Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

Directing Undergraduate Research in Independent Studies, Honors, and Thesis Projects

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the educational impact of engaging undergraduate students in original research and how to do so successfully. The prevalence of undergraduates conducting research under faculty supervision has grown markedly in recent years. A review of the literature, however, shows that engaging students successfully in research requires a major commitment on the part of the institution, department, faculty, and student. Furthermore, if not done correctly, the research experience can have a negative educational impact for the student. This chapter examines the resources needed at all levels to make the experience successful. Finally, the chapter explores the challenges and pitfalls that face faculty and students as they collaborate in the research process, from developing a research idea to making a research presentation.

Keywords: undergraduate research, student–faculty research, research supervision, honors thesis, senior capstone

Early in my career I supervised an undergraduate student who wanted to conduct a research project on memory. We agreed that she would try to replicate a study in a recently published journal article. I was skeptical of the results reported in the article but I did not tell my student because I thought it might discourage her. She carefully repeated the study and failed to replicate the reported results. I was excited, but my student was disappointed. She was sure she must have done something wrong if she didn’t obtain the same results. When I told her that I never expected to replicate the results, she was stunned. We both learned important lessons that day. My student learned that just because a study is published, it doesn’t mean the study is established truth. She learned scientific skepticism and the importance of replication. She learned about all the factors that might affect a study that are never mentioned in a research report. Finally, she learned that if she executed the experiment carefully, she should trust her results. For my part, I learned about the educational impact of having students engage in research. My student gained insight into the power (and the messiness) of the research process that she could not have obtained any other way.

Psychology has been a leader in integrating research instruction and experience into the undergraduate curriculum (Miller et al., 2008). Kuh (2008) proclaimed research experience to be a “high impact” educational practice for students, but a review of relevant literature, indicates that engaging students in research is a challenging process and that both positive and negative learning outcomes are possible. This chapter will review the literature on the benefits, potential pitfalls, and outcomes of engaging undergraduates in research in general and the specific challenges of supervising students in psychological research.

(p. 242) Supervising undergraduates in research has traditionally been seen as part of an honors program or thesis project for select, highly motivated students. With the rapid rise in prevalence of capstone courses (Henscheid, 2000), however, research experiences are now required of all students at many colleges, especially liberal arts colleges (Schermer & Gray, 2012). Furthermore, student research is no longer limited to senior capstone courses. Many colleges now offer research options as part of the curriculum, for independent study, or simply as an extracurricular activity. These research experiences have multiple, desirable learning goals for undergraduates (see APA, 2012). As part of a capstone course, the experience is intended to provide a coherent, integrative summary of students’ college course work. For undergraduates considering a career in psychology, these experiences are opportunities for career exploration and preparation for graduate study. Finally, such experiences can also promote pragmatic skills such as leadership, project management, and oral and written communication.

Undergraduate Research Defined

The Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” (Rowlett, Blockus, & Larson, 2012, p. 2). This definition views undergraduate research from the perspective of traditional scholarship. Notably, it excludes replication of prior research from qualifying as undergraduate research. From an educational perspective, research that methodologically or conceptually replicates prior work still has benefit to the student even if it does not result in a novel contribution to the field. Bauer and Bennett (2003) define undergraduate research as collaboration between a student and faculty member, a more inclusive definition that allows the possibility of conducting research mainly for the educational benefit of the student. Bauer and Bennett make this clear by stating,

Although undergraduate research students are not exempted from performing the relatively low-skilled tasks of a technician, they must also experience a steady progression in their abilities to develop a research hypothesis, design and carry out an investigation and analysis of results, contextualize their work within the scholarly literature, and present their work orally and in writing. (pp. 215–216)

The Impact of Undergraduate Research for Faculty Supervisors and Students

At its best, engaging undergraduate students in research serves two purposes: it advances extant knowledge through new discoveries and it provides the students with a rich educational experience. Done well, student research provides benefits for both faculty and students. Students assume the roles of research assistants, apprentices, and even collaborators. They help advance the faculty supervisor’s research program and make scholarly contributions to the field. Students, in turn, learn the research process for psychology. They experience how psychologists create, explore, and discover. Engaging in research is a form of experiential learning for students in which they learn not only information, but how that information was derived or produced. Understanding the research process is the highest form of critical thinking in any field.

Bain (2012) provides the case study of an undergraduate named Cheryl who was a top student yet whose understanding of her field was transformed by her first research experience. Unlike her usual course work, conducting research allowed her “to plunge into the stew of her discipline, to pursue evidence and weigh it” (p. 160). Traditional course work focused on what was known in the field, giving the false impression that there was little to be learned. Research focuses on ignorance—that is, what is not known about some phenomenon--and how it drives scholarly inquiry (Firestein, 2012). Bain (2012) notes that Cheryl now “saw researchers making observations in the field, asking questions, piecing evidence together in strings of inferences, raising more questions, and returning for additional observation. ‘I began to realize that there is so much about the world we don’t know’ ” (p. 161). Note that the key change in Cheryl’s understanding was not about content, although she certainly learned new information about her field; rather, it was about her understanding of the nature of knowledge and how it is established.

