research mentoring within the PRO system. There are several options, and it will be easier to aggregate the data across faculty if all faculty consistently choose the same option.
- Quality: In terms of quality, it will be easier to evaluate quality if your department has an agreed upon final product or set of options for final products (e.g., XX minute presentation at a departmental forum, a YY-page paper submitted to the department) as well as an evaluation rubric for these products. This allows each project to be evaluated using the same schema so that data can be aggregated across projects, allowing for examination of strengths and areas for improvement.
- What types of data about undergraduate research will be helpful for the department?
- What types of data about undergraduate research will be useful for individual faculty members? (i.e. information about the number of researchers for "broader impact" section of NSF proposals)
- What systems for reporting information are already in place and can be easily adapted to include undergraduate research?
- Who will be in charge of examining/compiling data? How often will it be reviewed, and how will it be used?
Helping Students Get the Most out of Research
1. Articulate the value of student involvement in research to your students
Note that you may be able to borrow some of your ideas of how student involvement in research relates to department goals, but likely there will be additional elements that add value for the student. For example, research involvement may increase the student’s competitiveness on the job market or for graduate school.
2. Actively recruit students to get involved in research
Students are more likely to get involved with research when there is a clear pathway for them to get started. Some options include:
- Send emails to students and advisors during the advising and enrollment period. Make them aware of the value of research in your field and provide specific guidance on how to get involved in research (e.g., enroll in a specific course with a research emphasis, identify a mentor by looking at faculty research descriptions on the website, etc.).
- Include information about undergraduate research opportunities in key classes for your major, such as introductory classes or research methods courses.
- Clearly state the value of research and how students should get started on your departmental website.
Students are often interested in being involved in research but they don’t know where to start. The more guidance you can provide, the more successful your recruitment will be.
3. Clearly articulate research expectations to students
If your research involvement is not classroom-based, students will need guidance to understand your expectations and avoid miscommunications. It may be helpful to tie research involvement to an enrollment (e.g., a research practicum enrollment) so that students understand the commitment they are making. This allows you to articulate the number of research hours expected each week (e.g., 1 credit of enrollment = 3 hours of research work) and allows you to grade the quality of the student’s participation to encourage strong involvement. If the type of research in your field has certain scheduling requirements, students benefit from knowing these requirements so they can plan accordingly. For example, if your research is with preschool children, there are certain times of day when these children are available and other times when they are not (e.g., afternoon nap time, evening bedtime). A student would need to arrange his/her schedule to be available when the research participants are available. Whether you tie the research involvement to an enrollment or not, another useful activity is to have the student and mentor complete a mentor contract that clearly outlines the expectations for the student. A template is available here.
4. Student visibility and recognition
Making student research visible within your department will help other students understand the type of research involvement that is available and may help establish a culture of research involvement among the students. Consider how you can make student research accessible to everyone. Descriptions of student projects could be posted on the website. You could host a departmental forum each year for student research presentations. You could encourage your students to participate in the university-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium or submit their research to the university-wide Journal of Undergraduate Research. This university-wide involvement could be highlighted in departmental materials through links on your department website or e-mail announcements. If you have high student involvement in research, you may wish to create an award to highlight the strongest research projects each year to recognize the high quality research that students are conducting in your department.