Talk About Teaching - Dr. Rescorla

Talk About Teaching


Undergraduate Research Experience


by Robert Rescorla

        How did James Joyce's historical and literary context affect the 

style of his writing? What is the role of second messenger systems in 

storing human memories? How have the different patterns of immigration 

affected assimilation of groups into American society? Questions of this 

sort deeply engage Penn's faculty. We spend enormous amounts of time and 

energy formulating, analyzing, and drawing conclusions about such 

questions. And we derive considerable intellectual stimulation and 

pleasure from the effort. An ideal undergraduate program would 

systematically engage our students in such activities, exposing them to 

the excitement of the enterprise and showing them this aspect of our own 


        There are many educational reasons to embed undergraduate 

education in the context of a research university. But surely one of the 

strongest is the opportunity that a University setting can provide for 

undergraduates themselves to participate in research. For many students 

such opportunities can be the most rewarding experiences of their 

undergraduate careers. 

        The goal of giving undergraduate students research experience is 

not to press them into being premature graduate students. Rather, to my 

mind, there are three goals that are well served by this kind of 

experience. First, it helps students better appreciate the nature of 

knowledge. It is in the attempt to add to our knowledge that one really 

comes to understand what it is to know something. One must confront the 

methodological and conceptual issues surrounding the nature of knowledge 

in a given discipline. This cannot help but give one new respect for 

knowledge as well as a healthy skepticism for its origins and 

permanence. Second, working through the steps of doing research in any 

field helps sharpen analytic and communication skills. Such skills will 

generalize to new domains and enable our students to reason well about 

the new problems they will face in the future. Third, there is an 

excitement about doing research which is difficult to match. It is a 

heady experience to be the first to know something, whether it is a fact 

about the physical world, a new understanding of a piece of art or 

literature, or an novel appreciation of a social interaction. It is the 

kind of experience that motivates our faculty; and it is the kind of 

experience that will excite our undergraduates, helping to instill a 

love of learning.

        Of course, research means different things in different 

disciplines. So what goals can we set for the research experiences that 

we offer our students? One formulation is that we should try to give our 

students the experience of creating the same sort of product as they are 

asked to read and learn about in their courses, the sort of product that 

their professors generate in their own research. A typical result of a 

students' researches would be a substantial written document that 

advances a thesis and conducts an analysis of that thesis by one or more 

of the methodologies accepted in the discipline. In some disciplines the 

appropriate methodology would involve empirical techniques, in others 

theoretical work, perhaps of a quantitative sort, whereas in others it 

would involve bringing to bear the writings of previous thinkers in the 

field. But we can ask students to engage in the kind of activity that we 

as faculty members spend our own time doing. This will give students an 

enriching experience. But of equal importance, it will create a better 

understanding of what the faculty do and why they do it.

        But to what degree is such a goal really achievable at a 

university like Penn? What means do we have for involving undergraduates 

in research? Of course, the most familiar model is that of the 

independent study course, in which students work in a one-on-one manner 

with faculty mentors. Penn already provides abundant opportunities for 

independent study. Approximately one-fourth of students in the College 

avail themselves of those opportunities, under the guidance of faculty 

in the College and in several of the other schools of the University. 

(Indeed, the topics listed at the beginning of this essay include 

undergraduate independent study projects funded by the College Alumni 

Society.) Clearly, one of Penn's distinctive features is the flexibility 

that it provides for undergraduates to do research with faculty in 

graduate and professional schools. A related, but educationally less 

well-articulated, opportunity is often provided by work study programs. 

Many College students get their first entry into research through their 

work study positions. We certainly need to encourage students to take 

advantage of these opportunities. 

        But it is clear that engaging all undergraduates in research 

through the means of independent study courses would overtax our 

already-stretched faculty resources. Moreover, in some disciplines 

students may need more educational background than can reasonably be 

given at the undergraduate level to prepare them for this sort of work. 

So we must look for other models by which we can give research 

experience. Certainly what is successful will vary by discipline, but 

one model that seems to work well in some of the social and natural 

sciences is a seminar-sized course in which small groups of students 

collaborate on research projects. For instance, in recent years the 

Psychology Department has created a set of "Research Experience" courses 

and required all of its majors to take at least one. The goal of these 

courses is to expose students to the full process of doing research in 

psychology. Students work with faculty members to formulate a research 

question, familiarize themselves with the relevant extant literature, 

design an empirical study intended to address that question, collect (or 

locate) the data themselves, and conduct an analysis of those data. They 

then work either collaboratively or individually to produce a written 

document describing their work in the format that would be expected of a 

professional publication, and they give oral presentations of their work 

to the peers in their class. This model can be conducted with a wide 

variety of different contents ranging from clinical and social 

psychology to behavioral neuroscience.

        By working in groups of 3 or 4, students get the experience of 

doing front line research on questions of their own devising, but 

without the attendant cost in faculty time of individual research 

projects. Equally importantly, by working in groups, the students gain 

other educationally valuable experiences. For instance, they develop the 

skills involved in collaborative work toward a common goal. They come to 

view each other as intellectual resources. Perhaps most important of 

all, they carry intellectual questions outside of the classroom, 

challenging each other and learning from each other in settings not 

dominated by the presence of a faculty member. Exit interviews conducted 

by the Psychology Department suggest that their students see this sort 

of experience as one of the highlights of their undergraduate 

experience. Penn's students are not alone in holding this view. The 

Light Report, evaluating the assessment seminars at Harvard, asked 

recent graduates to characterize the intellectual experiences that were 

seminal for them. By far the most frequently identified experience was 

one in which a small group of students worked closely with a faculty 

member in pursuit of a common intellectual goal. 

        How far one can generalize such a model to other disciplines 

remains to be seen. Several other College departments have similar 

courses, but their implementation may prove difficult in some fields. 

Indeed, in some disciplines it may be hard for a department to provide 

any research experiences for its majors. Such disciplines may have to 

look to other departments, or to the College or University more 

generally, to provide research opportunities for their majors. For 

instance, Mathematics already sees some of its majors gaining research 

experience in social and natural science departments. 

        But clearly one of the challenges we face as we contemplate 

strengthening the undergraduate experience at Penn is devising new ways 

of bringing research experience into the curriculum. Successfully doing 

so can be expected not only to enrich the experience of our 

undergraduates but also to enliven the scholarly and research activities 

of our faculty. Undergraduate research experience is one of the places 

that we can see the synergy between the scholarly and teaching 

components of faculty lives, components which are all too frequently 

characterized as competing with each other.

This article, third in a series developed by the Lindback Society and 

the College of Arts and Sciences, is by the SAS Associate Dean for 

Undergraduate Education. Dr. Rescorla is also professor of psychology 

and Director of the College.


Volume 41, Number 4
December 6, 1994

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