teaching undergraduate research
One of the most enjoyable aspects of running a faculty development program on teaching is seeing first-hand how much our various disciplines intersect when it comes to teaching and learning. Whereas it can be hard, if not impossible, to speak about disciplinary research with colleagues outside our fields, the common teaching problems we face allow for readily understandable dialog, no matter how far apart the discussants’ fields of expertise.
As an experienced online educator, I am confident that my students are not only learning but also excelling. Through our classroom activities and interactions, they are simultaneously mastering content and developing higher-order thinking strategies. Yet I am plagued with concerns that this is not enough.
Most professors want students to know how to research and write in their fields. In fact, many degree programs now have introductory courses for majors with content that addresses these research and writing basics. However, the assumption that students learn everything they need in one course is a faulty one. All of us who teach courses for majors need to regularly revisit this content if students are to develop these research and writing abilities. Let me be specific and suggest six things professors can do that help students improve in both areas.
Community College instructors have a great deal to teach: study skills, a college orientation to education, and the actual course information for their discipline. They also know that their students must be information literate, must know how to find supplementary information for each course, how to use information effectively, and how to credit their sources appropriately. In this regard, Washington State Community and Technical Colleges have been working under an LSTA grant on Information Literacy from 2008-2012 (Washington). Lower Columbia College libraries have been using the grant to integrate librarians or library tutorials into face-to-face and online classes, thereby offering information literacy instruction to students without increasing the teaching load of the discipline instructors. When incorporated with research assignments, this instruction, along with embedded librarians, facilitates both student learning and faculty grading of assignments.
A recent survey of faculty handouts for research assignments found that most of the handouts provided details for length, citation guide style and how to get assistance from the faculty member. What wasn’t included was a critical need for most undergraduate students: context for the research topic.
When students write essays requiring research, in the age of Wikipedia and other online resources, I worry a little, not so much about the quality of the sources themselves (that has always varied, even in the day of hardcopy sources), but about the quality or outright dearth of note taking that often accompanies the writing of research papers.
Teaching undergraduate research when laboratories are involved is a time-consuming and costly endeavor, especially at those institutions without graduate assistants. One faculty member working alongside two or three students for four hours a week for one credit isn’t a particularly viable approach. For faculty who use undergrads to support their research programs, this approach slows down productivity as proficient students graduate and new ones must be trained in an unending cycle.