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Student Research Projects Can Help Engage Undergraduates In Your Classroom

by Paul McPherron and Trudy Smoke 19th March 2019

Many instructors envision undergraduate research as work in labs or offices outside of classroom learning activities. Instead, first-hand experiences collecting and analyzing data can enhance classroom teaching in all fields.

As undergraduate university students, we didn’t really love reading for classes. Class topics and discussions were interesting enough, but we never felt excited when looking over a reading list for the upcoming semester. Instead, we were most engaged in a course when an assignment meant actually “doing” something other than reading and writing. For example, Paul still remembers the research paper and presentation he gave on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and 12-step programs in which he attended several AA meetings and interviewed attendees. After collecting and analyzing data, the instructor commented, “You’re on your way to graduate school,” a path he had never considered before.

Although we didn’t know it then, our classes were part of a trend at universities to incorporate research experiences into the undergraduate curriculum that continues to this day. In addition to offering active and engaging learning experiences, classroom research projects provide opportunities for students to interact with their instructors and other students while completing meaningful tasks and gaining practice presenting their work in written, oral, and digital forms. Perhaps most importantly for students, undergraduate research projects touch on many career readiness skills and may be used as evidence of creativity, scholarship, and analytic ability when applying for that first post-graduate job or graduate school.
Undergraduate research projects touch on many career readiness skills and may be used as evidence of creativity, scholarship, and analytic ability when applying for that first post-graduate job or graduate school.
With all of the benefits, why do some faculty still shy away from incorporating research activities into their courses, especially in humanities and social science courses? One of the greatest fears we’ve heard from faculty is that they worry students first need to have a foundation of knowledge before they can engage in any “real” research project. They also fear that research projects are time-consuming, difficult to grade, and take away from building that knowledge foundation.

However, it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice between engaging in research projects and building core discipline knowledge. In fact, classroom research projects can help enhance and build on foundational knowledge as much as or more so than just assigning reading. For example, a literature professor at Lehman College has students research and digitally map important literary sites in New York City. Students enrolled in the Macaulay Honors College in New York complete a number of research projects as part of their core curriculum. In our own classes, students complete small-scale research projects on a variety of sociolinguistic research topics from analyzing body-building and power lifting social media posts to collecting data on code-switching in a Chinese-American family.

Similarly to instructors, students may also be skeptical of doing research projects. They might ask why they’re doing research if it’s not “real” research. Moreover, they often feel that their project is not valid if it only uses survey and interview data collected from friends. In explaining our motivation for completing research projects in our class, we point out that many studies in sociolinguistics are only of one person or a small group. We also point out the need in these studies to find a variety of sources of data about the participant (i.e. triangulated data). We emphasize that the point is to do a pilot study and gain research experience, not necessarily publish a dissertation.

In addition, we add that researchers often find their research topics and long-term projects from their own personal experiences with friends and family members, and, in some cases, family and neighbors become the focus of long-term projects. The important thing as a novice or experienced researcher is to be transparent and write about biases and relationships that the author has with the participants in a study.

Of course, every class is different and a research project may not fit into every curriculum, but we continue to see the value of incorporating projects that collect and analyze new data into our classes. As one student told us at the end of a recent semester, “I didn’t think I was interested in sociolinguistics, but now I can’t stop analyzing every conversation I overhear.”
Featured image banner: Photo by Adi Rahman. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.