The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Undergraduate research is not a new pedagogical practice. Programmes developing such skills have been formally instituted in select disciplines such as the laboratory sciences for decades. In other disciplines, such as economics, formal efforts to engage students in the practice of conducting research have only developed more recently. Models of undergraduate research programmes range from individual to institution-wide efforts. Instructors develop such opportunities by either adding significant research components to their courses, developing entire courses around the research project or overseeing senior theses and independent study projects. Research on the use of active learning techniques suggests that students learn better by doing than by simply listening to an expert tell them how things work (Hake, 1998; Prince, 2004). Thus, it is not surprising that programmes like the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) ‘Research Informed Teaching’ have recently given added impetus to these innovations.

Undergraduate research experiences are being promoted across the OECD as a route towards improved student learning outcomes. In the United States, the Council on Undergraduate Research’s (CUR, http://www.cur.org/about.html) programme was constructed ‘to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship.’ The CUR sponsors multi-day institutes focused on specific issues such as proposal writing, sustaining undergraduate research programmes and institutionalising undergraduate research. It also provides summer fellowships for students and sponsors ‘dialogue’ conferences that provide participants with opportunities to learn about and interact with agents representing funding agencies. Although focused more broadly on undergraduate education in the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Academy provides a variety of supporting activities for undergraduate research. For example, it has supported the development of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning ‘Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research’ at the University of Warwick, the aim of which is to put ‘undergraduate research at the centre of undergraduate education’ (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/research/cetl/ugresearch/). The University of Sydney’s USYD program (http://www.itl.usyd.edu.au/RLT/usydproject/about.htm) includes as one of its project objectives ‘to extend opportunities for students at all levels to experience and conduct research, learn about research throughout their courses, develop the skills of research and inquiry and contribute to the University’s research effort (Research-based learning).’

There is much research yet to be completed before we draw conclusions about the degree to which undergraduate research programmes are effective. Although those who oversee undergraduate research opportunities generally agree that the expected outcome is for students to ‘understand a research problem in sufficient depth so as to be able to pose a question about it, determining what evidence is needed to solve the problem, and collecting data that will answer the question’ there is less consensus on how these outcomes are to be assessed (Kardash, 2000: 191). Rueckert (2002: 10–11) suggests that research measuring learning outcomes needs better use of control groups, development of longitudinal studies and less of a reliance on indirect measures of student learning such as self-report data and student perceptions when conducting research on the effectiveness of this pedagogical technique.

Despite these shortcomings, the existing research does provide interesting insights as to the impact of undergraduate research on student participants. Using four institutions and a number of survey methods, Lopatto (2006: 23) concludes that ‘students reported gains on a variety of skills, including design and hypothesis formation, data collection and interpretation, information literacy, communication, and computer work.’ Hathaway et al. (2002) find that students who participate in undergraduate research projects are more likely to attend graduate school although sample selection issues might suggest that these students were predestined to continue their education through participation in such programmes. Benefits can also be linked to the acquisition of a wide range of skills including analytical, communication and higher-order thinking skills that benefit all students. In a study of engineering and science students participating in undergraduate research projects during a ten-year period, Ward et al. (2003: 1) found that students ‘reported increased technical skill, ability to act independently, insight into graduate and career possibilities, understanding of the value of team work, ability to work with setbacks and/or ambiguity, desire to learn, ability to think creatively and/or synthetically, self confidence, communication skills, and an understanding of where ‘knowledge’ comes from.’ Less skill-oriented benefits are often overlooked. For example, Nagda, et al. (1998) find that those who are at the highest risk for college attrition (African American students and those with low GPAs ) are more likely to be retained when faculty–student research partnerships are formed.

The main goal of this chapter is to introduce readers to some of the many important issues that should be considered when developing undergraduate research experiences. These include, but are not limited to, tensions between:

  • development of detailed knowledge and skills in manipulating economic models and rich contextual understanding that may arise from discussion of a variety of social science perspectives; and
  • deep understanding of a limited range of economic models and more superficial understanding of a broader range of models.

Curriculum decisions about the extent of research requirements, the degree of freedom of choice of research topic and the extent to which students are expected to restrict their definition of problems and choice of methods to econometric tests of economic hypotheses will strongly influence the response to these tensions.

In addressing these and other issues, this chapter does not present a prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ model of undergraduate research; rather, it is designed to encourage instructors to be purposeful in their own design and evaluation of such experiences. In order to motivate this process, the rest of this chapter includes sections describing the research that exists on this topic, key factors to consider when developing a research intensive experience, expected skills developed, the professor’s role and issues of evaluation. Each section is designed so that readers can move throughout the chapter in any order they wish. (Although this does result in a few instances of repetition, each case occurs in a different context and is therefore not solely repetitive.) Despite this seemingly independent nature of the presentation of this material, each section is critical to the development of undergraduate research projects and thus the reader is encouraged to review all sections.