Integrating Research Projects Into a Course

classroom-desksIntegrating undergraduate research projects into courses has numerous benefits. First, many students are underrepresented in undergraduate research, including first-generation students and students of color (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2016). When undergraduate research projects are embedded in courses, all students have the opportunity to participate. Second, faculty members often do not receive compensation for mentoring undergraduate research (Hu, Scheuch, Schwartz, Gayles, & Li, 2008), but if their mentoring is part of a course they're teaching, then it counts in their teaching load. Below are some strategies for helping faculty members as they consider adding an undergraduate research component to their courses. 

Planning the Course

  • For example, can your students:

    • Use SuperSearch to find literature on this topic?
    • Distinguish peer-reviewed from non-peer-reviewed articles?
    • Identify different research methodologies (e.g., experiments, surveys, interviews) and the types of conclusions that can be drawn from those different studies?
    • Critically analyze past research on a given topic?
    • Synthesize the past research into a cohesive introduction to their own study?
    • Develop a research question?
    • Design a study to answer a particular research question?
    • Identify and address ethical issues in research?
    • Complete the IRB process (if applicable)?
    • Collect data?
    • Analyze and interpret data?
    • Write a research report using the conventions of your discipline?
    • Create a poster/oral presentation for a conference?
    • Orally communicate the results of a research study to a general audience?

    If your students' research skills might be underdeveloped, you will need to consider ways to develop these skills in your course.

    • “Undergraduate Research” is defined by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) as the following: “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” 
    • Willison and O’Regan (2007) argue that research skill development can best be conceptualized as a continuum, with students having varying levels of autonomy in different facets of research.
    • Beckman and Hensel (2009) discuss several different dimensions of undergraduate research to consider (e.g., student, process centered versus outcome, product centered; multi-or interdisciplinary versus discipline based).

    It is worth taking some time to think through these issues as you plan your course.


    Beckman, M., & Hensel, N. (2009). Making explicit the implicit: Defining undergraduate research. Council on Undergraduate Research, 29(4), 40-44.

    Willison, J., & O’Regan K. (2007). Commonly known, commonly not known, totally unknown: A framework for students becoming researchers. Higher Education Research and Development, 26(4), 393-409.

  • Backwards course design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) entails the following steps:

    • First, consider the outcomes that you would like your students to achieve
        • For example: "At the end of the semester, students should be able to write a clear abstract to submit to an academic conference"
    • Then, determine what evidence you would need to determine if the students had achieved those outcomes
        • For example: "a polished abstract from each research team that conforms to the conventions in the discipline"
    • Finally, design classroom/homework activities to help students achieve those outcomes
        • For example: You could plan a module teaching students how to write effective abstracts. Maybe they look at examples of abstracts and identify what’s missing (formative assessment). Maybe they practice writing abstracts for brief articles (formative assessment). Maybe they submit drafts of their conference abstract for peer and instructor review (formative assessment) before they write and submit the final abstract (summative assessment).

    Scaffold difficult research skills by starting small and gradually building to more complicated tasks (Shanahan et al., 2015).


    Shanahan, J. O., Ackley-Holbrook, E., Hall, E., Stewart, K., & Walkington, H. (2015). Ten salient practices of undergraduate research: A review of the literature. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 23(5), 359-376.

    Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    • Faculty members who regularly teach a CURE at the University of Saskatchewan have written a blog about their experiences. Highly recommend! 
    • A good practical guide for designing a CURE can be found here
    • The following edited collection is a good introduction to CURES: Hensel, N. H. (2018) (Ed.). Course-based undergraduate research: Educational equity and high-impact practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Dealing with Common Challenges

    • Expectations about prerequisite knowledge/skills should be explicit in the syllabus.
    • The instructor can give an ungraded quiz in the first week to diagnose the extent to which students are overall prepared for the work in the course.
    • The instructor can offer resources (online, on reserve at the library) for students who need extra help.
    • The instructor can direct students to academic support services on campus, including:
    • An Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) or Graduate Assistant can help tutor underprepared students (as well as engaging in other tasks such as monitoring teams’ progress, teaching modules, grading drafts, etc.).
    • Check out this website for more great strategies.  
    • Typically, 5-6 students are assigned to research teams (although that is not a hard-and-fast rule).
    • Research teams that are too large might encourage social loafing.
    • Research teams that are too small might struggle with the workload.
    • Large classes may overwhelm the instructor with too much grading.
    • Does this course prepare students for upper-level courses? Are there pre-set course goals? How do research projects help (or not help) achieve these goals?
    • If you are unsure of how to best accommodate undergraduate research projects into a course, please contact the Office of Undergraduate Research - we are here to help!
  • If you are collecting data from human or animal subjects, your project(s) will need to undergo review.

    • Students and the instructor should do CITI training within the first 2-3 weeks of the semester.
    • The methodology should be finalized around Week 4.
    • IRB forms should be submitted around Week 5.
    • Pay careful attention to structuring so that students can actually finish.
        • For instance, if it’s a Spring course and you would like your students to present at the Symposium of Student Scholars, when is the deadline for abstracts? (typically in March) When is the actual event? (typically in mid-to-late April) 
        • If it’s a Fall course and you would like you students to present at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), when is the deadline for abstracts? (typically the first week in December) When is the actual event? (typically mid-March to mid-April) 
    • Work backwards from deadlines so that the students don’t miss out on presentation opportunities. Undergraduate research projects often don’t conform nicely to set schedules (e.g., data collection takes longer than anticipated), so it’s good to build in some wiggle room.
    • Students can make a contract at the beginning of the semester regarding who will do what, what strategies they will employ if they have problems, etc.
    • Students should keep minutes of meetings/online discussions and post those in their D2L “locker” so the instructor can review these in the event of a social loafing accusation.
    • Weekly public progress reports (perhaps posted publicly in D2L) can help hold students accountable.
    • Have individual grades (e.g., article summaries, individual drafts of sections) in addition to a group grade for a final product.
    • Have frequent confidential peer reviews and self-assessments.
    • Establish strategies before the semester begins about how to deal with loafers (e.g., groups can vote to remove loafers, who will then be required to either convince the group to take them back, do an individual project, or convince another group to take them in).
    • Check out this website for more great strategies. 
  • Put simply, students work harder on projects for an external audience compared to work that will only be seen by their instructor and maybe their classmates. How can you build these conference opportunities into your course?

    • Identify the conference before the semester starts, and figure out when the deadlines are, approximately how much it would cost per student, whether it would be required or optional for students, etc.
    • Check out KSU's funding options: