Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#239 Combining Undergraduate Research and Learning: A Three-Step Approach
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.
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COMBINING UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH AND LEARNING: A THREE-STEP
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
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
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,
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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