The Goals of Conducting Research with Undergraduates

Ideally, engaging undergraduate research benefits both faculty and students, but that ideal is not always achieved. For faculty, the goals of engaging in research involve making novel and important contributions to the field, increasing their personal expertise and professional prestige, and achieving promotion and tenure. Faculty may engage students to help achieve those goals, but they also pursue (p. 243) educational goals for the student. For students, engaging in research helps them to understand the research process. They learn to think critically about psychological research, to communicate effectively, and they gain research experience and skills. Involving students in research is also a way to increase students’ interest in the field, to explore career options, and to prepare for graduate school. Finally, by becoming part of a research program, students learn about perseverance, project management, overcoming obstacles, and creative problem solving.

Faculty must determine what their primary goal is for conducting research, consider whether they wish to involve undergraduates and, if so, in what roles. If the primary goal of a faculty member is to publish articles for promotion and tenure, then he or she may not want to involve undergraduates or involve them only in simple roles such as record keeping or data entry. If the goal of the faculty is to provide a rich educational experience for students, then he or she might involve students in more of a collaborative role, even though this might make conducting high quality research more difficult.

The desirable outcomes of the research also depend on the reasons for involving students. Table 1 shows lists different possible research outcomes and their value to faculty in terms of academic scholarship and to students in terms of educational value. Publication in a prestigious journal obviously has high scholarship and educational value. From there, the scholarship value for the faculty declines with professional conference presentations, student conference presentations, on-campus presentations, and simply the experience of conducting research. For students, however, the educational value of any of those outcomes can be high.

In addition to fulfilling educational goals, conducting research, provides career exploration and preparation. Kardash et al. (2008) found that research experience had a significant impact on participant’s aspirations for a research career. For some, the experience decreased their desire to pursue a research career but for others it either increased the desire or even introduced the possibility of pursuing a research career. Furthermore, for students wishing to pursue graduate study in psychology, particularly at the doctoral level, having significant research experience is considered highly desirable by most graduate schools (APA, 2007).

The Educational Impact of Participating in Research as an Undergraduate

Studies of the educational impact of undergraduate research make the benefits of providing this experience for students clear (e.g., Bauer & Bennett, 2003; Blockus, 2008; Kardash, 2000; Kardash, Wallace, & Kuh, 2008; Schermer & Gray, 2012). In a report for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Kuh (2008) cited student faculty research as one of seven “high-impact educational practices” based on results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Engaging in undergraduate research was strongly linked to essential learning outcomes, specifically “Fostering broad knowledge of human cultures and the natural world” and “Strengthening intellectual and practical skills.” Furthermore, Kuh found that engaging in undergraduate research was strongly correlated with self-reported use of deep approaches to learning and to both personal and practical gains in understanding.

Two other points are worth mentioning here. Kuh (2008) shows that the percentage of institutions offering undergraduate research experiences to students varies widely by type of institution. Baccalaureate institutions that focus on the liberal arts are much more likely to offer undergraduate research experiences (29 percent) than other types (the overall average of all institutions is 19 percent). (p. 244) Selective institutions are more likely to offer undergraduate research experiences than less selective institutions (23 percent versus 16 percent), and private institutions are more likely to offer it than public ones (22 percent versus 18 percent). Second, the number of students who participate in undergraduate research is correlated with the value and importance faculty place on it. If faculty members believe undergraduate research experience is important, then student participation is higher.

Table 20.1 The Scholarly and Educational Value of Different Research Outcomes

Research Outcome

Scholarship Value (For Faculty)

Educational Value (For Student)




Professional conference presentation

Moderately high


Student conference presentation

Moderately low


On-campus presentation



Research experience



Kuh’s (2008) analysis has the advantage of providing an institution-wide evaluation of the impact of undergraduate research experiences. His analysis, however, does not provide insight into discipline specific impact, or what specific skills are enhanced by research experience, or how institutions should structure undergraduate research experiences. In an in-depth study of capstone research experiences at four liberal arts colleges, Schermer and Gray (2012) found that the positive impacts of undergraduate research varied widely from department to department and from college to college.

Undergraduate research has traditionally been more common in the sciences, but there now seems to be an upswing in such activity in the humanities (Bauer & Bennett, 2003). Bauer and Bennett surveyed alumni from a large public university to gauge the impact of participation in research. They found that alumni who engaged in research reported significantly enhanced cognitive skills and satisfaction with their undergraduate experience compared to those who did not participate in research. The reported gains held across all majors, suggesting that the benefits of research apply to both humanities and sciences. Likewise, Schermer and Gray (2012) found from a survey of alumni that the engaging undergraduates in scholarship benefitted all disciplines.

Studies examining the impact of student–faculty research on specific skills and behaviors mostly come from the sciences. Kardash (2000) studied the impact of summer science research internship programs on participants. She had students rate the their abilities on 12 components of research skill, such as, “Formulate a research hypothesis based on a specific question” and “Interpret data by relating results to the original hypothesis.” Kardash took ratings before and after the research internship. She also had the faculty mentors rate the students on the same components after the internship. The students reported significant gains in ability in all but one of the research components. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, the ratings of the faculty mentors were strikingly similar to the student self-ratings. Subsequent studies have reinforced these findings (Kardash & Edwards, 2012; Kardash, Wallace, & Blockus, 2008).

The outcomes of the undergraduate research internships were not all positive, however. Kardash (2000) measured student expectations of how much the research experience would help them at the outset of the experience and then measured student self-reports of how much they gained from the experience after it was completed. In all skills, the self-reported gains in skills were significantly lower than the students’ initial expectations. Furthermore, Kardash and associates (Kardash, 2000; Kardash et al., 2008) examined how research internships changed the students’ self-efficacy beliefs about pursuing a career in science or related fields. They asked questions aimed at gauging the students’ beliefs in their ability, motivation, and ability to persevere through challenges in pursuing a science as a career both before and after the internship. In both studies, they found a significant decrease in self-efficacy after the internship. Whether this means that the students came to the internship with unrealistic expectations that were rectified during the internship or whether the students became discouraged from pursuing science because of the internship is unclear.

