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Undergraduate Research

Resources for course-based undergraduate research experiences

Design

There are numerous factors to consider when designing a URE. Having a clear vision for each can help to lay the foundation for your URE design. Below is a table reviewing the variables you must consider when first approaching your URE design.

Overview of the Variability of Attributes of UREs

  • Leadership:
    • Professor, Lecturer, Senior researcher, Postdoctoral scholar, Industry researcher
  • Mentoring:
    • Informal arrangements, Assigned mentor, Multiple mentors
  • Format:
    • Apprentice-style URE, Course-based URE for academic credit, URE program that includes professional development, Industry URE
  • Duration:
    • Several weeks to several years
  • Expectations for students:
    • Learn discipline-specific procedures, Conduct an original investigation, Prepare poster or presentation on work
  • Student goals:
    • Career awareness, Apprenticeship in a research environment, Insight into the nature of research, Contribution to a larger STEM discipline–specific goal
  • Value for student career trajectory:
    • Prepare informed citizens, Strengthen likelihood of graduate school admissions, Helpful for industry employment, Useful for recommendations in general
  • Measured outcomes:
    • Self-report survey, Interview, Assessment of knowledge, Journal, Research report or presentation
  • Populations(s) served:
    • STEM majors/non-STEM majors, Historically underrepresented students, First generation students
  • Student funding:
    • Unpaid (generally receive course credit), Stipend, Full support

(Gentile, Brenner, Stephens, 2017)

When designing UREs, there are several axes of values that you must locate yourself on to guide the rest of your design process. Below is a decision tree outlining these value axes that you can work through to begin your URE design.

Authenticity

The dimension of Authenticity reflects the degree of fidelity to the research process that you would like to incorporate for your undergraduate research experience (URE). while still providing scaffolded opportunities that don’t leave students lost and discouraged. In essence, you must decide how much scaffolding you want to incorporate into your URE so that students feel both challenged and adequately supported. This decision should be informed by the level of research experience and skill that students already possess before taking your course. First-year students will likely need more guidance than a traditional research project would typically provide as they learn and practice research techniques for the first time and as they are still being inaugurated into the academic community. On the other hand, senior level students who have had research opportunities throughout their undergraduate degrees will benefit from an URE with a higher degree of fidelity to real-life academic research so that they are better prepared for future careers.

Class vs. Independent student time

How much class time will you dedicate to research processes (brainstorming, team meetings, peer reviews, instructor feedback) and how much time do you expect students to devote to furthering their research on their own (literature reviews, method design, team meetings?) (Govindan et al, 2020.True for any CUREs, but particularly for those tailored to novice students, it is best practice to build in class time dedicated to research development. This ensures that you (and your teaching team (i.e. teaching assistants)) have the opportunity to correct any misconceptions early on while providing formative feedback to direct students’ efforts (Govindan et al, 2020). Moreover, providing class time for students to make progress on their research is a key move towards mitigating some barriers to research for students from underserved communities. It is imperative to remember that not all students will have equal time to devote to project development outside of class. Providing them with dedicated time in class ensures that they are not disadvantaged based their socioeconomic class, family structure (i.e. children, single parenthood), or other obligations outside of school that may take up their time outside of class.

Iteration

How many opportunities will you provide for students to fail safely, receive feedback and integrate? This speaks to the value above but focusing more on the nature of how you will frame failure as part of the research process. It is considered best practice to provide opportunities for students to fail in their research as they could expect to as researchers outside of your course and to have your support in correcting their missteps. This provides students with a chance to not only understand what they did wrong, but also an opportunity to learn how to fix mistakes they may make again in the future. Formative feedback, as opposed to summative feedback, provides learners with an opportunity to integrate the feedback given to grow from their missteps. Failure then is framed as a learning experience and opportunity to further one’s research.
Building in opportunities for this type of formative feedback is especially important if you want your students to take away an attitude of persistence necessary to succeed in the often tumultuous academic process. As Govindan et al, (2020) states, “ learning how to troubleshoot, reflect, redesign, and persist in the face of challenges are all practical skills that students will use in the real world, no matter what careers they pursue. The way formative feedback is communicated can be varied. Self-assessments, peer feedback, practice conference presentations, mock “peer reviewed” journal articles are all ways you can provide formative feedback to your students with varying degrees of fidelity to the research process.

Skill practice

How much time will you provide for students to learn and practice new skills required for research before they are expected to apply them to their projects? This is related to the idea of failing safely but reflects what you expect your students to come in knowing and what research skills you expect to explicitly teach them. Will you provide demonstrations? Lab time with teaching assistants? Dedicated class time for skill practice and mastery? 

