Undergraduate research experiences: Impacts and opportunities

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Science  06 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6222, 1261757
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261757

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Assessing the value of undergraduate research

Undergraduate research experiences often engender enthusiasm in the students involved, but how useful are they in terms of enhancing student learning? Linn et al. review studies that focus on the effectiveness of undergraduate research programs. Undergraduate research experiences in a class were distinguished from those involving individualized participation in a research program. Mentoring emerges as both an important component of a successful experience and a target for improvement.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1261757

Structured Abstract

For any undergraduate contemplating a career in scientific research, participating in authentic research seems like a good opportunity. But what are authentic research experiences? How do they benefit undergraduates? What forms of mentoring are successful? What needs improvement? And how can these experiences meet the needs of interested students while at the same time be cost-effective in large research universities?

We review the research tackling these questions and find few answers. While most undergraduates give high ratings to research experiences, specific benefits have not been documented. Of the 60 empirical studies published in the last 5 years, only 4 directly measured gains in research capabilities or conceptual understanding. Most studies draw conclusions from self-report surveys or interviews, notoriously poor methods for documenting impacts. These studies leave us with few insights into what works and little idea about how to make the experiences more effective.


Most colleges and universities offer Undergraduate Research Experiences (UREs) and/or Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) (Fig. 1). Two large surveys, the 2004 Freshman Survey and the 2008 College Senior Survey, administered at over 200 institutions, generated data about the impact of undergraduate research experiences on persistence in science and intention to pursue graduate school. These studies document that students appreciate undergraduate research experiences. The surveys are unable, however, to distinguish between UREs and CUREs. In addition, the value that undergraduate research adds cannot be disentangled from precollege preparation, especially for students from groups that are underrepresented in science.


Designers of UREs expect students to benefit from participating in a scientific laboratory but have not determined optimal ways to orient and guide participants. Students often expect the URE to mimic their college laboratory experiences with procedural guidance and planned outcomes. During the first year of a URE, students often report spending most of their effort on setting up and conducting experiments and limited effort on understanding the investigation or interpreting the results. Students would benefit from an orientation that integrates their beliefs and expectations with the realities of the research experience. The few studies that measure changes in understanding of scientific practices or relevant science concepts report little or no gains after 1 year in a URE. Students who spend over a year in a URE often learn new methodological techniques, collect their own data, interpret findings, and formulate new research questions. The slow enculturation into lab activities may make sense, especially when students join labs investigating questions that do not arise in undergraduate education. The time and resources needed, however, limit the scalability of UREs. Students encounter new ideas during their research experiences but often need guidance to integrate these ideas with their expectations. We discuss ways that designers of UREs can speed up enculturation and strengthen guidance.

Individual mentoring emerges as an effective way to guide students and improve learning from research experiences. Activities that could help students benefit from research experiences include discussion with mentors, participation in group meetings where current research is discussed, guided opportunities to explore relevant research literature, reflection on observations in weekly journals, and synthesis of their insights by creating research proposals, reports, or posters. We discuss ways to prepare mentors so that they can efficiently guide students.


Undergraduate research experiences absorb a lot of time, money, and effort. The costs and benefits of research experiences for building human capital, benefitting undergraduates, improving workforce diversity, and strengthening educational outcomes need better understanding. Making the best use of extramural funds and the (often voluntary) contributions of faculty to improve undergraduate research experiences requires a strong research base.

More rigorous research is needed, and the field could benefit by building on insights from the learning sciences. We use the knowledge integration framework to interpret the available findings and to identify gaps in the research base.

We discuss ways to develop validated, generalizable assessments such as methods for measuring ability to locate and interpret primary literature. We suggest techniques for developing criteria for evaluating mentoring interactions. We identify ways to strengthen mentoring and to ensure that research experiences meet the needs of diverse students.

URE in action.

Biofuel research engages a Berkeley undergraduate researcher during a summer internship with the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (funded by NSF grant 1132670).


Most undergraduates give high ratings to research experiences. Studies report that these experiences improve participation and persistence, often by strengthening students’ views of themselves as scientists. Yet, the evidence for these claims is weak. More than half the 60 studies reviewed rely on self-report surveys or interviews. Rather than introducing new images of science, research experiences may reinforce flawed images especially of research practices and conceptual understanding. The most convincing studies show benefits for mentoring and for communicating the nature of science, but the ideas that students learn are often isolated or fragmented rather than integrated and coherent. Rigorous research is needed to identify ways to design research experiences so that they promote integrated understanding. These studies need powerful and generalizable assessments that can document student progress, help distinguish effective and ineffective aspects of the experiences, and illustrate how students interpret the research experiences they encounter. To create research experiences that meet the needs of interested students and make effective use of scarce resources, we encourage systematic, iterative studies with multiple indicators of success.

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