Kardash et al. (2008) found that over a third of the students stated that the research experience helped clarify their career goals, with roughly equal numbers showing increased and decreased interested in pursuing science and related fields as careers. Schermer and Gray (2012) found similar results. After a senior capstone research project, 7 percent of students originally planning on stopping at a bachelor’s degree changed their minds to pursue a doctorate and 8 percent decided to pursue a master’s degree. But for those students originally planning on doctoral study, 4 percent changed their minds to stop at a bachelor’s degree and 12 percent changed to a master’s degree after the research experience. These results argue that a significant research experience provides a “reality check” for undergraduates, raising the aspirations for some but lowering it for others (see also Taraban & Logue, 2012).

Kardash et al. (2008) surveyed participants about the most disappointing or frustrating aspect of the research experience, the modal response was getting disappointing results and unsuccessful experiments. Lack of sufficient time was frequently mentioned, and 16 percent mentioned difficulties with their (p. 245) faculty mentor. Schermer and Gray (2012) also found that the relationship between faculty mentor and student was critical and if it was poor, was a source of frustration to the student.

Kardash and associates (Kardash, 2000; Kardash et al., 2008; see also Taraban & Logue, 2012) examined sex differences among students participating in research internships. Kardash (2000) found no sex differences at the beginning of the research experience. At the end, only one significant difference emerged. Men rated their ability to understand concepts in their field higher than women did. The ratings of faculty mentors, however, showed no significant sex differences. Similarly, Kardash et al. (2008) found few sex differences, but they were noteworthy. Women were four times more likely to say that the experience decreased their motivation to pursue careers in science. At the same time, more women than men reported that the experience had made them aware of new career possibilities and improved their self-efficacy. The reasons for these disparate effects are not clear, but the authors speculate that it may be due to the fact that significantly fewer women than men reported the experience to be stimulating and challenging. Thus, there appear to be few sex differences with regard to the impact of an undergraduate research experience, but the sex differences that have been found are complex, and in need of further study.

Kuh (2008) promotes student–faculty research as a high-impact educational practice, but Taraban and Logue (2012) have challenged the notion that research experience is beneficial for all students. They examined changes in cognitive skills over a broad sample of students. They found that the benefits of undergraduate research were realized by students with high GPAs. Students with average GPAs showed no benefits, and students with low GPAs actually declined with research experience. For high-GPA students, the point in their college career when they participated in research did not matter but their level of commitment did. Greater commitment to research yielded greater benefits.

Schermer and Gray (2012) undertook a comprehensive assessment of the impact of capstone research courses at four small, private, liberal arts colleges. They conducted their study because of the evidence about the positive impact of capstone experiences was largely anecdotal and what empirical evidence there was focused mainly on math and sciences. The four colleges all require a senior capstone project in which students engage in scholarly work under faculty supervision. Based on their findings, Schermer and Gray argue that overall, a research-based capstone course benefits all students across different skill levels and disciplines, although there are costs and difficulties. They found uniform benefits of the research experience regardless of GPA, although lower GPA students reported the experience was more stressful than high GPA students. Schermer and Gray, however, were studying liberal arts colleges in which there is a strong faculty commitment to undergraduate teaching and research. Their results may not generalize to all colleges and universities. Whether all students should be required to participate in undergraduate research or whether it should be an option for motivated and capable students remains an open question. The institutions studied by Schermer and Gray (2012) committed major resources to support and promote student research. They developed curricula to prepare students for it and created a campus culture that celebrated it. The faculty members involved were committed to student research and took satisfaction in working with undergraduates. Faculty and students reported that the research experience increased academic skills such as critical thinking within the discipline and communication skills. Trying their hands at research also helped students develop project management skills and self-confidence. Faculty, in turn, felt that the experience forced students to take responsibility for their own learning, required students to put forth a sustained effort to achieve success, and moved students from learning about a discipline to practicing the discipline.

Somewhat surprisingly, Schermer and Gray (2012) found that higher order cognition, the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and to adopt multiple perspectives, actually declined. These are the kinds of traits one would expect to increase through research experience. The reasons why these factors declined are not clear. Research projects usually focus on highly specific problems and it could be that students did not feel the experience helped them with broaden their thinking. It could also be that the research experience was more complex and challenging than they had expected and this could cause their assessment of their own abilities to go down (cf. Kardash, et al., 2008). Alternatively, the finding could possibly be an artifact caused by factors such as timing of the assessment or averaging the results across different disciplines and colleges. Clearly, this finding calls for further study. Regardless, the results (p. 246) show that research experiences are not a panacea for undergraduate education. They can be a powerful learning experience but they require substantial institutional, faculty, and student commitment to be successful and they should be part of a broader educational experience. Finally, Schermer and Gray found that many students did not understand the rationale for engaging in research. The students knew it was required, but did not know the reason why. Schermer and Gray recommended that institutions make the educational purpose of engaging in research clear and explicit to students.