Independent design

To what degree would you like your students to personalize their research inquiry and design? Do you expect students to find their own opportunities in the field related to the discipline? Will you provide examples? Or a limited number of choices to choose from? Or will students be taking part in a larger singular inquiry you assign to the class? The degree of freedom you provide students to choose and design their research projects reflects not only the degree of fidelity to the research process but also the degree student ownership you wish for students to feel over the knowledge they produce at the end of the course. Your location on this value axes may depend on what year of study your students are at the time of your CURE.  Prescribed, bounded, scaffolded, open-ended, unbounded.

Student Resources

What resources will you engage and make available to your students? There are numerous resources that students have access to in order to build their research skills. This can include office hour meetings with the instructor, tutorials or labs run by teaching assistants, the writing center, and librarians’ expertise. How will you build in opportunities to engage with these resources in your course?

Output

What output/type of product do you want students to produce at the end of this CURE? If research report, will you provide explicit instruction on academic communication? If oral presentation style, will students have opportunities to produce and practice during class? Portfolios – do you expect students to produce a final portfolio they can add to for the rest of their academic careers or one that is course specific? There are numerous ways students can communicate their research findings at the end of your course. What is key is providing an opportunity for research dissemination in which students are able to reflect and present on their research as they would in future real-life studies. This dissemination also encourages students to see themselves as contributing to the sharing and building of academic knowledge.

What do you want students to takeaway or learn after the URE?

Now that you have located yourself on the various value axes pertinent to UREs, you must articulate the learning outcomes around which you will base the design of assignments and assessments related to your URE.

Your URE design should be aligned with your desired learning outcomes throughout. For example, if you were to want students to take away research communication skills, you would build in opportunities for students to report on their research progress and as their final assignment. However, if you wanted students to take away a sense of confidence as academics, then you would build in opportunities for reflection on their budding sense of self as researchers throughout the course.
There are several ways to categorize and understand learning outcomes related to UREs. Below is a categorization from Wilson et al (2016b) articulating the various types of learning outcomes one could have for course-based undergraduate research experiences. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list that covers the wide gamut of possible desired learning outcomes you may have for your students. Use this list as a starting point and ensure that you personalize your desired learning outcomes.

Types of desired learning outcomes (Wilson et al, 2016b)

Nitty gritty:

  • skills necessary for the mechanical/procedural performance of the research project
  • domain specific skills (specific lab or computer skills),
  • methodological skills (statistical analysis) and
  • generic skills (communication and time management)

Research process:

  • coming up with a research question, turning question into research, designing academically defensible and feasible approach to answering question,
  • being able to address complex problems without simple answers,
  • understanding what constitutes relevant data/evidence,
  • making inferences/drawing conclusions, and understanding how the process fits together

Ways of thinking:

  • independent/creative/original thinking and an awareness that creativity is connected to logical process,
  • critical thinking both externally and internally,
  • pattern-seeking
  • generalizing, integrating, synthesizing knowledge and ideas from multiple sources, seeing body of knowledge as something that can be built on rather than simply absorbed/retained

Confidence/sense of self as scientist:

  • having sense of ownership and control,
  • coping with setbacks and persisting despite being stuck,
  • becoming part of community,
  • experiencing what it is like to have expertise and be responsible for an area of knowledge,
  • developing confidence in one’s own capacity for research

Before UER:

  • Assess what resources you will have available for the URE (i.e. lab time, teaching assistants, course funds, field time)
  • Prepare proposed schedule and write detailed desired learning outcomes
  • Prepare materials and resources needed
  • Consult with colleagues who can provide feedback
  • Arrange workshops and skill building sessions with resources available through the University of Calgary
  • If course-based, design assignments and class activities that enable students to practice their research skills
  • Prepare assessments aligned with desired learning outcomes (consider both formative and summative assessment

During URE:

  • If needed, establish a lab chore schedule with students to create accountability for research space and resource maintenance
  • Establish a regular record-keeping and reflection journal practice to record progress
  • Regularly consult with students/student teams to keep tabs on progress and course correct any potential missteps
  • If needed, provide explicit instruction on research skills, provide class time to practice, and offer formative feedback
  • Facilitate mid-semester progress presentations and discussion
  • Require student accountabilities through written assignments and reports throughout (proposals, data collection reports, mid-semester and final report)
  • If possible, check in regularly with teaching assistants on their perception of skill retention, research progress, and student attitudes

After URE:

  • Facilitate student presentation of research to peers, faculty, and/or community stakeholders (e.g. poster, paper, oral presentation, student conferences)
  • Communicate with local or university media outlets for opportunities to recognize and celebrate student research
  • Conduct reflection on URE design (what went well? What needed improvement?)
  • Encourage students to pursue research opportunities around their implicit interests

Adapted from Govindan et al (2020)