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

Article excerpt

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.

We review five common options that incorporate undergraduate research into the curriculum and emphasize ways each one can benefit faculty scholarship at the same time that it enhances student development. Then we present results from surveys of psychology faculty and students that address satisfaction and preferences for these undergraduate research options.

The first research experience for most students occurs as part of a required course. In the psychology major, research methods or experimental psychology courses require learning about, and conducting research (Powell, 2000 as cited in Regeth, 2001). Typically, students design a study, complete an application to the Institutional Review Board, recruit participants, collect and analyze data, and write up the results using APA-style format and procedures. For example, students may use observational methods (e.g., observing eating behaviors in the dining hall), survey methodology (e.g., collecting attitudinal data over the internet), and experimental methods (e.g., comparing memory for words and pictures). We have found that most students are able to apply their experiences, from the first, more supervised study to the second and then third progressively more autonomous research. Thus, these research projects help to illustrate concepts and ideas introduced in lecture, and provide valuable hands-on experience.

In addition to the traditional research methods course, research projects may be included in other class settings. For example, one abnormal psychology class completed stress measures before and after a narrative writing exercise, while a cognitive psychology class evaluated short-term memory with caffeinated or decaffeinated drinks. From the students' perspectives, these exercises demonstrate research principles. From the faculty point-of-view, these in-class activities encourage experimentation with new procedures, collection of pilot data, and perhaps data gathering for an ongoing project. When both student and faculty needs are met, the in-class option may fulfill dual needs and thus meets our win-win criteria. However, these projects are necessarily limited in time and scope due to the class and semester parameters.

The second option entails building an upper-level research class into the psychology department curriculum to follow the traditional research methods course. At our institution, this idea was first proposed by one of our late colleagues, Dr. Tom Hogan, and each faculty member now offers such a class. The purpose of creating such a course is two-fold--(a) first to provide a small team research experience for our students, particularly those interested in attending graduate programs in psychology, and (b) to provide an opportunity to have scheduled times for the faculty member to develop and conduct research. Thus, this option clearly provides mutual benefit to faculty and students. These projects may include research designs planned in advance by the instructor or projects developed by the class itself in response to unanswered questions that emerge from a set of readings.

One of the limitations of this option is the focus on a semester-long project that may restrict the scope or methodology of such research. To counter this problem, the research project may be repeated over several semesters, until there are enough data to conduct a reasonable analysis. Another limitation concerns the quality of student researchers if the class is part of the regular curriculum. We have addressed the latter concern by incorporating specific criteria for enrollment (e.g., high grades in prerequisite courses of statistics or research methods). Thus, enrollment in these courses may be perceived as an honor. Since students earn academic grades in such courses, accuracy and performance in the research process may be enhanced. Students are less likely to display declining interest, as is sometimes seen in a volunteer undergraduate research option. Class projects have been presented at regional and national conferences, while some have become journal articles. Thus, both students and faculty benefit as authors and co-authors of this collaborative work. Authorship may be determined based on the person or person(s) responsible for the primary conceptualization and design of the project.

The third option, the paid research assistant, requires monetary support from the institution or from an external grant. Since students are "hired" as research assistants for specific professors and projects, a major advantage of this approach is the option to select particular students. The disadvantage, from the student perspective, is the limited number of such positions available.

One example is our Research Scholar's program. A faculty member designs and proposes a research project, and then identifies a student collaborator. Summer research funding allows for similar projects specifically during the summer months. Again, faculty members design a project and recruit students of their choice to conduct these studies. These projects frequently result in conference presentations or publications and thus both faculty and students are pleased with the process.

The fourth option is the research volunteer. Since so many psychology students are eager for research experience, many volunteer to be unpaid research assistants. Selecting qualified and motivated research volunteers becomes a primary concern since the time and commitment levels of these students may vary, and commitments may quickly diminish if other opportunities become available. Clear expectations and guidelines for time requirements may prevent faculty frustrations. Another concern centers on the training time required for supervising research volunteers. A mentoring program for ongoing projects in which past research volunteers train and supervise new research volunteers can facilitate this process. The more-experienced research volunteers move into the new role of mentor, which allows them to gain experience in a leadership role and saves faculty time and energy.

The final option is the traditional independent study or honor's project. Faculty choose to supervise these projects to assist students in developing research skills and to enjoy one-on-one interactions. However, these projects may require a significant amount of time and faculty may need to be selective as they cannot respond to every student request (Katz, Sturz, Bodily, & Hernandez, 2006). Since only top-performing students qualify, there is less concern regarding faculty collaboration with unqualified students. However, it may be problematic if the institution or program allows students to select a research area outside of the faculty's expertise. When this happens the project may take the faculty supervisor away from his or her area of focus. If, instead, student topics are limited to faculty areas of interest and expertise a win-win research opportunity can be created. To incorporate more students, the honor's student may incorporate additional undergraduates as research assistants in these same projects, thus again creating "mini-research" teams (Katz et al., 2006) that benefit more students and provide more assistants for the faculty member.

The present study examined student and faculty perceptions of these five research opportunities in the undergraduate curriculum. Our goal was to determine how these research opportunities might converge in providing mutual benefits to students and faculty.