One point that comes through clearly in all the assessments of undergraduate research is the critical role of the faculty mentor in the success of the research experience (Kardash et al., 2008; Schermer & Gray, 2012; Taraban & Logue, 2012). Faculty must be committed to making the undergraduate research experience successful. They must be available and approachable to students. Being a faculty mentor is more than simply instructing or guiding students in research. Faculty mentors have to be sensitive to student expectations at the beginning of the research experience and the possibility of students becoming discouraged as they find out how complex research really is. The faculty mentors should be aware of these issues when working with undergraduates.

The studies reviewed above also make clear that the rapport between mentor and student is critically important for a successful research experience (cf. Wilson & Ryan, 2012): both must be fully committed to the research project. One of the most commonly cited sources of frustration for faculty was working with unmotivated students, and one of the most commonly cited sources of frustrations for students was working with unhelpful faculty mentors (Kardash et al., 2008; Schermer & Gray, 2012; Taraban & Logue, 2012). Specifically, Schermer and Gray (2012) found that students appreciated mentors who showed a strong interest in the research project, who promoted student independence, and provided timely and useful feedback on the project. The student’s major complaints about mentors had to do with receiving poor or untimely feedback, lack of availability, and missed meetings.

Finally, the benefits found by Schermer and Gray (2012) transcended the acquisition of content knowledge and even disciplinary research skills. Project management skills, independent learning skills, and perseverance in the face of challenges are applicable to any career pursuit.

Institutional Challenges of Conducting Undergraduate Research

The remainder of this chapter deals with the challenges of conducting research with undergraduates. As has been discussed, a successful program of undergraduate research requires a substantial commitment of resources on the part of the institution, the department, the faculty mentor, and the student. At the intuitional level, it requires a cultural change that makes student research a priority. Faculty must have the time to work with students and they should know how their work will be valued for tenure and promotion. The curriculum must be modified to support the development of research skills before the actual research experience. Students must understand the purpose of conducting research and the time commitment involved. The student and the faculty mentor must have good rapport and a strong working relationship.

CUR is the leading organization for promoting undergraduate research in the United States. Their website ( offers many useful publications as does their journal, CUR Quarterly. For example, CUR has described is a comprehensive framework for implementing, supporting, and assessing undergraduate research at institutions entitled Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research or COEUR (Hensel, 2012). It covers student commitment, curricular issues, faculty workload issues, tenure and promotion considerations, start-up costs, funding and resource issues, and institutional commitment. It provides many examples of how different kinds of institutions have successfully implemented undergraduate research.

To implement undergraduate research as an integral part of its educational mission, an institution must make a commitment that will change its culture and practices. Undergraduate research is not something that can simply be added onto existing workloads and requirements. It requires significant amounts of time for both faculty supervisors and students, curricular support, and sufficient resources to conduct high level research across disciplines (Hensel, 2012; Schermer & Gray, 2012).

A college or university must have sufficient support in place such as library and informational resources, equipment and technology for conducting research and analyzing data, and monetary support for travel and research expenses. Obviously, each discipline has its own specific needs. Part of the institutional commitment is a recognition and celebration of undergraduate research (Hensel, 2012; Schermer & Gray, 2012). An integral part of (p. 247) an undergraduate research experience is the communication of the results in both a written paper and a research presentation. The presentation may take the form of an oral research presentation followed by questions from the audience, a poster presentation where students and faculty can discuss the research with the student, or an oral defense with departmental faculty. Many institutions mount a campus-wide research forum where students present their research. The forum may be marked by ceremony and ritual to show the institutional endorsement of undergraduate research. On my campus, for example, the forum is called the Samford Student Showcase, and encompasses student research and creative work from all disciplines.

An institution that wishes to institute undergraduate research must develop a supportive curriculum (Hensel, 2012; Schermer & Gray, 2012). The curriculum must provide the skills and experience the student needs to accomplish the desired level of research. The skills needed to conduct high level disciplinary research should be introduced in prior course work. In the sciences, for example, such skills would include information literacy, an introduction to research design, data collection, and data analysis, and instruction in technical writing and communication. A common solution is to have a pre-requisite course for the capstone that gives students an introduction to research. Another solution is to break the capstone into a sequence of courses. In the first course, the student reviews the literature and develops the idea for the research project. This initial course concludes with the writing of a research proposal, which is then refined and carried out in the next course. The level of preparation required will vary by discipline. Two important curricular decisions are whether all students will be required to engage in research and to what degree. Although all students should be exposed to research, not all students benefit from a high-level research experience (Taraban & Logue, 2012). One possibility is to require a lower-level research project for all students but make a high-level research experience one option for a capstone experience for highly motivated students.

Institutions interested in promoting undergraduate research experiences must establish policies about how faculty time spent supervising undergraduate research will count toward workload. Supervising research is time intensive and often requires one-on-one supervision. A faculty member can only supervise a relatively small number of students conducting research (e.g., three to five). It is expensive in terms of credit hour production compared to teaching regular courses, particularly lecture-oriented courses. Schermer and Gray (2012) state a rule of thumb that supervising five or six research projects is roughly equivalent to teaching a stand-alone course. They also note that for popular majors like psychology, faculty may be required to supervise up to 10 or more student research projects.

