Engaging in faculty-student research is a uniquely rewarding experience for undergraduates. Many publications, including Eye on Psi Chi, have highlighted the advantages of getting involved in research outside of the classroom, from developing one-on-one relationships with research mentors to preparing for graduate school (Grover, 2006; Landrum, 2002; LaRoche, 2004; Silvia, Delaney, & Marcovitch, 2009). An immersive research experience contributes substantially to a student’s personal and academic development, and it helps build highly practical, marketable skills (Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007; Landrum & Nelsen, 2002). Nevertheless, too many undergraduates miss out on research opportunities because psychology faculty are spread thin and can only work with a limited number of students at a time, so research opportunities come along sporadically and typically are arranged informally. This contributes to undergraduate research being organized, let’s be honest, a bit haphazardly. Here we have a reality in need of some invention. How do we go about creating the optimal research experience for as many undergraduates as possible?
As psychologists, we all should jump to meet this challenge!
Let’s first underscore the status quo, which contributes to this challenge. When asked to envision the implementation of undergraduate research in psychology, most college faculty will respond in one of two ways. Some faculty will describe a bustling research lab, where the undergraduate students brush shoulders with post-docs, are mentored by graduate students, and occasionally interact with the professor, usually in the context of a larger research lab meeting. These undergraduates code and enter data and (of course!) run participants through experimental procedures. On the other hand, some faculty will describe one-on-one mentoring of advanced undergraduate students. These students oft en complete a senior or honors thesis, and they are likely to contribute substantively to a professor’s line of research. The experience is immersive and requires the student to take on many pieces of the empirical puzzle and, ideally, see a study through from its conception to its conclusion. Collaboration with the professor, in this case, will vary in intensity depending on how many students the faculty member is mentoring. The fewer the students, the more time the professor can devote to any one mentoring relationship.
Upon joining the psychology faculty at Lewis & Clark College over eight years ago, we (the first two authors of this article) were wary of adopting this "either-or” structure of undergraduate research. We knew it would be impossible to duplicate the environment of a research university at a liberal arts college, and we had no desire to treat undergraduates primarily as low-level assistants. Instead, we were attracted to the idea of mentoring undergraduate researchers more intensely and involving them in the entire research process more collaboratively. But there are significant downsides to one-on-one mentoring relationships. Student demand for research opportunities far outweighs the supply (just ask Nicolia, our student coauthor), and one-on-one mentoring exacerbates this problem. Moreover, most research in psychology spans multiple studies, and by extension, multiple years. Developing a collaborative relationship with an undergraduate late in his or her college career doesn’t allow the student to follow a project to its natural conclusion. And we didn’t want to abandon the contagious excitement that comes from a bustling research lab. To replicate that atmosphere, we knew we had to mentor a relatively large number of students at the same time.
Our solution to these concerns was to leverage the benefits of collaboration as much and as systematically as possible. Combining the strengths and efficiencies of a model more typical of research universities (i.e., involving a large number of students who have varying degrees of expertise) with the strengths of a model more typical of liberal arts institutions (i.e., creating an immersive experience for each student with frequent interactions with the professor), we developed a system of mentoring that organizes undergraduates into hierarchical, three-person teams, with each student bringing a different level of expertise to the research lab. A student new to psychology (our "team assistant”) is grouped with a student who has begun to advance in the psychology major (our "team associate”), and both of these individuals are guided by a student who is in his or her senior year and who has been part of our research lab for some time (our "team leader”). Each three-person team works together on a particular research project, and a single professor can mentor two to three teams throughout the academic year because of the efficiencies of the team based structure. Our jointly run lab, called the Behavioral Health and Social (BHS) Psychology Lab, typically has five teams or 15 students.
Each three-person team functions much like a first-year graduate student, but with the added resources of three students’ multifaceted talents and 30+ total hours per week of commitment to a project. (We require 8-10 hours of work per week from our assistants and associates and 12-14 hours per week from our team leaders; see Table 1.) The hierarchical nature of the model explicitly shapes students’ development as they progress in their roles over time. In the words of one of our graduates, "The system of assistant, associate, and leader worked well; it meant that I was able to start doing research as a freshman even though I really didn’t have any skills at that time. I was able to learn from older teammates and gained the skills that made me feel competent and confident when I became a team leader myself.”