Participants were 81 undergraduate psychology majors and 21 psychology faculty members recruited from four private liberal arts colleges, two colleges from the Southeastern United States, one from the Midwest, and one from upstate New York.

Materials and Procedure

Student Survey of Research Experiences and Preferences. A survey was created by the authors and administered through Survey Monkey, a web-based survey program. Students rated each of the 5 research opportunities using a Likert-type scale from 1 (Very Favorable) to 4 (Very Unfavorable), identified their top two choices (among the five options) for obtaining research experience, and indicated which of the five research options they had experienced so far as an undergraduate psychology major.

Faculty Survey of Student Research Opportunities. A very similar survey was created for faculty, focusing on the extent to which faculty perceived these same research opportunities as benefiting faculty scholarship. Again faculty rated each of the five research opportunities using a Likert-type scale from 1 (Very Favorable) to 4 (Very Unfavorable), identified their top two choices for benefiting their personal research, and indicated which of the five research options they had personally experienced. Additionally, faculty members were asked the extent to which these research opportunities and the assistance of student researchers were important to them.


Student Responses

The majority of students indicated "Favorable" or "Very Favorable" perceptions of each of these five research opportunities (see Table 1). They felt most favorably about the paid research assistant position option and the upper-level research class. Specifically, when asked about their top two choices for research opportunities, 40% of students selected paid research followed by 22% of students who selected the research class. Together, these results indicate that students feel positively about each of these research opportunities.

When asked about their prior research experiences, the majority of these students reported research experiences with in-class projects (84%). More than a third of the students reported having personal research experience in a research course (37%) and as a research volunteer (37%). Fewer students had research experiences with an honor's project (26%) or paid research (12%). Interestingly, some of the most favorable ratings were for types of research opportunities with which they had less actual experience.

Faculty Responses

Similarly, the majority of faculty indicated "Favorable" or "Very Favorable" perceptions of each of these five research opportunities in terms of benefiting their own research and scholarship goals (see Table 2). They felt most favorably about working with a paid research assistant and the upper-level research class. Specifically, when asked about their top two choices for research opportunities that benefit faculty research, 52% of faculty selected paid research followed by 29% who selected teaching a research course. Mirroring the student survey results, responses indicate that faculty evaluate student research opportunities quite positively.

When asked about their prior research experiences with students, faculty reported working with students on in-class projects (76%), an upper-level research course (86%), through paid assistantships (62%), honor's or independent study theses (91%), and volunteer experiences (81%). Clearly, faculty are involved with student research at several different levels. Faculty members reported that conducting research was either somewhat (57%) or extremely (38%) important to them. Finally, the overwhelming majority of faculty reported that undergraduate students were either "extremely important" (38%) or "somewhat important" (27%) in helping them complete their research. Only one faculty member reported that undergraduate students were "not at all important" in helping to complete research. Interestingly, more than half the sample consisted of tenured faculty (n = 12), indicating that student-faculty research collaborations are valued by both tenured and untenured faculty at liberal arts colleges.


Surveys of psychology undergraduates and faculty indicate they share favorable ratings of five standard options for undergraduate research in liberal arts colleges. These findings suggest that each of these opportunities can be structured to meet our win-win criteria of benefiting both students and faculty. As faculty members keep these dual goals in mind, they can more effectively design opportunities for collaborative undergraduate projects that also will enhance their professional research agenda. Students continue to benefit from the background knowledge and enthusiasm of their faculty mentors as they develop their skills and experience in preparation for graduate school applications. Faculty benefit when student research involvement facilitates scholarship activities.

Both students and faculty prefer paid research opportunities and upper-level research classes. From the students' perspectives, students naturally enjoy being paid for their time and upper-level research projects may be more challenging as well. For faculty, paid research assistants may encourage student motivation and commitment and upper-level research classes allow faculty to choose specific research topics or to direct students to particular areas of study that match faculty interests. Increasing opportunities for paid research work and encouraging upper-level research courses among undergraduates will provide mutual benefits to students and faculty.


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Eileen L. Cooley

Agnes Scott College

Amber L. Garcia

The College of Wooster

Jennifer L. Hughes

Agnes Scott College

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Eileen Cooley, Psychology Dept., Agnes Scott College, 141 East College Ave., Decatur, GA 30030.

TABLE 1 Percentage of Student Respondents Endorsing Specific
Favorability Ratings of Undergraduate Research
Opportunities (n = 81)

Research Opportunity    Very F      F         U       Very U

In-class Project         27%       62%       10%        1%

Research Class           53%       41%        5%        1%

Paid Research
Assistant                64%       34%        1%        1%

Honor's Project          35%       56%        7%        2%

Research Volunteer       25%       59%       16%        0

Note: F = Favorable, U = Unfavorable

TABLE 2 Percentage of Faculty Respondents Endorsing Specific
Favorability Ratings of Undergraduate Research
Opportunities that Benefit Faculty Scholarship (n = 21)

Research Opportunity    Very F      F         U       Very U

In-class Project         19%       71%       10%        0

Research Class           62%       33%        5%        0

Paid Research
Assistant                86%       14%        0         0

Honor's Project          33%       52%       14%        0

Research Volunteer       29%       57%       14%        0

Note: F = Favorable, U = Unfavorable