How Making Research Part of the College Curriculum Helps Prepare Students for the Workforce
While specific skills and technical knowledge are important for career advancement, employers also value more general communication, thinking, and problem-solving skills. The “soft skills” employers look for include the ability to think critically and solve complex problems, to apply knowledge to real-world settings, and to communicate effectively face-to-face and in writing.1 Because of their value in the workforce,2,3 these soft skills are receiving increased attention at colleges and universities2,4 as well as in the business world.5
How can we ensure students enter the workforce with the soft skills they need to succeed? One method for cultivating these skills is to integrate student-driven research into the classroom. Working in small research teams prepares students to collaborate with colleagues in the workplace. Having to communicate findings to classmates and professors helps students polish those skills for future meetings and presentations to both co-workers and clients. Overall, studies indicate that undergraduate research helps teach students to think critically, work independently, and communicate effectively.6-12
The Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) educates nearly 16,000 state residents each year, and therefore plays a large role in training the future labor force of Rhode Island.(a) Considering the potential benefits of undergraduate research as a tool for developing valuable professional skills, we undertook a project to expand its use in CCRI courses during the 2015-2016 academic year. To address the challenges of implementing research in the classroom, we created a faculty learning community (FLC), a structured group of seven faculty members who supported each other in implementing research in their undergraduate courses. Halfway through the academic year, we conducted surveys to evaluate the experiences of participating students and professors.
This paper presents initial results from our pilot project to expand undergraduate research at CCRI. The lessons from this project can help to inform other institutions and faculty members seeking to better prepare their students for the workforce by expanding opportunities for undergraduate research. In this time of limited resources to fund education and a growing need to ensure that students learn soft skills to prepare them for the workforce, undergraduate research represents a promising new approach.
(a) 96% of undergraduates at CCRI are from Rhode Island, which means they are likely to stay in the state after graduation.13 Students receive associate degrees and certificates and many transfer to four-year institutions after graduating. 70% of current students are part-time, meaning that many already have jobs in the state even as they are attending college.
The Value of Undergraduate Research
The Council on Undergraduate Research defines the practice as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Undergraduate research may be conducted independently or in collaborative groups, incorporated into a course or completed as an independent project, and last anywhere from weeks to years. Whatever form it takes, undergraduate research is increasingly recognized as an effective learning tool that benefits students in both the sciences and humanities,6 with particular gains for historically underserved students such as ethnic and racial minorities and first generation college students.14,15
In addition to offering a creative way to learn course content, undergraduate research experiences can have a number of broader benefits for students. Studies show they provide opportunities for students to think analytically and critically6,7 and communicate more effectively. 7-10 Students who participate in research report gaining confidence9-11,14 and motivation11 and becoming more independent.6,8-12 Undergraduate research also tends to increase retention rates – the likelihood that students will continue in the course or the discipline.7,11,16 These benefits are not only valuable as students continue their education, they also align closely with the kinds of soft skills employers desire.
Traditionally, undergraduate research has been done with small numbers of high-achieving students near the end of their academic careers. However, The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the Council on Undergraduate Research, and numerous professional and academic societies recommend expanding opportunities for undergraduate research so that more students can participate and benefit.17 To extend the benefits of research beyond a select few upper-level students, colleges and universities (including two-year colleges) have begun to incorporate course-based undergraduate research experiences into their curricula.18 Students in these courses undertake individual or group research projects as part of their course requirements, and the entire class obtains the benefits of participating in research.
CCRI has a small but growing tradition of undergraduate research among select students in a variety of disciplines. Since the Honors Program began in 1986, over 2000 participating students have completed supplemental undergraduate research projects in addition to their coursework. (These projects give students additional academic credit but are not designed to be capstone or thesis projects.) Some students have presented their Honors Program research at regional and national conferences, while others have co-authored academic journal articles.19 Prior to the 2015-2016 school year, two professors – including Karen M. Kortz, a co-author of this brief – had incorporated undergraduate research into their courses, experiments which served as a starting point for this project.20
Our project to expand undergraduate research at CCRI resulted in over 100 additional students participating in undergraduate research each semester of the 2015-2016 academic year. During the first semester, 111 students participated in five research courses in the sciences (biology and oceanography), social sciences (psychology), and business (personal finance).
Textbox 1: Course-based Undergraduate Research Projects at CCRI
Supporting Faculty to Promote Undergraduate Research
At community colleges like CCRI, there are a number of obstacles that may hinder faculty from implementing course-based undergraduate research, including time, resources, institutional support, and the short-term nature of the student population.11,21 While we could not address all of these issues in our project, we could provide institutional support in the form of a faculty learning community (FLC) to assist faculty in planning and developing undergraduate research experiences for their students.
