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Combining Undergraduate Research and Learning: A Three-Step Approach

Tomorrow's Research

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Below is the fourth posting in a series of selected articles from the

National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as

part of our "Shared Mission Partnership" announced in Posting #204.

In the article, "Combining Undergraduate Research and Learning: A

Three-Step Approach," the authors looks at a high-leverage way for

faculty to integrate teaching and research with a considerable

pay-off for undergraduates.

NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning.

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share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Gender and Diversity in Canada

Tomorrow's Research


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Bunmi O. Olatunji and Donna M. Desforges, of Wisconsin-Stevens Point


Today's undergraduate is typically accustomed to traditional learning

methods--taking information in through textbooks and lectures,

memorizing that information, and reproducing it on an exam. Relying

solely on such methods of teaching and learning may undermine the

unique learning needs of students (Kaplan & Kies, 1995), and hence

provide a less than optimal learning situation. In addition to the

development of intellectual and critical thinking skills, student

needs include learning about the process as well as the content in

their disciplines. And underpinning all their needs, students have a

basic need to feel and actually have ownership in their education. In

light of that, we conceptualize the optimal teaching and learning

experience as requiring three steps: stimulation, application, and

integration. Further, we believe that faculty-student collaborative

research and other scholarly activity offer an excellent means of

incorporating these steps into students' learning experiences, thus

more fully meeting their educational needs.

The Three-Step Approach


As it applies to learning, stimulation means a more active engagement

with the material to be learned, as well as growth and development of


interest in the material and in their abilities to work with it. Often times,

students may experience participation in their classes as a daunting

situation where the potential for ridicule or embarrassment

reinforces well-rehearsed silence. To remedy this situation and

really engage students, faculty must play the role of facilitator,

developing a climate of trust in which students can openly risk

examining their personal thoughts, confusions, and opinions (Barkham

& Elender, 1995). Students require an environment in which they can

go beyond merely memorizing facts in order to grow as intellectuals.

Several methods of stimulation help create such an environment. For

example, asking specific controversial questions relevant to course

material helps draw students out. Having students debate various

positions on current topics or issues further stimulates students'

critical thinking skills. The method for stimulating learning we

advocate is student involvement in research and scholarly activity.

For maximum effectiveness, this involvement should include every

aspect of the activity, from the initial conception of the research

plan to the final research product. But more on this in a moment.


Is the smartest person in the class the person who can remember the

most information at the time of the exam? Or is it the person who can

take that

information and correctly apply it to a novel situation? Studies have shown

that when given two identical exams on different occasions, undergraduate

students do significantly worse on the second exam (Harrison, 1995). Part

of the problem may stem from the students' lack of broader application of

the material they have studied. In other words, the exam was the only

opportunity students had to apply the material. Long-term retention of

information calls for a broader application or use of the information

students study.


The final phase of learning--and of our model for improved

teaching--comes when students are able to integrate material into a

broader knowledge base. Fostering integrative learning requires that

faculty encourage students to analyze and interpret class literature,

as well as indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with

the author's perspective. Thus--harking back to the importance of

establishing an environment of trust--integration not only requires

that students include the rationale behind their perspective, but

also that their rationale include an understanding of additional

literature supporting their position.

While it requires rigor, integrative teaching reaps exponential benefits. Not

only does integration serve as a culmination of earlier steps in learning, it

also propels students toward higher levels of critical thinking. In fostering a

keen sense of appreciation and understanding for explanatory information,

integrative learning ultimately enhances students' ability to assimilate and

utilize content (Olatunji, 1999).

The Model In Operation

Faculty-Student Collaborative Research Research involves the active

pursuit of knowledge, and it is this process of pursuit that is often

overlooked in undergraduate teaching in favor of covering content.

But in general, undergraduates want to be more actively involved in

the process of their disciplines (Long, 1994). Thus, one means of

accomplishing the three steps to improving the student learning

experience is through faculty-student collaborative research.

As we said earlier, to fulfill the stimulation step, students should be

involved in each step of the process. One way that we have done this is to

start each semester with a small set of readings with a common focus.

Facilitated by a faculty member, student researchers work collaboratively

to generate hypotheses and the means to test the hypotheses. Obviously,

this process enhances students' sense of ownership in their education.

The application step involves applying the information students have learned

through readings and discussions to the task of creating a novel way

to test their hypotheses. It also involves the actual testing of one

or more hypotheses through the methods students have generated. In

this process, students learn to think critically about published

works' hypotheses and the adequacy of tests, results, and

conclusions. This critical awareness prepares them to apply that same

process to the original work they are creating.

The integration step begins with the process of analyzing and interpreting

the data collected from students' research. Students are encouraged to

interpret and explain the rationale behind the acceptance or rejection of

their hypotheses. After that, students have to integrate their findings into

the appropriate knowledge base that already exists. Not surprisingly, this

often generates more questions that students want to answer, which

often prompts follow-up studies of some sort.


In practice it isn't as easy as "one, two, three," but our three-step

model encourages faculty and students to take "one step beyond" the


ordinary and expected right from the start. The payoffs from thinking

beyond the current horizon of most undergraduate teaching are

tremendous. We know that undergraduates have learning needs that go

beyond taking in information and repeating it back at exam time, and

we believe that faculty-student collaborative research goes a long

way toward meeting those needs. Certainly, research within the proper

atmosphere unquestionably promotes creativity, synthetic thinking,

and the appreciation of knowledge (Seligman, 1999). Thus, even though

an undergraduate research project may focus on a particular area, the

processes and the educational benefits of doing the research extend

well beyond that project or that subject area. Going one step beyond

enhances all of the undergraduate's learning experience.


Barkham, J.; Elender, F. 1995. "Applying Person-Centered Principles

to Teaching Large Classes." British Journal of Guidance and

Counseling, 23, 179-198.

Harrison, A. 1995. "Using Knowledge Decrement to Compare Medical

Students' Long Term Retention of Self-Study Reading and Lecture

Materials." Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 20, 149-160.

Kaplan, E.J.; Kies, D.A. 1995. "Teaching Styles and Learning Styles:

Which Came First?" Journal of Instructional Psychology,

22, 29-34.

Long, F. 1994. "Research as Living Knowledge." Studies in Higher

Education, 19, 47-58.

Olatunji, B. 1999. "Undergraduate Research as an Invaluable

Experience." APS Observer, 12, 24-27.

Seligman, M. 1999. "Teaching Positive Psychology." Eye on Psi Chi, 4, 16-17.

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