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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 1998
Involving the Undergraduate
in Faculty Research

Elizabeth P. Ossoff, Saint Anselm College (NH)

One of the biggest challenges for both faculty and students in the ever-competitive world of research is how to get the job done. Students need the opportunity to learn and grow, as well as to increase their chances of attending graduate school; faculty members need to pursue their discipline and feed their teaching. Since students often do not understand the urgency of their need, the burden of this endeavor is left to the faculty. After all, the faculty person is the one with the upper hand in terms of social power, and the student is therefore likely to be apprehensive, at best, in the pursuit of research. But how does the faculty member go about involving the student? This article presents several suggestions as to how this can happen as painlessly as possible for all. The ideas here are not just for the faculty member, but also provide some insight for students as to how the system works and how to facilitate their own interests.
The vehicles for the inclusion of students in research follow two primary roads: a programmatic approach, and an informal one. The programmatic approach includes the use of the classroom to spark interest in research. The classroom is perhaps the college professor's most valuable tool for conveying the passion that often goes with the pursuit of research. It is here the student first sees our enthusiasm and excitement over "doing science." Although important and traditional, the classroom is not the only conventional vehicle for involving the student in our research. Other areas that spring from the classroom include in-class projects and/or lab reports that require the collection of some small amounts of data, but nonetheless help to answer a real research question. These paths are often best used to illustrate the mechanics of the research process and can be used to springboard to a research question proposed by the faculty or student. The last programmatic approach I will mention involves a teaching tool that has become quite popular in recent years within the field of psychology--service learning [see the article on page 22]. Here the student does some service to the community that directly relates to the content area of the course he or she is taking. Often the "hands-on" nature of this course component can spark questions from the students which the faculty can then use to draw the student into a line of research related to that interest.
The informal approach mentioned takes a different tack. Here the faculty must display personal interest in the student. Sometimes this can be accomplished by informal meetings after class which begin as simply a question of clarification about a point in the lecture just given, and grow into an invitation to answer the question by attending a meeting in the lab of the professor. Let's face it, to approach a faculty member about becoming part of a research group is considered a daunting task by the undergraduate. Although we faculty would like to believe it is so, students are not necessarily going to be drawn to the glow of our intellects like moths to a flame, no matter how brightly we may radiate. As was said before, we have the social power advantage here, and we can use that social dynamic to benefit our students and ourselves. Just saying, "Stop by and visit" may not be enough for some students. We increase the probability of high interest and motivation if we make the first move, or make it easy for the student to make it. In connection with this latter point, guest speakers in a class can also pave the way for students and faculty to approach one another about the answer to a research question.
These speakers can be other students who are currently involved in the faculty's research and are presenting data or reporting on a field experience. The power of a role modeling effect by these student speakers as well as outside guests should not be underestimated.
Other informal vehicles that both students and faculty prize are trips to regional conferences. These conferences are usually local; for example, in our region, the annual meetings of the New England Psychological Association and the Eastern Psychological Association are usually reachable by college van for a day or overnight. Students get an opportunity to watch the presentation of work they only read about, and through organizations like Psi Chi, often can present the work in which they are themselves involved. This again makes use of the role modeling effect of one set of students for another. The conference also shows the students the vast number of research questions that are addressable, thus providing research ideas for them, and demystifying some of the professional process. Students can then follow up on interactions at conferences with faculty and speakers through e-mail and Internet connections. These channels become increasingly important as Web sites grow in number and importance to the discipline.
The vehicles described above dovetail nicely with the overall goals of research with undergraduates. These routes allow the formation of valued relationships and allow both faculty and student to investigate a passion. By this I mean the persons involved utilize the skills and enthusiasm of the others to answer their research question. Both faculty and students benefit from these relationships. Their roles complement and reinforce each other's participation in the process. Once the establishment of the relationship takes place, which may begin by one of the methods proposed above, that relationship can exist and extend on several levels. As faculty we often begin student researchers at a low level of involvement to assess their skills and to give them the opportunity to decide what their level of commitment will be to this project. The process of the relationship may therefore begin with the student conducting a library search on the question of study, and then move on to more involved levels such as data entry, testing participants, or data analysis, all of which may culminate in coauthored work with faculty. These levels also allow the student with limited time, skills, or commitment to be involved in the research process, making research more of an overall teaching tool and making the process accessible for all.
Sometimes the beginning of a research project is the most exciting time for researchers, and student interest may wane as the rather slow wheels of research grind on. It needs to be pointed out, however, that there are multiple reinforcers for students and faculty in this process. These include some straight-forward benefits such as student access to resources and faculty. But less immediately tangible reinforcers also exist. Students, as was stated earlier, can serve as role models for other students. This benefits both students and faculty who may be trying to convince other students of the benefits and ease of the research process. Students perform this role modeling effect by presenting ongoing research in introductory psychology courses, acting as course tutors, and by monitoring the research activities of less knowledgeable students just starting the journey into research. Related to these role modeling functions, and as an added benefit, students also get to present their research at regional and/or national conferences, either by themselves or with faculty. For faculty at small colleges with a demanding teaching load these relationships also provide a vehicle for adding to their own vitae, as well as providing to students the opportunity to add to their own beginning resumes.
This article would be grossly remiss in its presentation of this subject matter if it did not address some of the barriers proposed by students and faculty who say that involving students in faculty research, or any research at all, is counterproductive and overwhelming for both them and the students. The complaint by faculty that the research component may take away from their teaching misses one of the fundamental tenets of our discipline, i.e., there would be nothing to teach without the research.
Conducting research is not only teaching in and of itself, but it is also a way we as psychologists can remain informed and excited about our chosen field. Turning a student on to the challenge and joy of research is central to any preparation of a student in psychology.
Also mentioned by some faculty may be the complaint that this type of inclusion of students will only occur for the gifted or honor students, and that others will lack the drive or interest to participate. However, if the focus in the research is on small doable tasks that begin with vehicles about which students can become excited (e.g., service learning, in-class presentation of pilot data, an in-house newsletter to students about the goings-on in the department), the research experience is made accessible and open to all, and is not seen by students as elitist or exclusionary.
There will always be some students and/or faculty who may not be interested in or motivated to this process described. The preceding proposes, however, that it is not impossible or even that difficult to include the undergraduate in the research process. It benefits the student and the faculty member to encourage this relationship, and allows all of us to address the problem mentioned in the first line of this article, and that is how to get the work done.


Elizabeth P. Ossoff, PhD, serves as associate professor of psychology and Psi Chi faculty advisor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Dr. Ossoff earned her bachelor's degree at Colby College and her master's and doctoral degrees at Tufts University. After receiving her PhD in 1990, she came to Saint Anselm College, where she specializes in social psychology. Her primary research has been in the area of political psychology. Most recently she has studied individuals' interpretations of media messages, news stories, and political speeches.

Dr. Ossoff has introduced many students to research over the past few years, particularly through Saint Anselm's Senior Research Project, a vehicle by which students learn about faculty research, begin to do their own research, and go on to make presentations. Having attended the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology for the past several years, she recently presented a poster there entitled "An Evaluation of a Faculty-Sponsored Research Program." She also chaired a session at the recent EPA Convention, a symposium of student presentations entitled "Developmental, Social, and Applied Research on Gender: In the Family, In Humor, and In the Workplace." Dr. Ossoff is married and has two young sons.

Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 

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