An FLC is a small group of faculty members from a variety of disciplines who meet to engage in reflective scholarship over the course of a year.22,23 FLCs are a common way for faculty to support each other as they aim to improve their teaching practice, typically around a particular theme or initiative. There has been abundant research on how FLCs transform faculty thinking about teaching and learning by creating a supportive and collaborative environment that promotes professional growth.23,24 FLCs can help build community across disciplines, support particular college initiatives, and provide peer incentives for faculty development and improvement.25
In the summer of 2015, we launched an FLC at CCRI on planning and developing course-based undergraduate research experiences. It was designed to incorporate the essential characteristics of successful FLCs found in the academic literature. The community included seven faculty members who were interested in incorporating undergraduate research into their courses: five participants from different disciplines, plus the two authors of this brief, Mullaney and Kortz, who served as leader-participants. The group met seven times throughout the 2015-2016 academic year.
With the support of the FLC, these faculty members were able to create and implement semester-long research projects that were required of every student in one of their classes. Project parameters varied to fit the class and the professor (in terms of the format of the final presentation, individual versus group work, etc.), but they all involved students collecting and analyzing data to answer research questions. Through the FLC, the faculty worked collaboratively to provide one another with advice and incorporate best practices into their undergraduate research courses.20 Some of the best practices that were discussed include building in frequent deadlines and feedback, making clear the purpose of each component of the research, and creating opportunities for students to reflect on how much they had learned.
Table 1: Implementing a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on Undergraduate Research at CCRI
Source: Kamber, 2010. 22 Cox, 2015. 23 Cox, 2004; Wade, 2004; Schlitz et al., 2009; Fayne, 2011.26
Student Experiences of Course-Based Undergraduate Research
Midway through the 2015-2016 academic year, we conducted a survey to better understand the experiences of students participating in the course-based undergraduate research opportunities discussed above.(b) The survey was completed by 70 of the 111 students who participated in these courses during fall 2015 (a response rate of 63%). These students were slightly younger, less racially diverse, and more likely to be full-time students than the CCRI study body as a whole.
(b) The student surveys included multiple-choice and open-ended, short-answer questions about the impact of the course on their personal development and work-related skills. In our analysis we aggregated the results of the multiple-choice questions and used qualitative research methods to analyze the responses to open-ended questions.
Fig. 1 Demographics of CCRI Student Body and Our Survey Sample
Source: CCRI Office of Institutional Research & Planning
Overall, the students who completed our survey reacted positively to the course-based undergraduate research experiences. As shown in Figure 2, they reported gains in a number of areas, such as critical thinking and analysis of data, communication skills, and the ability to work in groups. These are the kinds of soft skills that employers value1 and that students may not develop in a more traditional course. Students were least likely to report gains in their abilities to critique the work of other students and solve complex problems. (It should be noted that these findings are based on students’ self-evaluations of the skills they gained.)
Student experiences varied somewhat across classes, likely because the skills emphasized in each research course varied. For example, the research projects for some courses required teamwork and solving complex problems, while others focused more on individual work and written communication. This variation in course design was reflected in the particular skills that students reported improving in each course. In the course where students worked in groups and divided up the labor of data collection, students were more likely to report feeling responsible for a part of the project than students in other courses.
Fig. 2 Skills Students Gained from Course-base Research (Self-Reported)
Source: Survey of 70 students participating in course-based undergraduate research at CCRI in fall 2015.
In their responses to open-ended questions, students explained some of the ways they believed the research experiences benefited them.(c) Not only did some students describe an increase in subject content knowledge, they also reported that various aspects of the project helped them feel more prepared for the workforce. Although students emphasized a variety of skills, over two-thirds of them mentioned soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving, communication and social skills, and real-world application of knowledge.
Some students reported aspects of the research courses that did not benefit them or could be improved. Many of these comments focused on group work, articulating challenges around successfully navigating the complexities of working collaboratively, particularly if different members of the group have diverse personal goals for the class. Other students mentioned challenges related to not having a clear understanding of why they were doing the research project, and struggles to manage the time involved in the research.
(c) In the open-ended questions, students were asked, "In what way did you personally benefit from doing the research project in this class?" and "In what ways do you feel more or less prepared for the work force after doing the research project?"
Fig. 3 Students Benefits from Course-base Undergraduate Research at CCRI
Source: Survey of 70 students participating in course-based undergraduate research at CCRI in fall 2015.
