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Course-Based Undergraduate Research - Crazy Observations, Audacious Questions

Tomorrow's Research

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Exposing students to research in the first two years of their undergraduate education has been shown to be effective in increasing retention of students in science, technology, engineering, and math majors and careers.



The posting below gives some good advice on how to integrate research into your undergraduate courses.  It is from Chapter 1: Crazy Observations, Audacious Questions by Nancy H. Hensel in the book Course-Based Undergraduate Research, Educational Equity and High-Impact Practice, edited by Nancy H. Hensel. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2018 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Research Universities and the Public Good (review)


Tomorrow’s Research

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Course-Based Undergraduate Research - Crazy Observations, Audacious Questions


Making a discovery, whether in the laboratory or library archives, about something that no one else in the world knows at a particular time is a heady experience for an undergraduate student. College students who have the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research can experience this thrill of discovery. They may identify a new bacterial strain, make a connection between previously separate concepts, or uncover long-forgotten archival documents that lead to a new understanding of an issue. Nearly every U.S. college and university includes undergraduate research experiences in the learning opportunities offered to students. Institutions of higher education of all types are implementing a number of creative approaches to facilitate innovation, problem-solving, and discovery. They see undergraduate research as a critical vehicle for achieving these objectives. 

Benefits of Undergraduate Research

Numerous studies have indicated that undergraduate research benefits individuals, institutions, and society. Many researchers (Harrison, Dunbar, Ratmansky, Boyed, & Lopatto, 2011; Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007; Lopatto, 2003, 2010; Nagda, Gregerman, Jonides, von Hippel, & Lerner, 1998; Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & DeAntoni, 2004) have described the following benefits to students who participate in an undergraduate research experience: 

·      Learning a topic in depth

·      Learning to work independently

·      Building tolerance for obstacles faced in the research process

·      Transforming the student/teacher relationship

·      Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills

·      Developing self-confidence

·      Clarifying career goals

·      Improving oral and written skills

These benefits are in close alignment with skills identified by employers surveyed by Hart Research Associates (2013) for the Association of American Colleges & Universities. 

Course-Based Research

Course-based research is the inclusion of research projects in the curriculum, and it expands research opportunities to all students. The focus of this book is course-based research in the first two years of college across all disciplines. Course-based research (including scholarship and creative activity) in the first two years typically includes the following criteria: 

·      Research is embedded into the course curriculum.

·      All students engage in the research project.

·      Students work collaboratively on the project.

·      Research projects introduce students to the research methodology of the discipline. 

·      Outcomes of the research are unknown.

·      Student outcomes of the research are communicated in some manner. 

Exposing students to research in the first two years of their undergraduate education has been shown to be effective in increasing retention of students in science, technology, engineering, and math majors and careers. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2015) found the following: 

·      Course-based research can provide many benefits for students from first year to senior year and also to underrepresented students. 

·      Many faculty members are not familiar with course-based research or are not aware of local and national models that already exist. 

·      Well-designed course-based research projects use many of the “best practices” identified by pedagogical research. (pp. 7–8) 

Students will benefit from an early introduction to research by learning to think critically about existing knowledge, developing the ability to ask researchable questions, exploring possible solutions, and using evidence as they analyze the results of their work. Developing these skills can and should begin in the first year of college, and all students should have the opportunity to engage in undergraduate research. 

Course-Based Research for Educational Equity

The traditional approach to undergraduate research is for a few students, typically juniors or seniors, to work closely with a professor on a research project outside of class in the academic year or over the summer. Students who participate in summer research projects or have the opportunity to work closely with a professor in what is often called the “apprentice model” are more likely to receive the benefits of undergraduate research than students who do not have the opportunity for such experiences. Colleges and universities do not have sufficient personnel to engage every student in research using the apprentice model. The only way to provide all students with an undergraduate research experience is to embed research into the curriculum through course-based research. 

Ensuring that all students have the opportunity to engage in undergraduate research is an issue of educational equity. In their report, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege,” Carnevale and Strohl (2013) suggest that although access to higher education has improved, pedagogy has not changed to be sufficiently inclusive for first-generation and underrepresented students. The traditional approach to undergraduate research assumes that students have the time and financial resources to engage in research outside of class and in the summer. Many do not. In addition to financial constraints, Bangera and Brownell (2014) suggest that first-generation students may not be aware of potential educational and career advantages of undergraduate research. First-generation students may not understand academic culture and how to access faculty and support services. Pyles and Levy (2009) found that students at East Tennessee State University were intimidated by the idea of research. They suggest that early exposure to research can “demystify” research and help students to clarify their interests and see themselves as researchers and scholars. The inequities of the traditional approach to undergraduate research can be addressed by course-based research. 

