Undergraduate Research in Psychology at Liberal Arts Colleges: Reflections on Mutual Benefits for Faculty and Students

By Cooley, Eileen L.; Garcia, Amber L. et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Undergraduate Research in Psychology at Liberal Arts Colleges: Reflections on Mutual Benefits for Faculty and Students


Cooley, Eileen L., Garcia, Amber L., Hughes, Jennifer L., North American Journal of Psychology


Expectations for undergraduate research are increasing at many liberal arts colleges and Dotterer (2002) has even called undergraduate research "the pedagogy of the 21st century" (p. 81), a pedagogy in which teaching and scholarship are often joined in faculty-student collaboration. An emphasis on undergraduate research is particularly relevant for the psychology curriculum as most course content is based in research literature and methodology (Ware, Davis, & Smith, 1998).

In the last 25 years, there has been significant growth in the number of psychology majors in US colleges and universities (Landrum & Nelsen, 2002; Neimeyer, Lee, Saferstein, & Pickett, 2004). As part of this trend, there are increasing pressures to help undergraduates compete for limited graduate school slots. Graduate schools seek students with strong research credentials, often including conference presentations or publications in addition to other research experiences (Collins, 2001). Students who engage in undergraduate research are more likely to be admitted to graduate schools, especially doctoral programs that emphasize research (Page, Abramson, & Jacobs-Lawson, 2004). From the student perspective, opportunities for undergraduate research facilitate this pursuit of graduate training and future employment (Regeth, 2001). Initially, undergraduate research may help students learn the process of research and develop areas of interest and focus (Crowe, 2006). Over time, they become more adept at analytical and logical thinking (Ishiyama, 2002) and their mentoring relationships with faculty ultimately may result in strong letters of recommendation (Regeth, 2001), completed manuscripts, and admission to doctoral programs.

While it offers significant advantages for students, undergraduate research can be time-consuming and distracting for faculty when it interferes with personal scholarship. This interference is particularly problematic as faculty scholarship criteria are increasingly emphasized for tenure and promotion. To reconcile these competing demands, it is important to have undergraduate research options that maximize benefits to both students and faculty, thus creating a "win-win" situation (Harvey & Thompson, 2005; Ware et al., 1998). While researchers have examined both faculty and student perceptions regarding student learning that occurs through participation in undergraduate research (e.g., Landrum & Nelsen, 2002), very few authors have sufficiently addressed the need for undergraduate research to simultaneously benefit faculty scholarship in the mentoring process. Regeth (2001) noted that collaboration facilitates the teaching process and may encourage teachers to conduct additional research in their discipline. However, the specific ways undergraduate research leads to this disciplinary pursuit were not outlined. Page et al. (2004) commented on the benefits of additional assistants in the laboratory and suggested that faculty time investment is rewarded when students work on studies that benefit the faculty member's research program. Lancy (2003) further proposed a view of "mutual self-interest" (p. 89) in which topics for student research are chosen in accordance with the research agenda of the faculty.

Win-win and "mutual self-interest" approaches to research (Harvey & Thompson, 2005; Lancy, 2003; Ware et al., 1998) are particularly important in the small liberal arts college environment. At small colleges, faculty are challenged by heavy teaching loads and service requirements that limit the time for professional scholarship, at the same time that many liberal arts colleges are increasing their expectations of faculty research productivity (Kierniesky, 1984). Thus, faculty may resist the increased emphasis on undergraduate research to the extent that it deters them from effectively pursuing their own research program. Therefore, there is clearly a need to identify how our undergraduate research options can be structured to meet research goals for both faculty and students. …

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