Faculty and Student Challenges of Conducting Undergraduate Research

The commitment of both student and faculty to the research is of critical importance. The greatest commitment for both student and faculty is time. Schermer and Gray (2012) found that students reported spending an average of 14.1 hours per week on their capstone research project, more than they spent on regular courses (this average varied across disciplines). For students, the time commitment has the potential to interfere with other desirable activities. If students perceive the time commitment to be onerous, they will be reluctant to engage in research or not give it the time commitment required. Furthermore, if undergraduates wait until their senior year to engage in research, it gives them little time to begin the research and see it through to completion and dissemination. They may have only one chance to conduct a study; whereas faculty and graduate students can conduct a series of studies to refine and perfect the methods. Faculty also reported that one of the burdens of supervising students in research was the time it took away from teaching and their own research. A common way to address this issue is to embed research into the curriculum so that students are able to earn credit for participating and faculty receive workload credit. Schermer and Gray (2012) found that each institution they studied had a workload formula for counting supervision of student research, although how it counted varied among the institutions.

The faculty time commitment is more complex because of concerns about promotion and tenure. The faculty member must know if the time spent supervising undergraduate research is valued by the institution and how it will count in faculty evaluations for tenure, promotion, or basic annual reviews. Conducting research with undergraduates is different from conducting research with graduate students. Undergraduates have little to no research experience and training, and their motivation and commitment to research is different from graduate students. Engaging in research is an educational experience for them; they are exploring it (p. 248) as a career option, not to earn an advanced degree and pursue publications. Due to their inexperience, undergraduates are more likely to make mistakes that could invalidate a study (e.g., failing to randomize conditions correctly, neglecting to deliver key instructions to participants). Finally, once an undergraduate has gained sufficient research skill and experience to conduct high level research, they graduate and the faculty member has to start with new students. All of these factors make conducting research with undergraduates more complicated than working with graduate students. It makes it less likely that a faculty member can produce publishable research. If research productivity is the primary criterion for promotion and tenure, faculty—especially junior faculty—have little incentive to engage in undergraduate research. Not surprisingly, undergraduate research is most likely to occur at smaller liberal arts colleges where teaching is a primary commitment.

Faculty members face many important considerations when mentoring students in research. A positive working relationship between faculty mentor and student is critical (Schermer & Gray, 2012). What, then, is the best way to pair students with mentors? Allowing students to choose their mentors would appear to be the ideal method, but it is often not practical (e.g., a popular mentor can supervise only so many projects at once). The mentoring load must be spread fairly among faculty. Thus, students may be assigned to faculty mentors. Staffing constraints may dictate that faculty are assigned to supervise research for a given term, and the students have little choice. Regardless of how faculty are paired with students, faculty must be aware of the expectations and concerns of the student. Faculty must realize that the first research experience is often highly stressful for the student. The novelty and complexity of conducting research is often overwhelming, from the amount of relevant literature that must be mastered, to developing a good, workable research idea, to developing methodology and mastering technology, to conducting the research and analyzing results to finally communicating the results. Faculty, who have been trained for years in research, must appropriately scaffold the experience for students. Some students may be able to take an active role immediately while others might benefit from taking a more supporting role so they have more time to learn the research process. Faculty must remain accessible and available to students to provide guidance when needed. One key piece of guidance is an expected schedule or timeline of when different phases of the project should be completed. The research process is often obscure and overwhelming to students, and a schedule provides some concrete structure and expectations. Students are likely to find the research process surprisingly difficult with unforeseen challenges. They might become discouraged if they make a mistake, or the study fails, or the results do not come out as predicted. The faculty mentor must help students understand these aspects of the research process and help them persevere through the setbacks and disappointments. Schermer and Gray (2012) suggested that training for faculty mentors in how best to supervise students in research might be advisable.

Challenges in the Research Process

Developing a Good Research Problem

The faculty mentor must help the student develop a challenging but workable and worthwhile research idea. Developing a good research idea for an undergraduate requires a different kind of thinking than faculty use to pursue their own research. The research problem should be challenging but achievable to the students with the potential to yield meaningful results. Developing a good research idea is easier if the student is interested in research within the mentor’s area of expertise. The simplest solution is for the student to work on a project in line with the faculty mentors research program. While simple, this means that the student may have little ownership of the idea and is denied the experience of developing an idea into actual research. Furthermore, the more ownership students feel for the research idea, the harder they will work and the more they will benefit from the experience (Schermer and Gray, 2012).

If students can develop their own ideas, then that is ideal, but probably unlikely. Oftentimes, students start with ideas that are poorly conceived and unworkable (Smith, 2007). Instead of delving into the research literature to see what has been done, the first inclination of many students is to brainstorm an idea in the absence of any domain or research expertise. Brainstorming without understanding the extant research in a topical area rarely produces a good, workable research idea. Students often fail to understand the complexity and time required to plan and design research. In addition to lacking expertise in a given area, student thinking is unfettered by constraints such as the time required (p. 249) to conduct research, the equipment and technology required, and the availability of participants. Furthermore, if a student wants to pursue research that is outside of the faculty mentor’s expertise, it requires the mentor to master an unfamiliar research literature, significantly increasing the mentor’s work load. Schermer and Gray (2012) note that in their sample, faculty enjoyed learning about new areas of research that were still related to their areas of expertise. They recommend that the research idea be negotiated between faculty and student. The implication is that the faculty mentor must be flexible and adaptable and not focused solely on his or her primary research area.

In the research development process, it is up to the faculty member to point out the limitations of research ideas while still being supportive and encouraging. In working with undergraduates, it is a good idea to forewarn them that generating and then discarding many research ideas as unworkable or not worth pursuing is a common part of the research process. Another practice is to present students with a list of potential research topics within the mentor’s expertise, including past research projects, to help guide the students’ thinking. Such a list helps direct and constrain student thinking within the mentor’s area of expertise while still giving students some freedom to develop their own projects. Whether students are required to pick a topic on the list or they are free to pursue their own ideas is up to the faculty mentor. Another way of guiding student thinking is to require that the research idea be based at least in part on a published study. This forces students to examine the research literature and it shows students how research is built on prior work. It saves time and increases the likelihood of a successful project because the student can utilize a research methodology that has already been developed and implemented successfully.

