The Value of Undergraduate Research

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate that makes an intellectual or creative contribution to a discipline or disciplines.” It is important to glean from this definition that it is not restricted to STEM fields, but embraces the arts and humanities.

We intrinsically know that undergraduate research is one of those so-called “high impact practices” that more fully engage students in their own education, and we also know that it ensures the kind of experience that adds to the value of a college education at large. But this is more than mere speculation.

For example, educational psychologist David Lopatto of Grinnell College has done extensive research around the hypothesis that undergraduate research activities have significant positive benefits to the overall quality of a student’s education, and has a positive impact not only on the subject area in which the research experience is grounded but on all other subject areas that the student is engaged in, as well as on the faculty mentor(s) and the university in general.

Some of these benefits to the student include:

  • Enhanced knowledge of research techniques
  • Better understanding of the relevance of coursework
  • Understanding of the value and usage of disciplinary literature
  • Appreciation for and understanding of the process of building on the base of existing scholarship
  • Understanding of how scholars do their work
  • Independence as well as collaboration
  • Toleration of challenges and obstacles, and how to learn from and advance from them
  • How to handle uncertainty
  • Preparation for future academic pursuits, including graduate study

Some of these benefits to the faculty include:

  • Intellectual invigoration, enthusiasm, and impact on teaching
  • Peer relationships and satisfaction
  • Advances in research program
  • Out of classroom interaction
  • Learning communities
  • Undergraduates push us to stay current

Some of these benefits to the university include:

  • Intellectual vitality and diversity
  • Enhanced recruiting of students and faculty
  • External funding
  • Curricular inovation, particularly related to interdisciplinary curriculum
  • Increased opportunity for national engagement

I have my own list of specific advantages to an undergraduate that participates in undergraduate research:

  • Increased self-confidence
  • Better time management skills, and better work balancing skills
  • Enhanced leadership abilities
  • Mentorship opportunities
  • Understanding of teamwork value and enhanced skills
  • Information literacy
  • Understanding of data collection techniques and processes
  • Data analysis techniques developed
  • Research design processes learned
  • Communication skills
  • Ethics
  • Portability of gains in knowledge to other areas

I really like Lopatto’s observation, from his monograph “Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning”, published in 2009 by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement:

The challenge of naming the benefits of undergraduate research stems from the complexity of the experience. Undergraduate research, done well, engages multiple dimensions of a student’s cognitive, behavioral, and attitudinal skills. Task-specific learning about instruments and methods cascades into active hypothesizing and procedural troubleshooting that result in the accumulation of self-confidence and independence that help shape the student’s vision of her future. The whirlpool of outcomes mixes value added with value expressed, that is, mixes the guided acquisition of expertise with the discarding of the fear of expressing ideas and hypotheses.

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