Challenges of Course-Based Research

Implementing course-based research is not easy. There are logistical and attitudinal challenges in developing a successful course-based research program. Brownell and Tanner (2012) suggest that, in addition to lack of training, time, and incentives as barriers to pedagogical change, a scientist’s professional identity as a researcher rather than as a teacher might be a hidden barrier. Reframing the concept of undergraduate research from the apprentice model to a concept that includes working with a whole class and seeing the acquisition of research skills as a developmental process is needed for course-based research. Adapting authentic research to the developmental needs of first-year students is a demanding endeavor. Course-based research requires significant planning time and knowledge about how students learn. It is essential to identify a project that is appropriate for the developmental level of first- and second-year students and introduces students to the research methodology of professionals in the field. Resource issues must also be considered in course-based research. Successfully replicable course-based science projects use materials that are inexpensive, readily available, and straightforward to train students to use. Social science research must be scalable in terms of numbers of subjects and complexity of the statistical design. Humanities research projects must have access to appropriate archives and other resources. 

The logistical challenges of time, curricular design, and identification of projects and tools can be supported by a network of colleagues who are also implementing course-based research. Lopatto and colleagues (2012) found that a major barrier to implementing course-based research was the lack of colleague support. Course-based research is more likely to be successful when it fits within the curriculum of the department or college. Implementing course-based research across the general education program can provide a supportive campus network. A community of practice network provides for troubleshooting, sharing information about pedagogy and use of resources, obtaining technical support, and accessing the expertise of others in the network. It also provides opportunities to share curricular ideas and pedagogy for short-term projects.



Incorporating research into first- and second-year courses allows students to gain the benefits of research by learning to become good observers, frame actionable questions, explain and defend their ideas, develop tolerance for uncertainty, use evidence, and work collaboratively. The inclusion of course-based research in first- and second-year general education courses is an issue of equity and social justice. Course-based research that is authentic and accessible can provide every student with the intellectual benefits of undergraduate research. Our communities will benefit when all graduates can apply their research skills and knowledge to the important questions in their professional and community lives. 


Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE-Life Science Education, 13(4), 602-606.

Brownell, S. E., & Tanner, K. D. (2012). Barriers to faculty pedagogical change: Lack of training, time, incentives, and … tensions with professional identity? CBE-Life Science Education, 11(4). 339-346.

Carnevale, A. P., & Strohl, J. (2013). Separate and unequal: How higher education reinforces the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege. Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University. Retrieved from

Harrison, M., Dunbar, D., Ratmansky, I., Boyed, K., *& Lopatto, D. (2011). Classroom-based science research at the introductory level: Changes in career choice and attitude. CBE-Life Science Education, 10, 279-286. 

Hart Research Associates. (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. Liberal Education, 18, 2.

Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S., & Seymour, F. (2007). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91,36-74.

Lopatto, D. (2003). The essential features of undergraduate research. CUR Quarterly, 23(3), 139-142.

Lopatto, D. (2010). Science in solution: The impact of undergraduate research on student learning. Washington DC; Tucson, AZ: Council on Undergraduate Research and Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Lopatto, D., Hauser, C., Jones, C. J., Paetkau, D., Chandrasekaran, V., Dunbar, D., … Elgin, S. C. R. (2012). A central support system can facilitate implementation and sustainability of a classroom-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) in genomics. CBE-Life Science Education, 13(4), 711-723.

Nagda, B. A., Gregerman, S. R., Jonides, J., von Hippel, W., & Lerner, J. S. (1998). Undergraduate student-faculty research partnerships affect student retention. Review of Higher Education, 22(1), 55-72.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2015). Integrating discovery-based research into the undergraduate curriculum: Report of convocation. Washington DC: Council on Undergraduate Research. 

Russell, S. H., Hancock, M. P., & McCullough, J. (2007). Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316(5824), 548-559.

Seymour, E., Hunter, A. B., Laursen. S., & DeAntoni, T. (2004). Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three-year study. Science, 88(4), 493-534.