Here are some potential sources of good research problems:

  • Replications. Replications of prior studies with variations or extensions make excellent and important undergraduate research projects. While perhaps not groundbreaking, replications play a critical role in good scientific practice. The replication need not be an exact duplication of a previous study. It can be a conceptual replication, in which a different but conceptually identical method or research context is used to verify the findings of a study. It can also be a replication with extension, where an additional variable is considered.

  • Theoretical extensions. Another good source of research ideas is to apply a theory to a situation in which the theory has not been tested before. For example, do the principles and properties of expertise that have been found in chess players apply to expert musicians or expert gymnasts?

  • Research gaps. Research gaps are problem areas that have not received adequate research attention. Oftentimes there are intuitive, “common sense” beliefs about the best solution to the problem, but there is no research to support this solution. For example, many high schools and colleges tout benefits of taking a second language, but there is little actual research on any cognitive advantages that may come from 1 or 2 years’ study of a second language. Finding such research gaps typically require a thorough understanding of the literature. It is more likely that the faculty mentor will identify a research gap than a student.

  • Contradictory findings or theories. The research literature is rife with different studies of a phenomenon that reach conflicting conclusions and theories that make different predictions about a given situation. Identifying and addressing these conflicts is a rich source good research ideas. For example, Kohlberg (e.g. Krebs & Denton, 2005), evolutionary psychology (e.g., Krebs, 2005), and Haidt (see Haidt, 2007) all have theories of moral reasoning. These theories lead to different predictions about judgments of moral behavior in certain situations. These theoretical differences stimulate research to resolve which theory best explains the behavior.

  • Applied research problems. Good research projects can be driven by important practical problems. These problems are more than matters of mere curiosity, but have important implications and consequences. For example, is taking notes using a laptop computer or tablet as effective as taking handwritten notes for students (Mueller & Oppenheimer, in press)? Do students learn as well from e-books as printed books (Daniel & Woody, 2012)? When people visit a physician, how much of the physician’s explanation and instructions do people remember afterward (Higgins & Chew, 2014)?

(p. 250) No matter what the source of the research idea might be, a thorough review of the relevant literature is always required to develop the idea into a good research problem with a workable research methodology to address it.

Lack of Research Space, Technology, and Participants

Conducting research with undergraduates is relatively straightforward if the faculty mentor has an ongoing research program with lab space, equipment, technology and other resources. Faculty who wish to engage undergraduates in research for pedagogical purposes may have little lab space and equipment, especially at smaller, teaching intensive schools, such as liberal arts colleges. Good psychological research is still possible even without specialized equipment and technology. Experimental research can be conducted with selection of a problem that can be studied using commonly available technology without specialized equipment. For example, a student can study the effectiveness of a particular teaching activity using actual classes. A student can randomly divide a class into two groups, one of which gets the new activity and the other group carries out what is typically done in the class. Student learning can then be assessed on the next exam. If the student has access to two sections of the same class, the student can create a quasi-experiment by using one class as the experimental group and the other as the control group. Here are some other solutions to conducting good research without much in the way of resources.

  • Observational research. Observational studies are generally easy to do, but can still yield interesting results. They have the advantages of generally using minimal equipment and using the general population as the participants in the research. Of course, such studies still require ethical safeguards, especially if participants are being observed without informed consent. Some examples of observational research include observing the occurrence of hygienic hand washing behavior, cell phone usage in different contexts, seat belt use while driving, and personal space.

  • Survey research. Survey research is always a possibility when lab space and equipment are limited. There are many psychometrically sound attitude and behavior measures online that can be used as the basis of innovative survey research. Jonathan Mueller (Resources for the Teaching of Social Psychology), Marianne Miserandino (Personality Pedagogy), and Alan Reifman (Social Personality Psychology: Questionnaire Instrument Compendium), all maintain websites with listings of many measurement instruments.

  • Online research. Software is readily and cheaply available for developing online surveys and experiments. Online studies are especially useful for researchers without access to a participant pool with the desired characteristics.

  • Archival Research. Another solution to conducting research without resources is to analyze archival data sets. Large data sets are available both commercially and in the public domain on a wide range of interesting topics. The Pew Research Center, for example, ( has publicly available data sets about social and political attitudes for download and analysis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( and both offer downloadable data sets on disease and health that are relevant to psychologists.

  • Case Studies. If a student has access to a person who has some special trait, the student can carry out a case study. For example, Chase and Simon (1973) studied the memory of a chess master. Some years later, I had a student who was a percussionist and she carried out a case study on an expert percussionist (Moritz & Chew, 1992). I had yet another student who was a baseball player, and he carried out research on automaticity and throwing skill using pitchers on the varsity baseball team (White & Chew, 2012).

  • Pedagogical research. One potential research resource for virtually all faculty is their classes, whether online or face-to-face. Students can conduct pedagogical research, also referred to as the scholarship of teaching and learning, using students enrolled in a class as participants. Ideally, the research is relevant to the class. For example, what is the best way to use worked examples to teach statistics (Hampton & Chew, 2010)? Do daily quizzes improve long-term student learning (Leeming, 2002)? Can teaching students to study by generating questions or creating concept maps improve their learning (Berry & Chew, 2008)? Even though the research is being conducted within the faculty mentor’s class, the study must be approved by the campus Institutional Review Board if the results are to be shared publicly.

(p. 251) Anticipating Student Mistakes and Difficulties

Faculty must continue their supervision of students throughout the research process. Some problems that students encounter will be predictable, such as developing suitable research procedures and gaining institutional review board (IRB) approval, but there is always a likelihood of unforeseen problems. Because students have little to no research experience and lack an understanding of the research process, they often will make mistakes that the faculty mentor, with years of experience, will not anticipate. Such surprises are part of the educational process of undergraduate research. The mentor must balance allowing the students as much autonomy as practical with enough supervision to prevent as many mistakes as possible.

Let me point out several common problems that students often encounter when conducting research for the first time. Students often underestimate the time required to develop a good research problem and sound methodology. When students think about doing research, they typically think about collecting data. They are unaware of the time required to develop a good research idea and they may become frustrated and anxious because it takes longer than they expect. Undergraduates often have only one chance to conduct their research project.

Faculty mentors will almost certainly need to help students in developing a workable experimental design. The ability to design an elegant experiment that provides a fair test of the research hypotheses requires advanced training and experience. The design must include appropriate control groups for meaningful comparisons. The researcher must consider how the results will be analyzed as part of the design process. Students are likely to design studies that lack proper control conditions, or contain confounding variables, or may not be statistically analyzable.

Unlike faculty members who have the time and resources to repeat and refine experiments, undergraduates often face time constraints such as completing a study as part of a course grade or facing graduation. Therefore, undergraduates should thoroughly pilot test their method to ensure that it has the best chance of being successful. Pilot testing reveals problems with the method and it helps the students become more comfortable with carrying out the research.

Students should administer manipulation checks and debriefing questions to their participants at the conclusion of the study. The manipulation checks will help make sure that the independent variables and controls were effective. Oftentimes, unforeseen problems arise when a study is done for the first time. Manipulation checks help diagnose what may have gone wrong. For the same reasons, students should also ask participants debriefing questions such as if the instructions were clear, if the participants followed instructions to the best of their ability, what strategies they may have used, and what their experience was in the study. Of course, student researchers should be trained to give a proper debriefing to the participants.

The project should conclude with a written report of the project and results and a public presentation by the student. Students need guidance in writing their papers using proper APA (2010) format. Students often have little or no experience in technical writing, which is substantially different than of the kinds of writing they have done for composition and literature classes. There should be time for at least one major revision if not more for each section of the paper, where the student submits a draft, the faculty mentor gives feedback, and the student revises and resubmits the paper. Students should understand that revision and resubmission is part of the research writing process. If the project is of high quality, the students should be encouraged to submit their papers to either an undergraduate research journal, such as the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, or in exceptional cases, a professional journal.

Students should also have the opportunity to present their research as an oral presentation or poster as part of a research conference. As already noted, many colleges and universities hold an on-campus research symposium to showcase undergraduate research. Many research conferences sponsored by professional or special interest organizations feature a section for student research presentations. In psychology, Psi Chi sponsors undergraduate research presentations at regional and national APA conferences. Departments of psychology can host regional undergraduate psychology conferences. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has funding available to help underwrite these conferences.

Students need to be mentored in how to properly present research (see Dunn, Baker, McCarthy, Halonen, & Lastres, 2012; McCarthy, Baker, Halonen, & Dunn, this volume). They need to develop presentations that clearly explain the background research and rationale for the study, the design and method, the proper description and analysis of the data, and the conclusions and (p. 252) implications of the findings. All of this has to happen within constraints of time, for oral presentations, and space, for posters. This is a challenging process that will take multiple revisions and rehearsal. The student should be well prepared to make their presentation within the constraints of the conference and to handle likely questions.


There are numerous excellent resources available to help faculty who wish to engage undergraduate students in research. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) maintains a website with resources for all phases of research at They publish a journal, CUR Quarterly, and sponsor an annual conference. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), Division 2 of APA, has a free e-book (Miller et al., 2008) on promoting undergraduate research in psychology. Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS), part of APA, maintains a page of information and resources for mentoring students in research for science fairs ( Although geared for high school students and teachers, many of these resources apply to undergraduate research, including a manual with teaching resources on supervising student research. William M. Trochim maintains a website called the Web Center for Social Research Methods ( The website contains an online textbook for conducting social science research. The textbook is not specifically targeted for psychological research, but it still covers many important concepts, from problem identification to writing up the research. The website also includes an interactive guide to selecting the appropriate statistical analysis for an experimental design. Finally, there are many research methods textbooks that can serve as resources to faculty and students. For example, Dunn (2013a; 2013b) and Beins (2013) both provide detailed information and concrete guidance on all aspects of the research process.


Undergraduate research can be a powerful educational experience. The educational benefits go beyond disciplinary knowledge and skill. Psychology has been a leader in promoting high quality undergraduate research under faculty supervision. Done well, both faculty and students find it richly rewarding. Like any teaching method, however, it can be implemented badly, leading to a frustrating, unproductive experience for faculty and student. Undergraduate research is a major undertaking that requires commitment of time and resources by the institution, faculty, and students. It requires a culture that supports and promotes student research. This chapter has summarized the benefits of student research, outlined potential pitfalls to avoid, and described ways to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.


American Psychological Association. (2007). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: APA.Find this resource:

    American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: APA.Find this resource:

      American Psychological Association, APA Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies (2012). APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from

      Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

        Bauer, K. W., & Bennett, J. S. (2003). Alumni perceptions used to assess undergraduate research experience. The Journal of Higher Education, 74, 210–230. doi:10.1353/jhe.2003.0011Find this resource:

          Beins, B. C. (2013). Successful research projects. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

            Berry, J. W., & Chew, S. L., (2008). Improving learning through interventions of student-generated questions and concept maps. Teaching of Psychology, 35, 305–312.Find this resource:

              Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55–81. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(73)90004-2Find this resource:

                Daniel, D., & Woody, W. D. (2012). E-textbooks at what cost? Performance and use of electronic v. print Texts. Computers & Education, 62, 18–23. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.016Find this resource:

                  Dunn, D. S. (2013a). The practical researcher: A student guide to conducting psychological research (3rd ed.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

                    Dunn, D. S. (2013b). Research methods for social psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Find this resource:

                      Dunn, D. S., Baker, S. C., McCarthy, M. A., Halonen, J. S., & Lastres, A. (2012). Integrating public speaking into psychology classes: A framework and rubric for assessing skills. In D. S. Dunn, S. C. Baker, C. M. Mehrotra, R. E. Landrum, & M. A. McCarthy (Eds.), Assessing teaching and learning in psychology: Current and future perspectives (pp. 69–81). Belmont, CA: Cengage.Find this resource:

                        Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How it drives science. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                          Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316, 998–1002. doi:10.1126/science.1137651Find this resource:

                            Hampton, A. G., & Chew, S. L. (2010, January). Designed sequences of examples facilitate learning of statistical concepts. Paper presented at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology, Tampa, FL.Find this resource:

                              Henscheid, J. M. (2000). Professing the disciplines: An analysis of senior seminars and capstone courses. The First-Year Experience Monograph Series No. 30. Retrieved from (p. 253) Find this resource:

                                Hensel, N. (Ed.). (2012). Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research. Retrieved from

                                Higgins, H., & Chew, S. L. (2012, May). The effect of spacing and mode of presentation on retention of medical information. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, San Francisco, CA.Find this resource:

                                  Kardash, C. M. (2000). Evaluation of an undergraduate research experience: Perceptions of undergraduate interns and their faculty mentors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 191–201. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.92.1.191Find this resource:

                                    Kardash, C. M., & Edwards, O. V. (2012). Thinking and behaving like scientists: Perceptions of undergraduate science interns and their faculty mentors. Instructional Science, 40, 875–899. doi:10.1007/s11251-011-9195-0Find this resource:

                                      Kardash, C. M., Wallace, M., & Blockus, L. (2008). Science undergraduates’ perceptions of learning from undergraduate research experiences. In R. L. Miller, R. F. Rycek, E. Balcetis, S. T. Barney, B. C. Beins, S. R. Burns, R. Smith, & M. E. Ware (Eds.), Developing, promoting, & sustaining the undergraduate research experience in psychology (pp. 258–263). Retrieved from this resource:

                                        Krebs, D. L., & Denton, K. (2005). Toward a more pragmatic approach to morality: A critical evaluation of Kohlberg’s model. Psychological Review, 112, 629–649 doi:10.1037/0033-295X.112.3.629Find this resource:

                                          Krebs, D. L. (2005). Morality: An evolutionary account. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 149–172. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00072.xFind this resource:

                                            Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.Find this resource:

                                              Leeming, F. C. (2002). The exam-a-day procedure improves performance in psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 210–212. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP2903_06Find this resource:

                                                McCarthy, M. A., Baker, S. C., Halonen, J. S., & Dunn, D. S. (in press). Speaking well: Teaching students about effective oral presentations. To appear in D. S. Dunn (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of psychology education. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Miller, R. L., Rycek R. F., Balcetis, E., Barney, S. T., Beins, B. C., Burns, S. R., Smith, R., & Ware, M. E. (2008). Developing, promoting, & sustaining the undergraduate research experience in psychology. Retrieved from

                                                  Moritz, V. C., & Chew, S. L. (1992, May). Expertise in percussionists. Paper presented at the meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.Find this resource:

                                                    Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (in press). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking. Psychological Science.Find this resource:

                                                      Rowlett, R. S., Blockus, L., & Larson, S. (2012). Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research (COEUR). In N. Hensel (Ed.), Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research (pp. 2–19). Retrieved from this resource:

                                                        Schermer, T., & Gray, S. (2012). The senior capstone: Transformative experiences in the liberal arts. Retrieved from

                                                        Smith, P. C. (2007). Assessing students’ research ideas. In D. S. Dunn, R. A. Smith, & B. C. Beins (Eds.), Best practices for teaching statistics and research methods in the behavioral sciences (pp. 59–70). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                                          Taraban, R., & Logue, E. (2012). Academic factors that affect undergraduate research experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 499–514. doi:10.1037/a0026851Find this resource:

                                                            White, P., & Chew, S. L. (2012, August). Expertise in sport: Automaticity in pitching with cognitive load. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Orlando, FL.Find this resource:

                                                              Wilson, J. H., & Ryan, R. G. (2012). Developing student-teacher rapport in the undergraduate classroom. In W. Buskist & B. A. Benassi (Eds.), Effective college and university teaching: Strategies and tactics for the new professoriate (pp. 81–89). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (p. 254) Find this resource: