A Tool Kit for Teaching About Research

Junior Prof provides some classroom tips for engaging your students in research.

April 17, 2019
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In a previous article, “Prepping a Course I’ve Never Taught Before,” I wrote how I decided to engage my students in a semester-long project that would expose them to research in my field. My thought process was that I want students to see that higher education is about learning to ask meaningful questions and solving the puzzles that are absent from their textbook. In this essay, I will elaborate on my approach for teaching research, and offer some tools and suggestions for doing so.

Start at the library. When I’m teaching a class that contains a lot of material about disciplinary-based research, I always start by requiring students to go to the library. Subject-area librarians are indispensable for their knowledge about the topics your students are studying and the library system they’ll be working with. (As a side benefit, many of the students don’t otherwise go to the library regularly or meet their subject-area librarians, and this encourages them to do so.) To prepare for the students’ time in the library, I talk with the librarian in advance, go over aims and objectives with them, and craft a lesson plan. Typically, that plan consists of a series of activities that form an overview of the library’s resources. Such activities range from running searches to exploring databases and learning how to find materials in the stacks. In the past, we have presented these courses as a sort of scavenger hunt.

I also ask the librarian if they would be willing to meet with students individually or hold office hours when the time comes for them to work on the research project. Not only are librarians almost always very enthusiastic about the idea, but I’m also able to reduce my own workload of responding to students’ queries regarding source material.

Establish a low-stakes grading schema. I don’t believe in high-stakes grading. Assignments that are worth 40 percent or even 25 percent of the final grade can make students anxious and be hard to recover from if they don’t go as hoped. I want the major research project to count for the vast majority of a student’s grade, but I don’t want to put too much stock in a snapshot of the semester, so I break the project up into small, manageable pieces.

In that model, if a student doesn’t have a valid research question on the date assigned, they have the opportunity to learn and bounce back in time to earn the grade they want. The students have a series of deadlines throughout the term that I list on the syllabus with values of 5 percent to 10 percent next to them. Here are sample dates that illustrate what I mean for a course that meets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in fall of 2019:

  • Sept. 16: Research question (5 percent)
  • Sept. 23: Bibliography (five sources) (7 percent)
  • Sept. 30: Thesis statement (10 percent)
  • Oct. 14: Literature review (7 percent)
  • Oct. 28: Paper outline (8 percent)
  • Nov. 13: Draft (no intro or conclusion) (10 percent)
  • Nov. 15: In-class workshop (5 percent)
  • Nov. 18-22: Meeting in office hours (5 percent)
  • Nov. 27: Draft (with intro and conclusion) (8 percent)
  • Dec. 4: Final draft (5 percent)
  • Dec. 6: Research presentation (5 percent)

If you do the math, this research project is now 75 percent of the students’ overall grade. That’s huge. Breaking the project up serves to hold them accountable at each step of the process. It not only ensures they won’t stay up all night on Dec. 5 writing a final paper they’ve given very little thought to, but it also provides me with various opportunities to intervene if they are way off base. I like to think of it as a more mentorship-based approach to a research project. At the end of the semester, they will have a final product they are proud of, without ever having to deal with the anxiety of a research paper worth three-quarters of their grade.

The grading method I’m suggesting above also two unintended benefits. First, I like to point out to students that they now have a template for working on future research projects. They can use the steps suggested in our syllabus and modify the dates as needed for future assignments. Second, going into final evaluations, the majority of student grading is already accounted for. The students know more or less what grade they will receive in the class before they hand in their paper and do their research presentation. (I’ve thereby reduced the possibility that students will experience some kind of shock when they see their end-of-term grade.)

Set students up for success. To make sure students are equipped to complete this research assignment, I give them concrete examples before every deadline. We review what’s being evaluated and what I’m looking for in each assignment. One of my preferred methods is to evaluate sample work in front of the class so the students can see how I arrived at a particular grade. It can also be helpful to develop grade rubrics. If students get the sense that their grade is quantitative, objective and concrete, they’re less likely to request modifications to it.

There is a great rubric on the Center for Teaching and Learning site, assembled by Cornell College. I’ve uploaded it here. And if you want to explore the page in more detail, the rubric is found using the site homepage under the “Faculty Resources” tab. (Note the rubric is adapted from S. Whalen, “Rubric From Contemporary Health Issues Research Paper.”) Additional rubric resources include the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Center for Teaching and Learning page on “Creating and Using Rubrics” and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Teaching & Learning page on “Rubrics.”

What if you’re teaching a course with a large enrollment? I’ll admit that this mentorship-style project simply would not be a feasible undertaking in classes where there are 25-plus students. For that scenario, I would recommend having the students develop “research portfolios” throughout the term (using a learning management system such as Blackboard or Canvas). At each step, the students would add to the portfolio on the scheduled dates. Then I would evaluate them, provide feedback and assign grades less frequently than I’m suggesting above.

Mobilizing Next Steps

Some institutions, including my own, have invested heavily in promoting undergraduate research. For example, the University of Washington hosts an Undergraduate Research Symposium and offers opportunities for students to apply for conference travel funding. Beyond that, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and other organizations offer panels or poster presentation events strictly for undergraduates at their academic conferences. Other conferences give awards for undergraduate student research (see the Southern Sociological Society’s Undergraduate Odum Award). In fact, some entire organizations are devoted to undergraduate research projects, such as the Council on Undergraduate Research. Part of my goal in teaching this disciplinary research course will be to get students to see the benefits of these opportunities and maybe help them submit something to an external opportunity.

The University of Notre Dame has compiled a really useful list of undergraduate research presentation/conference opportunities. Check out the Flatley Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement webpage to access it.

Wish me luck! If all goes well, some great undergraduate research will take place in my course, and my students may even turn up at a conference.


Junior Prof is an assistant professor working toward tenure. For more, see www.juniorprof.com or follow @thejuniorprof.


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