What is Undergraduate Research?
Esther Morgan-Ellis is an associate professor of music. She is also a member of the UNG HIPs Implementation Team.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts called HIPs Implementation about the ongoing USG-directed effort to document and promote HIPs at UNG.
Undergraduate Research (UR) is one of eleven High-Impact Practices (HIPs) described by the Association of American Colleges & Universities. HIPs have been documented to produce a wide range of positive outcomes, including increased rates of student retention and engagement. As part of the USG effort to encourage and document the use of HIPs across the system, UNG is tracking four HIPs, including Undergraduate Research. Courses that include a UR component are tagged in Banner.
But what is Undergraduate Research? It might be more helpful to start by explaining what it is not. UR is not the typical “research paper,” for which students produce a literature review or advance an argument based on secondary sources. It is not a standard lab report, for which student complete a prescribed experiment and (hopefully) arrive at a predetermined outcome. When students engage in UR, they tread unfamiliar ground and generate unforeseeable results.
When I am designing UR projects, I keep two standards in mind. First, I cannot know what my students are going to discover. Second, students need to employ research methodologies standard to my field. I always ask myself: If this project were completed to a high standard, could it be published in a research journal? If the answer is yes, I have incorporated UR into my class.
I do not expect my students to actually publish in professional journals, but I create opportunities for them to disseminate their work. Doing so is crucial to the success of HIPs. Students produce better work when they know that classmates, community members, and perhaps a larger public are going to see it, and they also take their responsibility as researchers more seriously. UNG provides an excellent venue for UR dissemination in the Annual Research Conference, held each March, while CURCA provides funding for students to present at the Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference (GURC) and the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR). I also have students produce essays for inclusion in permanent classroom anthologies that are maintained and expanded from year to year and made available to each successive cohort of students, and I am in the process of curating excellent student work for inclusion in a pedagogical database that will be used in classrooms around the country.
Public dissemination is not the only vital component of a meaningful UR experience. It is also important that the project be substantial, requiring significant effort over an extended period of time; that students receive frequent and constructive feedback from the instructor and one another; and that students reflect on the learning process.
There are countless approaches to engaging students in UR, which can take place in the classroom or as an independent study. Students might tackle individual projects, work in groups, or get involved with a professor’s research. In any case, they don’t just learn about the subject matter—they contribute to the discipline and learn about the means by which new knowledge is produced. In my mind, this individual transformation from knowledge-acquirer to knowledge-producer is the most significant element of any UR experience.