Nurturing Researchers Webinar Q & A

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More questions were posted than we had time to answer during the during the Nurturing the Researchers of Tomorrow webinar. This is the first of a series of posts in response.

Q. I understand that Nicola Pallit’s work was based on postgraduate research. I feel like undergraduate research has been neglected. After all, they will eventually make up the postgraduate student population, so what can be done to strengthen supervision at that level?

JS. When I was an undergraduate, I had a work-study job in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology doing what I now know was coding. I was classifying narratives from a large study according to a scale I was provided. Apparently the researchers wanted to do some quantitative analysis with qualitative data. 

The instructions I received fit what Nicola described as “functional.” In other words, I was shown the functional steps needed to code the data. However, the researchers missed a number of opportunities that would have been very helpful for my learning.

They did not explain how this coding activity related to the overall study. What was the purpose of the research, and who collected this data, how? Who were the participants, and what did researchers hope to learn? Was it a mixed methods study? They did not explain how the narratives would be used in other ways, perhaps to create exemplars or to humanize the tables and graphs they undoubtedly generated.

Without any of this research context, I missed the chance to learn how to think critically about research designs and processes, to be acculturated into the social research field, or to develop some kind of relationship with the researchers that might have allowed me to be involved in some other stage of the study. Even a brief overview of the research design, and discussion of how my small functional piece fit into the whole project, would have made this experience more valuable.

One answer: Look for teachable moments

I tell this story to illustrate one answer to your question about undergraduate research. What are the teachable moments you encounter with students in formal situations (such as the classroom), or other informal interactions around activities or projects ? Can you take a little extra time to explain the context, rather than simply focus on the functional tasks?

If you are engaged in research, talk with your undergraduate students about what you are doing and why. Then take another step: ask them about the issues they believe we need to study, the questions we need to answer, the problems we need to better understand. Their fresh insights might be useful to us, and motivation will increase when they realize their perspectives are respected.

Keep in mind that many of today’s undergraduates have few if any encounters with scholarly researchers. You may be the first person with a PhD they have met! Your attitudes and stories can help students grasp the unique culture of academic life. And while some academics are admittedly self-absorbed, I continue to advocate for a culture of generosity and reciprocity.

Another answer: Assignments beyond functional tasks:

Functional tasks common to undergraduate students include reading textbooks and other resources from and writings from the field of study, and writing essays or papers. Even when this coursework is not ostensibly research-related, can you explain the empirical foundations and ask students to think critically about the sources?

Instead of writing essays for papers based on course or library readings, design research projects that invite students to explore the subject matter of the course in real-world settings. Can students interview each other or subject matter experts? Can they observe presentations, meetings or events in their own communities or online that offer different perspectives? Can they look into databases or archives? When students do even nominal data collection they can begin to grasp the kinds of critical and creative thinking that goes into conducting research.

Read more about the research supervisory roles Pallitt discussed:

See the article Nicola referenced:

Lee, Anne (2007) Developing effective supervisors: Concepts of research supervision South African Journal of Higher Education, 21 (4). pp. 680-693.

Additional Resources:

These open-access articles point to the value of undergraduate research and best practices for success.

Deemer, E. D., Navarro, R. L., Byars-Winston, A. M., Jensen, L. E., & Chen, C. P. (2019). Investigating graduate education and undergraduate research intentions of college science students. Journal of Career Assessment, 1069072718823777.

Hathaway, R. S., Nagda, B. A., & Gregerman, S. R. (2002). The relationship of undergraduate research participation to graduate and professional education pursuit: An empirical study. Journal of College Student Development, 43(5), 614-631.

Healey, M., & Jenkins, A. (2009). Developing undergraduate research and inquiry: Higher Education Academy York.

Hernandez, P. R., Woodcock, A., Estrada, M., & Schultz, P. W. (2018). Undergraduate research experiences broaden diversity in the scientific workforce. BioScience, 68(3), 204-211. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix163

Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91(1), 36-74. doi:10.1002/sce.20173

Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6(4), 297-306.

Qureshi, R., & Neelofar, V. (2016). Pedagogy of research supervision pedagogy: A constructivist model. Istraživanja u pedagogiji, 6(2), 95-110. Pedagogy of research supervision

Russell, S. H., Hancock, M. P., & McCullough, J. (2007). Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316(5824), 548-549. 

Schuster, M. (2018). Undergraduate research at two-year community colleges. Journal of Political Science Education, 14(2), 276-280.

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