We call this approach a laddered team based model because we expect most students to stay with the lab, advancing from assistant to associate to team leader. This continuity enables projects to move forward over an extended period of time, and it allows for an in-depth mentoring experience. As faculty advisors to these teams, our goals include promoting each student’s sense of ownership of the ideas and methods that drive the research, moving the lab’s activities forward by setting clear expectations, and then helping students bring these projects to fruition through conference presentations and publications. We provide ongoing oversight and timely feedback to the teams primarily through weekly team leader supervision. Moreover, we foster a larger sense of community by holding weekly lab meetings, during which the teams present the current state of their work (typically via a formal PowerPoint presentation) and rely on the resources of the larger lab group to refine and develop study ideas, think through data analyses, and propose directions for future research. The result is a model of mentoring that optimizes the undergraduate research experience for our students and that enables us to produce high-quality research efficiently by making the most of the varied strengths and levels of expertise of a large number of students.
How we interact with our laddered teams and individual students has evolved significantly over the past eight years, and the work of psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008) has guided us in this process of refinement. Csikszentmihalyi’s well-known studies of optimal experiences suggest that productive and rewarding states of "flow” are experienced when a person is fully immersed in an activity, engaging in goal-directed challenges that make the most of his or her abilities and efforts. Csikszentmihalyi developed a coherent model of optimal experiences after studying individuals who experience flow on a regular basis, such as surgeons, artists, and even rock-climbers. So can undergraduate researchers experience flow through their research collaborations? We believe so, if careful attention is paid to five key principles:
- Ownership: Students need to feel they share joint ownership of the research they are doing, even if the research is initiated and sustained by the faculty member. A sense of ownership comes in large part through the development of confidence in the student. As students begin to feel comfortable asking challenging questions, taking independent steps, and developing a vision for the future of the research, they will begin to "own” the experience. From the perspective of the research mentor, promoting a sense of ownership requires Socratic teaching methods that enable students to participate in the generation of research ideas, as well as an extension of these teaching methods to the hands-on development, refinement, and scrutiny of research materials and findings.
- Energy and imagination: In the spirit of full disclosure, we have to admit there are some tasks associated with psychological research that are mundane, yet necessary, such as entering data and sending compensation to participants. But even the most banal of tasks can be more manageable with a little creativity. (For example, one lab member shared that she made the tedious process of addressing envelopes for participant compensation more appealing by sorting each envelope into a pile based on characteristics such as the address’s distance from campus, desirability to visit, or uniqueness.) If students and their research advisors can tackle even mundane tasks with inventiveness and vigor, then the more interesting aspects of the research process will become all the more engaging.
- Clearly defined, prioritized goals: First and foremost, goals should be developed jointly, shared with all members of the research team, and prioritized. The best formula for success comes from determining how to get from one place to the next and then abiding by the mutually agreed upon steps to moving forward. Too much choice can be problematic, so natural constraints should be put into place and respected. Think, for example, of the rock-limber. Random, spontaneous hand-holds can be treacherous. A flow experience comes from making systematic, informed choices every step of the way. This is where the research mentor steps in softly but firmly, laying out the possible paths of moving a project forward.
- Challenges that are just about manageable: Student researchers must learn to engage their abilities fully and to develop and enhance new skills by setting challenges that require a bit of stretching. Sticking only to what one is good at is unlikely to lead to a flow experience. Ask shy students to lead research presentations. Have your best students teach statistics to new lab members. Challenge each and every lab member to become a "mind reader” capable of anticipating your own remarks and suggestions. Encouraging students to take on the next level of challenge and giving them the tools to conquer each challenge is the best way to promote their growth.
- Immediate feedback: A researcher shouldn’t rely on the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript as the primary means of receiving feedback about one’s work. Immediate feedback is necessary to feel rewarded, to learn, and to make successes more likely. As mentors, faculty should plan to stay on top of their undergraduates’ efforts, providing corrective feedback and being prepared for setbacks. When setbacks occur (they are indeed unavoidable), our motto is "catch, consolidate, and continue.” That is, we provide the support necessary to make the best of even the toughest situations, and help the students learn from their experiences and tackle the next challenge with gusto.
Together, these five principles should contribute to a flow experience, perhaps not every day or even every week, but enough of the time to "hook” students on research. But don’t just take our word for it. We recently conducted a survey of our BHS Lab alumni, and in their open-ended responses we were able to hear echoes of the principles of flow. For example, one graduate wrote: "I think that the lab was more work than I expected, but that is because I was given more responsibility than I thought I would be given, which is a good thing! You feel a sense of personal ownership because the success of the research and all of the planning etc. falls on you.” Another alum wrote, "I think that the lab always provided just a little more of a challenge than I was expecting because right when I would feel comfortable with my responsibility level I would get more responsibilities.” In terms of faculty mentoring of the research, a former lab member notes, "They pushed us to take our projects further than we thought possible by connecting us with new skills and resources and directing us to helpful, more experienced peers. I appreciated the way lab members were treated as collaborators with something to offer, but also supported and never left ‘on their own’ when it came to difficulties.”
