Increasing and Evaluating SPLH Student Engagement in Undergraduate Research—Holly L. Storkel (2013)
In order to counter low student engagement in formal research experiences, the Speech-Language-Hearing program reviewed and revised the department's approach to undergraduate research.
The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing: Sciences and Disorders (SPLH) has an active research climate, with most tenure-track faculty engaged in externally funded research. However, few undergraduate students (i.e., ~10% in 2003) formally participated in a research experience. Faculty were motivated to increase student engagement in research because there is a long-standing critical shortage of PhD-level researchers in our field, and research is the cornerstone of our discipline, even for clinical practitioners. Based on these reasons, we engaged in a multi-year effort to increase undergraduate involvement in formal research experiences.
We took numerous steps from 2003 to 2013 to increase undergraduate involvement in formal research experiences. These included:
- Course credit—Most juniors or seniors enroll in a course for either mentored research experience or independent study.
- Student recruitment—We have developed a system for contacting faculty re: undergraduate research mentoring and students re: applying for undergraduate research projects.
- Faculty balance—A departmental undergraduate research coordinator matches students with mentors. With centralized matching, each faculty member who is willing to mentor a student is typically assigned a student, and students usually are matched with one of their top mentor choices.
- Student recognition/visibility—To increase visibility of undergraduate research within the department, we created an end-of-the-semester departmental symposium. Students are required to present their research at the symposium during their last semester of research enrollment.
- Faculty recognition—We have revised our annual review and promotion and tenure forms and procedures to provide a way for faculty to report student research mentoring activities, both in terms of quantity as well as quality (e.g., reporting student awards). In addition, we revised our departmental student advising system. In doing so, we examined faculty advising and mentoring loads and now have recommended targets for both advising and mentoring.
We evaluated our undergraduate research program in two ways: quantity and quality. In terms of quantity, we tracked engagement in research from 2002 to 2013. Undergraduate engagement in research increased from 2002 to 2009 and has remained fairly stable since 2009.
In terms of quality, we have just begun to formally evaluate the learner outcomes of our program. We created a rubric for evaluating students’ final research products and used this rubric in spring 2013 to evaluate 12 final products. Nine students had final research products that received outstanding and very good ratings across several categories. In general, the results look quite strong.
Overall, we feel that we have a successful undergraduate research program. We have successfully increased undergraduate engagement in research and the quality of the experience in terms of student learning appears to be strong. Although we have a solid foundation, there are still several issues we need to continue to consider. One issue is that we have reached the asymptote of the number of students that can be accommodated in a one-on-one mentoring model for undergraduate research. Another issue is that judges (equal mix of doctoral students and faculty) commented that it was difficult to distinguish certain ratings on the rubric from one another. Consequently, we plan to revise our rubric by condensing it into three ratings that are more clearly distinct from one another and by checking that the top category of performance is realistic within the presentation format.
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The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing: Sciences and Disorders (SPLH) has an active research climate with most tenure-track faculty engaged in externally funded research. However, few undergraduate students (i.e., ~10% in 2003) formally participated in a research experience (i.e., Departmental Honors and/or Research Experience Program certification). Faculty members were motivated to increase student engagement in research for two reasons. First, there is a long-standing critical shortage of PhD-level researchers in our field. Most PhD programs operate well below capacity, and approximately one-third of open faculty positions go unfilled each year because of a lack of qualified personnel. Most undergraduates choose our major because they are drawn to the clinical side of our profession. In fact, most undergraduates are unaware of the opportunities for a research career in our field. Engagement in undergraduate research may assist students in learning what research entails and what research careers are available in our area.
Second, even for clinical practitioners, research is the cornerstone of our discipline. That is, clinical practice is evidence-based, meaning that clinicians need to stay abreast of new advancements and apply new diagnostic and intervention techniques to the children and adults they serve. In addition, each client’s progress needs to be charted to determine that maximum gains are being made. In essence, each client is a case study where a clinician:
- begins with a hypothesis of what technique will work based on the current research literature and her past experience;
- creates a plan to implement that particular technique, making adaptations to fit her client’s strengths and weaknesses;
- collects data to determine whether the treatment is effective for the client;
- evaluates the data to draw conclusions (e.g., continue the treatment, try a different treatment).
Thus, many of the skills required for research can be applied to clinical practice. In this way, undergraduate research provides an opportunity for students to acquire these foundational skills.
Based on these reasons, we engaged in a multi-year effort to increase undergraduate involvement in formal research experiences.
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We took numerous steps from 2003 to 2013 to increase undergraduate involvement in formal research experiences. However, we did not track which steps were implemented in any given year. Thus, we summarize the full set of methods that are currently in place. However, it is important to note that these methods accumulated through a series of changes, with only one or two new changes being implemented each year.
Course credit. Most of our students begin research in their junior or senior year, and most start in the fall semester. In addition, students typically pursue multiple semesters of research, varying from two to four semesters of research enrollment. Students enroll in a mentored research experience (SPLH 497 for those not pursuing departmental honors or SPLH 498 for those who are pursuing departmental honors) each semester they engage in substantive research activities. Less intensive research activities, such as observing in a lab, use a different enrollment (i.e., SPLH 499; Independent Study). Research enrollment (i.e., SPLH 497 or 498) is typically for two to three credits, with the number of credits being based on the amount of work the student intends to do each week (i.e., six hours per week for a two credit enrollment; nine hours per week for a three credit enrollment). The benefit of having students enroll in a specific course is that they tend to take the commitment seriously because they receive a grade for their work, and individual enrollment makes it easy to track faculty mentoring activities for annual and promotion/tenure evaluations. At the beginning of each semester, students submit a research plan using a standard template to the departmental undergraduate research coordinator. This serves as the “syllabus” for the enrollment so that students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. This also serves as the basis for grading the enrollment during semesters when there is not a final product.