Faculty Experiences of the Faculty Learning Community
In addition to surveying students about their experiences with course-based undergraduate research, we also explored faculty member’s experiences participating in the faculty learning community.(d) Four out of the five participants reported that the support of the FLC was integral to the success of their course-based undergraduate research projects. Specifically, they found it beneficial to be able to share and receive feedback on their projects as they developed them. All participants expressed an interest in participating in future FLCs on course-based undergraduate research.
All five faculty members reported that they were planning to continue using course-based undergraduate research experiences as a teaching tool in the future, and that they would encourage other CCRI faculty to integrate research into their classes and to participate in an FLC supporting those efforts. Because professors tend to identify most closely with colleagues in their academic disciplines, participants felt that offering thematic or discipline-based FLCs might be most effective.
The biggest challenge participating faculty saw to expanding undergraduate research at CCRI is a lack of resources, in terms of both support for the faculty time needed to design the research projects and funding to purchase the necessary supplies for the research. They suggested that because of the intense planning and design required to implement course-based undergraduate research, a level of financial compensation or a reduction in a faculty member’s regular teaching load might be necessary to encourage other faculty to participate.
(d) The faculty surveys included open-ended questions that focused on their experiences in the FLC and their suggestions for future iterations of the model.
Lessons for CCRI and Rhode Island
Further research is needed to fully understand the impact of undergraduate research on CCRI students and the value of the FLC as a tool to support faculty in implementing undergraduate research. Our study is limited by a small sample size, self-reported outcome measures, and the lack of a control group and a pre-program survey. Keeping in mind these limitations, our preliminary research suggests that both course-based undergraduate research and the associated faculty learning community are promising approaches.
Since CCRI educates more than 16,000 Rhode Island residents each year, the way they are educated can significantly influence the skill level of the state’s future workforce. As indicated by existing academic literature, our research suggests that course-based undergraduate research at CCRI may help students develop soft skills that are valuable for future educational and workforce success.
There is no one-size-fits-all template for course-based undergraduate research experiences. Although existing best practices were incorporated into all of the courses in this study, each of the research experiences was unique and emphasized different skills as a result. Faculty developing opportunities for undergraduate research may want to highlight what is most relevant in their discipline or beneficial to their students.
Our research also suggests that an FLC may be a valuable tool for supporting faculty as they implement undergraduate research in their courses. To expand the use of course-based undergraduate research as a teaching approach at CCRI, we recommend continued support of FLCs, with the faculty who participated this year serving as mentors to their colleagues.
Many of the challenges CCRI faces with regard to incorporating undergraduate research experiences into the curricula likely mirror those found at other Rhode Island institutions. The FLC provided a forum for faculty to discuss these obstacles and seek creative solutions to overcome them. Despite the difficulties, participating faculty saw the value of undergraduate research and reported a commitment to continue using it as a teaching tool. Policy leaders looking for innovative approaches to preparing students for the workforce might consider expanding undergraduate research opportunities and supporting participating faculty through Faculty Learning Communities and other resources.
1. Hart, R. 2013. "It takes more than a major: employer priorities for college learning and student success." Washington, DC: The Association of American Colleges and Universities.
2. Green, Diana J. and Carol Blaszczynski. 2012. “Strategies and Activities for Developing Soft Skills, Part 1.” Journal of Applied Research for Business Instruction. 10(1): 1-6. Green, Diana J. and Carol Blaszczynski. 2012. “Effective Strategies and Activities for Developing Soft Skills, Part 2.” Journal of Applied Research for Business Instruction. 10(2): 1-6.
3. CBC News. 2015. “Employers value soft skills, but don't seek them out, expert says.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. September 16. Eckkrammer, Florian, Alexander Mense, Helmut Gollner, Christian Himmler, Wolf Rogner, Thomas Baierl, and Roman Slobodian. 2012. "Soft Skills in Practice and in Education: An Evaluation." American Journal of Business Education. 5(2): 225-231. Sumanasiri, Erabaddage, Gishan Tharanga, Mohd Shukri Ab Yajid, Ali Khatibi. 2015. “Conceptualizing Learning and Employability: Learning and Employability Framework.” Journal of Education and Learning. 4(2): 53-63.
5. Kyllonen, Patrick C. 2013. “Soft Skills for the Workplace.” Change Magazine. November/December.
6. Ishiyama, John. 2002. "Does early participation in undergraduate research benefit social science and humanities students?" College Student Journal. 36(3): 380.
7. Bennett, Joan S. and Karen W. Bauer. 2003. "Alumni perceptions used to assess undergraduate research experience." The Journal of Higher Education. 74(2): 210-230.
8. Lopatto, David. 2010. "Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience." Peer Review. 12(2): 27.
9. Lopatto, David. 2004. "Survey of undergraduate research experiences (SURE): First findings." Cell Biology Education. 3(4): 270-277.
10. Seymour, Elaine, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Sandra L. Laursen, and Tracee DeAntoni. 2004. "Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three-year study." Science Education. 88(4): 493-534.
11. Brandt, L., and J. L. Hayes. 2012. "Broader impacts of undergraduate research at a community college: Opening doors to new ideas." CUR Quarterly. 33(1): 17-21.
12. Shaffer, Christopher D., et al. 2010. "The Genomics Education Partnership: Successful Integration of Research into Laboratory Classes at a Diverse Group of Undergraduate Institutions." CBE-Life Sciences Education. 9(1): 55-69.
13. Arthur, Mikaila Mariel Lemonik and Francis Leazes, Jr. 2016. “How Higher Education Shapes the Workforce: A Study of Rhode Island College Graduates.” Providence, RI: The College & University Research Collaborative.
14. Russell, Susan H., Mary P. Hancock, and James McCullough. 2007. "Benefits of undergraduate research experiences." Science. 316(5824): 548-549.
15. Kuh, George D., Ken O’Donnell, and Sally Reed. 2013. “Ensuring Quality & Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale.” Washington, DC: The Association of American Colleges & Universities.
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17. Holdren, John P. and Eric Lander. 2012. “Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Washington, DC: President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
18. Auchincloss, Lisa Corwin, et al. 2014. "Assessment of course-based undergraduate research experiences: a meeting report." CBE-Life Sciences Education. 13(1): 29-40. Hensel, Nancy H. and Brent D. Cejda, eds. 2014. Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.
19. Examples of peer-reviewed research papers co-authored by CCRI students are: Kortz, Karen M., Scott K. Clark, Kyle Gray, Jessica J. Smay, Brendalee Viveiros, and David Steer. 2011. "Counting tectonic plates: A mixed-methods study of college students' conceptions of plates and boundaries." Geological Society of America Special Papers. 474: 171-188. Schifman, Laura, Dawn Cardace, Karen Kortz, Karen Saul, Amber Gilfert, Anne I. Veeger, and Daniel P. Murray. 2013. "Sleuthing Through the Rock Cycle: An Online Guided Inquiry Tool for Middle and High School Geoscience Education." Journal of Geoscience Education. 61(3): 268-279. Kortz, Karen M., and Amber R. Caulkins. 2015. "Introductory geology: Is there a common language?" GSA Today. 25(10).
20. Kortz, Karen M., and Katrien J. van der Hoeven Kraft. 2016. "Geoscience Education Research Project: Student Benefits and Effective Design of a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience." Journal of Geoscience Education. 64(1): 24-36.
21. Hewlett, James. 2009. "The search for synergy: Undergraduate research at the community college." In Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges, edited by Nancy H. Hensel and Brent D. Cejda. Washington, DC: Council of Undergraduate Research.
22. Kamber, Judith. 2010. Personal telephone communication with Jeanne Mullaney. November 8.
23. Cox, Milton D. 2015. “Website for Developing Faculty and Professional Learning Communities (FLCs): Communities of Practice in Higher Education.” Retrieved February 4, 2016.
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25. Mezeske, Barbara A. 2008. “Teaching circles: A low-cost, high-benefit way to engage faculty.” Faculty Focus. September 7.
26. Cox, Milton D. 2004. "Introduction to faculty learning communities." New directions for teaching and learning. (97): 5-23. Wade, Andrea C. 2004. "Faculty learning communities and teaching portfolios as a mentoring model." Academic Leadership Journal. 2(4): 25-27. Schlitz, Stephanie A., Margaret O'Connor, Yanhui Pang, Deborah Stryker, Stephen Markell, Ethan Krupp, Celina Byers, Sheila Dove Jones, and Alicia King Redfern. 2009. "Developing a Culture of Assessment through a Faculty Learning Community: A Case Study." International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 21(1): 133-147. Fayne, Harriet R. “Professional learning communities: Taking the angst out of general education assessment.” Westerville, OH: Otterbein College.
27. CCRI faculty and staff have established four critical abilities that define the desired learning outcomes for CCRI graduates: effective communication; critical thinking; quantitative, mathematical, and scientific reasoning; and social interaction. These are the hallmarks of an “educated person” that must be developed not only at CCRI, but over the course of a lifetime.
How can we incorporate opportunities for research more deeply into the college curriculum to better prepare undergraduate students for careers?
Type of Research