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Undergraduate Research in Australia

What Students Gain

The following is an edited extract from Brew, A. (2006). Research and Teaching: Beyond the divide. London: PalgraveMacmillan, pages 91-94.

A study of undergraduate science research at four liberal arts colleges in the US found that the two main benefits to students were a number of personal and professional gains such as increased confidence (for example in their ability to do research, contributing real knowledge as a scientist, or feeling like a scientist) and intellectual development in thinking and working like a researcher including improved ability to apply knowledge and skills, development of critical thinking and problem solving skills and a more advanced understanding of the nature of science/ how scientific knowledge is built (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni 2004).

These authors also note that nearly 20% of the students reported improvements in skills such as, particularly, communication skills, and some reported that the experience had clarified their career goals. Indeed it was found that many of the students indicated that they thought the benefits that they had gained were transferable to a range of situations.

Seymour and colleagues comment that in interviews with academic advisors it was clear that they were not aware of the significance of the personal and professional development among their mentored students and argue that this aspect of the undergraduate research experience is not well represented in the research literature. They comment that this may be a reflection of the unease that academics have about focusing on the affective aspects of experience. They suggest, ‘Apparent disattention to the powerful impact of these experiences on young people—and their consequences for professional preparation—while focusing on such issues as how many of them choose graduate school is, perhaps, to miss the point' (Seymour et al 2004: 531).

Students valued the opportunity to work with academics in a one-to-one relationship. One of the most important gains for them was that they had the opportunity to work in a collegial way with academics and other researchers and the discovery that their work was taken seriously. For example, one student commented:

When I was at the conferences, especially the one last year, I felt truly that I was a scientist. I was amidst scientists. I was just, you know, completely surrounded by them, ... I was talking to them about my research and they were talking to me. And they, I could see them talking to me... not as if I was lower to them, but as equal to them. And that made me feel really good... . Some people even asked me if it was my doctoral work. (Male physics major) (Quoted in Seymour et al 2004: 509)

I've gotten to know all the faculty... . I actually see them more as peers. As a researcher, they are your peers; you're working with them. And you ask them questions, and they are just as excited to know what I'm doing as I am to know how they're doing, or what they could help me with... . It gives a totally different aspect than being a student... and you don't have to be intimidated by them anymore. (Male biology major) (Quoted in Seymour et al 2004: 510)

Commenting on the University of Warwick scheme, Blackmore & Cousin (2003) similarly reported that students on this scheme appreciated the opportunity that it provides for them to participate in research communities of practice. They found that students appreciated being able to play a role in knowledge production through participating in the culture of inquiry. What such schemes do demonstrate clearly is that given the opportunity to participate in research, students more often than not rise to the challenge and often achieve more than anticipated.

The findings of these studies raise a very important question about how students were treated when they become research scholars as opposed to when they are students. Both the students in the Seymour et al (2004) study and those at the University of Warwick reported that they were treated differently from how they are treated in teaching and learning settings.

There is also evidence in the Seymour et al (2004) study that students were being inducted into the requirements of academic professionalism:

Students commented on the length of time involved, the care needed to make accurate observations and keep detailed notes, how much attention to detail was required, the tedium and repetition of some lab tasks, the long hours researchers worked, and their difficulties in achieving desired results:

You never really think that the scientist spends all this time... you never think anybody runs into a dead-end. Like the geniuses like Einstein, you never think that he ran into a dead-end, but he did. Many people did. And it gave me a better appreciation for it because, to get through all that and to know what we know today in the sciences, is just amazing. (Male physics major).

This was much more than an intellectual appreciation of what goes into research. These students had come to understand that a high incidence of setbacks, errors, repeated procedures, and failed experiments is a normal part of the research process (Seymour et al 2004: 516-517).

The University of Warwick scheme also demonstrated the ways in which engaging students in research can develop important skills, for example, of structuring one's workload, time management, a wide range of research skills including bibliographical searching, organisation of data, experimental skills and so on. Students commented upon the need to be able to focus on a number of tasks simultaneously. The experience demonstrated the complexity of research work and the need for patience and meticulousness; important aspects of academic professionalism.

Baxter Magolda, Boes, Hollis & Jaramillo (1998) report similar findings in a larger study of students who had engaged in a ten week summer research experience. They found students had increased confidence as learners, developed more capability for thinking independently, more awareness of learning as a life-long process and more capability for achieving career goals. In addition, they found that students had developed more complex conceptions of knowledge as a consequence of engaging in the research experience.

In another UK initiative, Zamorski (2002) invited twelve final year undergraduate students to participate in a research project to examine students' experiences of research at the University of East Anglia, UK. This method offered a privileged access to data from the major constituent group researched (the student body). It also tested a model of student learning that was particularly distinctive in that it invited students to become integral to the whole process of research: to collaborate on the research design, on construction of the interview schedule, on early analysis work and in some of the dissemination and presentation activities (Zamorski 2002: 413). The students were treated as co-creators in the production of the research.

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