Are all undergraduate research projects created equal?

Year: 2012

Author: Inkelas, Karen Kurotsuchi

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Considered to be a "high-impact activity" that promotes student learning (Kuh, 2008), U.S. postsecondary institutions strongly encourage their undergraduate students to participate in some form of research project during their time in college. Such research projects can take the form of a class assignment, a senior thesis, a job or internship assessment, or working with a professor on his/her research. While participating in these types of projects are typically encouraged, a question that remains unaddressed is whether all of these types of experiences yield similar or dissimilar results. Put another way, is any kind of research done in any kind of fashion beneficial for students? This paper investigated whether students were equally as likely to progress through 12 different phases of a research study (e.g., form a research question, conduct a review of research, design an appropriate methodology, collect and analyze data, form conclusions) no matter what type of research they are conducting. Because this was a largely exploratory study, we relied upon the work of Stokking, van der Schaaf, Jaspers, & Erkens (2004) as a conceptual framework to guide our inquiry. Stokking et al. identified 10 individual components of the research process, if conducted rigorously:1.  identify and formulate a problem using subject-specific concepts;
2.  formulate the research question(s), hypotheses and expectations (if any);
3.  make and monitor the research plan: research design and time schedule;
4.  gather and select information/data;
5.  assess the value and utility of the data;
6.  analyze the data;
7.  draw conclusions;
8.  evaluate the research;
9.  develop and substantiate a personal point of view;
10. report (describe) and present (communicate) the research
The authors also asserted that the above research skills were appropriate for researchers in a variety subject areas, and tested the applicability of the skill sets in the following disciplines: physics, biology, history, geography, economics, Dutch, and mathematics. We added two additional skills to the list: creating a reference list, and citing literature using a standard style (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA).The sample for this study (n=2,091) included undergraduates at the University of Virginia who were either former IB or Advanced Placement alumni, and who responded to an online survey in Spring 2012. Results showed that the majority of undergraduate research performed at UVA was for a class assignment (58.3%); 11.4% completed a senior thesis; 12.0% conducted a study for a job or internship; and 8.2% worked with a professor on his/her research. We also found that the extent to which undergraduates progressed through the 12 phases of a research study varied considerably, depending on which types of research they undertook. Undergraduates doing research studies for a class assignment or senior thesis were likely to fulfill all 12 phases, whereas 30-40% of students working on a professor's research project reported that they were not involved in the formulation of the study's research question, did not identify the actual research problem, and did not draw any conclusions from the data collected. These preliminary findings might suggest that, if one of the goals of performing research at the undergraduate level is to become more skilled and/or confident with all facets of conducting research, working on a professor's project may not be the most optimal activity. In subsequent analyses, we plan to investigate whether participation in the Extended Essay portion of the IB curriculum has any impact on students' decisions to participate in undergraduate research, as well as which type of research project IB alumni are most apt to choose.