The Benefits of Undergraduate Research
“I’m working on a few different projects,” says Jermaine Henry casually, and then begins to list five or six off. “Two of them have been accepted to the Midwestern Psychological Association, and the third one we’re hoping to do in collaboration with Oakwood Adventist University to see if there are cultural differences; and I’m also hoping to institute a mentor program in the department.” The unusual thing about this conversation is that Jermaine is a junior psychology major—an undergraduate working as a primary researcher on not one but five different studies, all of which he designed himself.
The quantity of Jermaine’s projects is a little unusual, but his involvement in research is quite normal for students in the Department of Behavioral Sciences. About a decade ago, the department implemented a model that integrated undergraduate research into the standard curriculum. Now, undergraduate students working on research with a professor or conducting their own projects are the standard in the department.
The integrated research curriculum was instituted largely by Duane McBride, research professor of sociology; Herbert Helm, Jr., professor of psychology; and Øystein LaBianca, professor of anthropology. Karl Bailey, associate professor of psychology, became involved in the study when he began teaching in 2004. This past year, the four professors published their findings in an article in Psychology Journal, stating that “in order for any research curriculum to be successful in advancing students to the best graduate programs in psychology, peer review, presentation, and publication of research must be a program objective.”
Involvement in real research is having measurable effects on students’ perceptions of self-efficacy and enjoyment of research. At the beginning of Research Methods II, Bailey and his colleagues give the students a 14-item Research Skills Self-Rating instrument. The survey measures the students’ perception of the usefulness of research, estimation of their own skills, their research anxiety, and their belief in their own self-efficacy. “When they start, they think research is useful, although they don’t think they can do it,” says Bailey. “They don’t necessarily feel calm when doing research, and about half of them feel like they have the necessary skills”—which means that half of the students don’t feel like they’re able to do research.
But going through the class changes that: the students take the survey again at the end of Research Methods II, everything except the usefulness of research increases significantly. “When you look at the data, the only thing that doesn’t change is the perception of usefulness of research, and that’s because it was already at the ceiling,” says Bailey. “Everything else moves very significantly—in fact, by about half a standard deviation. We’re moving students’ perception of their skills by about a full standard deviation, and it appears that practical experience with research is what’s doing it.”
And practical research experience is liberally sprinkled throughout the behavioral sciences curriculum. Most students take two classes, Research Methods I & II, in their first or second year. Research Methods I introduces them to statistics and requires a small research project. In Research Methods II, behavioral sciences professors mentor smaller groups of students on their research. Then, students begin to develop their own projects. If faculty members have research grants, students will work on research with them. “Other students work on independent projects for credit; and some students are doing projects simply out of curiosity—without pay or credit,” says Bailey. “At any given time, we probably run about 30 student-led projects in the department.” After two more Research Methods classes, students are required to attend or present at a regional or national conference, usually the Midwestern Psychological Association conference in Chicago. Finally, students who want to build their resumes in preparation for grad school work with faculty advisors on submitting their projects to professional peer-reviewed journals.
Bailey’s own research interests are partially determined by the projects his students are working on. This past year, he redesigned his Cognitive Psychology class to focus on four specific issues of interest to the students to conduct studies around: Art and vision, multitasking, language and thought, and the timing of mental events. Although his primary interests are in the field of visual attention and self-regulation, Bailey “does research in a bunch of different areas, mostly because I have students who do research in a bunch of different areas. For example, I didn’t start out as a Sabbath experiences researcher, but I had two students interested in it.”
Those students have graduated now, but Bailey is still working on a related study of “Sabbath keeping within the framework of self-determination theory.” Self-determination theory essentially states that the reasons a person is motivated to do something plays a role in how likely he or she will continue to do it. His preliminary findings suggest four different outcomes depending on initial motivation. Among college students at least, one group finds Sabbath keeping stressful because it “gets in the way”; on the other end of the spectrum is the group that integrates Sabbath keeping into their life. “It looks like our subjects are transitioning from the first group to the last the longer they stay Adventist.”
Such a commitment to student research involvement can often be time- and resource- consuming, so the department’s approach inserts research into the curriculum to distribute it among the department’s professors. Surrounding students with an active research community and involving them in their own research is producing results, says Bailey. “Even though we’re a relatively nonselective department—we don’t take just the best students—our students are still able to perform quite well when compared to students coming from more selective schools.”
For example, 25 students recently attended the Midwestern Psychological Association conference in May, and eight presented their own research. Both the department’s senior exit exam scores and rate of acceptance to journals and conferences are “about where you’d expect for a selective school,” Bailey says. “That’s why I chose to put my time into working with students on research. I like doing research, but I like working with students doing research more."
Photo: Karl Bailey explains the results of Kyle Emile’s eye-tracking data to Kyle Collatz. Both students are undergraduate researchers in the Andrews University Cognitive Psychology Laboratory.
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