Faculty Focus


Engaging Students in Research

Students conduct research in lab with instructor

Students’ experiences in higher education goes far beyond the curriculum in their programs. Beyond the classroom walls there are extra-curricular and social activities and numerous other opportunities to gain unique skills and experiences. One such opportunity is for students to become involved in research. This could be in the form of a paid research assistantship (RA), volunteering in a research lab, or by completing an independent project (out of general interest or as a thesis requirement). An additional opportunity to involve students in research could be by embedding it directly into the curriculum via course-based research. The types of research-related opportunities available to students will differ based on the type of institution (interested readers may refer to our previous article, “Writing Your First Grant,” (Cappon & Kennette, 2022) for tips to secure some funding). There may be more opportunities at a research-focused university than a community college or a school more focused on liberal arts. For example, at our institution, faculty are not required to engage in research, so there are fewer opportunities for students. Despite this, 53% of student respondents at our two-year college have indicated they would be interested in research opportunities and identified far more benefits than barriers. This is data from a survey we administered to a group of first semester students enrolled in a two-year social service work diploma program at a Canadian college in Ontario. We will share additional data from this survey throughout this article.

Benefits and barriers

It is clear that there are advantages for us as faculty to include students in research. For example, hiring a Research Assistant (RA) or having a student volunteer to help us with projects reduces our workload. But what are the advantages for students?

There are documented benefits for soft or transferable skills for students, including critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and organization (Harris et al., 2016; Landrum & Nelson, 2002; Valdez & Liu, 2020). And these soft skills, among others, are so important for graduates to have in order to be competitive on the job market (Schultz, 2008; Succi  & Canovi, 2020). In fact, many RA job postings do request some of these soft skills in order to be hired for the position.

To get a better idea of the benefits and barriers in greater detail, we also asked our student sample about these issues. They identified a number of benefits, including the perception that a research position: might help them in their future careers (84.38%), would be experience they could include on their resumé (84.38%), would help them learn how to conduct research (78.13%), could help them stand out and land a job (78.13%), and would help them gain skills beyond those acquired in their program (75.00%). On average, students identified 3.91 barriers to their participation in research but averaged 9.28 benefits, so it’s clear they understand that there are disproportional advantages to participating in research.

Unfortunately, there are also barriers to students engaging in research during their studies, which include a lack of time, mentorship, and/or funding (Lovern, 2018; Marais et al., 2019; Schauer, 2018). This sentiment was echoed in our student responses as well, with most students citing a lack of time due to school (68.75%) or work (68.75%) and many expressing concerns that they would not do a good job (53.13%). Additional barriers have been recently documented for STEM students of color (see Pierszalowski et al., 2021), and while that discussion is beyond the scope of this article, it warrants further exploration.

Suggestions for increasing participation

How can we help minimize barriers and encourage students to participate in research endeavors during their studies? Our first suggestion is to share opportunities far and wide. Announce them to your classes (in person and/or online), send students to a college-wide job/volunteer board (if one exists), and post information outside your office door and in common areas. Although paid opportunities might be more appealing to students, many would be equally interested in volunteer positions if they realize they are gaining valuable skills that they can add to their experience and resumes, and that it might help them in their future job searches. So, explicitly sharing the value of research opportunities with students can also help.

The two most significant barriers that students identified were related to not having enough time (due to school or work). Although we cannot give our students additional time in a 24-hour day (we would all like more time in our day, wouldn’t we?), we can help them by being sensitive and flexible to their academic schedule such that we plan research activities during less stressful times in their semester. For example, during spring break/reading week they could try to line up some data entry or literature review work, or a more active or traditional research role (e.g., RA) during the summer months when they are less likely to be taking a full course load.

Students in our survey also identified a concern that they would not do a good job in a research-related position (likely due to not having enough knowledge) as a possible barrier. So, incorporating research-related training into our courses (e.g., ethics training certificate or course-based research) can help with building capacity for students to engage in research by increasing their confidence in their research skills. Perhaps your institution’s library has the capacity to offer research-related workshops that will aid in orienting the student in a research role as well as connecting with fellow students interested in research.

In addition, webinars or panel discussions, especially those that feature other students discussing their own worries prior to successfully engaging in their own research endeavors, can help address this barrier. Finally, ensuring that postings for research positions clearly articulate that training and support will be provided should help to reduce this concern in potential students.

In addition to minimizing barriers, we can also leverage the benefits that students see in research to help recruit volunteers or paid positions. As our survey suggests, one of the main values that students see in research is for their future careers and/or landing them a job. We can make those things salient in the job ad or when discussing research opportunities with students, highlighting that it counts as volunteer and/or work experience that they can include on their resumes.

Students report time constraints as the biggest barrier to engaging in research activities but they do recognize the value of those endeavors. Faculty can encourage research engagement among students by sharing these opportunities with students and trying to schedule research activities during times that might be less busy for students.

Amanda Cappon is a professor in the Social Service Work Program at Durham College, in Oshawa, Ontario.  She has a masters of education in counselling and psychotherapy and is a registered psychotherapist in the province of Ontario.  

Lynne N. Kennette is a professor of psychology and the research coordinator in the Faculty of Liberal Studies at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. She has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and is passionate about the scholarship of teaching and learning.


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