This organizational model appeals to students because it provides immersive research training without being intimidating. However, an equally important issue concerns the model’s appeal to faculty. The fundamental tension between undergraduate research and faculty research is confronted head on, and research mentors must be persuaded that the process of working with undergraduates will advance their own research. At liberal arts colleges and other institutions where undergraduates are involved in research, professors face a daunting task. Transforming undergraduates into productive assistants and collaborators takes a significant investment of time, and students often graduate just as they are becoming most productive. These realities often seem at odds with the faculty members’ goals of furthering their own research. As a result, the most common way of involving undergraduates in research is a matter of expediency—faculty train and deploy a crew of research assistants to conduct a series of studies as the need arises. But, the expedient yet informal model of involving undergraduates in research is rarely efficient. Systematically laddered, team-based research looks quite different. Once the appropriate groundwork is set (see Table 2), recruitment of student researchers can take place (see Table 3), and the professor can focus on developing a collaborative research environment that is self-sustaining. Importantly, the burden of training new students rests not on the shoulders of the faculty member alone, but on the research team as a whole. As a result, faculty can allot more of their own time and energy to advancing the key research questions.
So do laddered teams work? From a faculty perspective, the productivity of our teams has been impressive. In the past five years, our undergraduate collaborators (41 in total) have made 17 presentations at national and regional conferences, and they have funded most of their conference travel through competitive grants from our college’s student activities board. Eight of our team leaders have gone on to doctoral programs in psychology, and an even greater number have gone on to research-related graduate programs and careers. To get a clearer picture of the student perspective, we recently completed a systematic survey of BHS Lab alumni. Thirty-five of 38 graduates completed the survey, which asked them to reflect on their experiences in the lab and to rate their development of a number of specific skills and abilities (adapted from Landrum, 2008; Landrum & Nelsen, 2002). These students rated the quality of their undergraduate research experience and the educational value of team-based research very near the ceiling of a 9-point scale (Ms = 8.1 and 8.4, respectively). Nearly half of them (49%) plan to conduct or are currently conducting research in psychology or a related field, and 97% believe that the skills they learned in the BHS Lab will be or have been useful in their professional pursuits.
The most important skills imparted by an undergraduate research program in psychology, according to our alumni, include the ability to ask effective research questions, develop clear research ideas, and analyze and interpret data. The goals they feel were most fully achieved include developing a one-to-one relationship with a professor, practicing oral presentations, and gaining enthusiasm for the research process. Overall, students characterized their experiences as members of our research lab to be perfectly balanced between faculty-guided and student-guided (M = 3.51 on a 7-point scale) and to be highly collaborative (rather than competitive). As a whole, then, the responses of BHS Lab alumni supported our hope that a laddered, team-based model creates a community of colleagues who are engaged in an immersive research experience. As one student described the experience, "I feel that I learned about research in the most ideal setting. It was supportive, collaborative, and intellectually challenging. I did not expect to spend such a huge amount of time dedicated to the lab, but I gladly did and would have done more. It was the defining undergraduate experience for me.”
We strongly believe this experience can be replicated in any number of academic settings; it is not unique to our lab or our mentoring style. Instead, it comes from getting into the flow of research by trusting that undergraduates are capable of learning through and with one another while furthering a faculty member’s research agenda. Tenure-track and visiting faculty, post-docs, and graduate students can engage in collaborative research with undergraduates across a wide array of institutions (e.g., community colleges, masters-level universities), with the goal of moving their own research forward while enhancing their undergraduates’ exposure to the research process. A well-structured undergraduate research experience, such as the one we have described, maximizes the skills and contributions of undergraduates as they take on tasks such as generating hypotheses, recruiting participants, designing and piloting studies, conducting experiments, and presenting research findings. Indeed, engaging undergraduates in the science of psychology and involving them in the dissemination of research findings are key elements of the experience that generalize outside the research lab and well beyond college. The total effect of this immersive experience is a vibrant atmosphere of collaboration between undergraduates and the research mentor and an efficient mechanism for producing high-quality research. It’s a system that enables students to make the most of their undergraduate education.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
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Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91, 36-74.
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LaRoche, K. (2004, Winter). Advantages of undergraduate research: A student’s perspective. Eye on Psi Chi, 8(2), 20-21, 69.
Silvia, P. J., Delaney, P. F., & Marcovitch, S. (2009). What psychology majors could (and should) be doing: An informal guide to research experience and professional skills. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.