Student recruitment. Approximately two to four weeks into the semester, the departmental undergraduate research coordinator contacts all faculty members to determine whether they are able to mentor new undergraduates in research for the following semester. This contact also includes a list of undergraduates currently engaging in research who will continue their enrollment in the coming semester. Willing faculty are asked to indicate the number of new students they would be able to mentor and to update the description of their research project. This information is used to create a student application to participate in research. Approximately four to six weeks into the semester, this application is distributed to all declared SPLH majors. In addition, a separate e-mail is sent to all SPLH majors who meet the GPA requirements for departmental honors to further encourage them to engage in research. Applications are typically due approximately eight to ten weeks into the semester. This deadline corresponds approximately to the advising and enrollment period each semester, so that students can talk with advisors about their potential participation in research. Note that completed applications include basic information about students’ qualifications for research, as well as their plans for research enrollment and their mentor preferences.
Faculty balance. After the application deadline, the departmental undergraduate research coordinator matches students to mentors. This centralized matching process allows us to balance the benefits and the cost of research mentoring more evenly across the faculty. That is, not all faculty members teach undergraduate courses, and even those who do may not teach lower-division courses that students would take prior to research enrollment. Without centralized matching, students were often unaware of the research opportunities available, and many students flocked to faculty members whose class(es) they liked, leading to an uneven mentoring distribution. With centralized matching, each faculty member who is willing to mentor a student is typically assigned a student, and students usually are matched with one of their top mentor choices (i.e., rank of 1-3). In addition, qualifications of students are considered in the matching process, so that faculty members have an appropriate mix of students. That is, most faculty members will usually have a mix of continuing and new students as well as a mix of students with ideal and less ideal preparation for research. Note that the application allows faculty to specify the types of skills that are pre-requisite to research in their area. In addition, tentative matches are distributed to the faculty for acceptance before the match is communicated to the student. In this way, centralized matching does not override faculty input.
Student recognition/visibility. To increase visibility of undergraduate research within the department, we created an end-of-the-semester departmental symposium. Students are required to present their research at the symposium during their last semester of research enrollment. The last semester of enrollment is tracked through the research plans that students submit at the beginning of each semester of research enrollment. Students are allowed to represent their final research product in other ways (e.g., written paper; presentation at alternative venue) in lieu of the symposium, although almost all choose to present at the symposium. Students who choose to participate in the symposium submit a title and abstract one to two weeks before the scheduled symposium. These are used to create a program that is distributed to all SPLH faculty and students via e-mail. Title and abstracts are also featured on the departmental website. Generally, students who are currently engaging in research and those interested in engaging in research attend the symposium, which also is well attended by faculty. After the symposium, instructions for Research Experience Program (REP) certification are sent to all presenters via e-mail with a pdf showing how to complete the online form. The departmental undergraduate research coordinator monitors certification and contacts students who fail to complete the online form. The coordinator also monitors departmental honors certification. This ensures that all students are appropriately credited with a complete research project. Finally, students who earned certification (either REP or departmental honors) receive special recognition at the departmental graduation ceremony where certificates and honor cords are presented to each student.
Faculty recognition. As we have revised annual review and promotion and tenure criteria for other purposes, we have examined whether these various procedures have appropriately mentioned faculty mentoring activities. In general, our existing procedures did not explicitly mention faculty mentoring of student research, nor did they identify what would be considered appropriate. We have revised our forms and procedures to provide a way for faculty to report student research mentoring activities, both in terms of quantity as well as quality (e.g., reporting student awards; see excerpt examples). In addition, we revised our departmental student advising system. In doing so, we examined faculty advising and mentoring loads and now have recommended targets for both advising and mentoring. These targets were developed by examining the average number of students advised and the average number of students mentored. This makes it easier to communicate to faculty that mentoring student research activities is a part of their job responsibilities as well as to identify faculty who are mentoring more student research projects than the departmental average.
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We evaluated our undergraduate research program in two ways: quantity and quality. In terms of quantity, we have tracked engagement in research from 2002 to 2013. As shown in Figure 1, undergraduate engagement in research increased from 2002 to 2009 and then has remained fairly stable since 2009.
Our current five-year average (i.e., 2008-2009 academic year to 2012-2013 academic year) shows that a mean of 19.4 (SD = 1.5, range 18-21) undergraduates in SPLH complete a research experience by the time of graduation. Our mean number of graduates during that same period is 47.4 students (SD = 7.8, range 39-58). Thus, 42% (SD = 9%, range 31-54%) of SPLH undergraduates now complete a research experience by the time of graduation.
In terms of quality, we have just begun to formally evaluate the learner outcomes of our program. This coincided with submission of our research enrollments (SPLH 497 and 498) to satisfy KU Core Curriculum Goal 6: Integration and Creativity. As part of our submission, we created an initial rubric (pdf) for evaluating each student’s final research product. We used this rubric in spring 2013 to evaluate 12 final products. Each product was evaluated by four or five judges. Judges were an approximately equal mix of doctoral students and faculty. The final rating in each area was determined by computing the mean rating across judges and then rounding decimals in a conventional manner. The results are shown in Table 1.
Overall, the results look quite strong. There were no ratings of unacceptable in any category. We also examined the pattern of ratings for each product. One student’s work (i.e., 8% of sample) was clearly outstanding with a mix of outstanding and very good ratings on all categories. The work of three students (i.e., 25% of sample) was considered very good, with a rating of very good in all categories. The work of five students (i.e., 42% of sample) was rated as very good/acceptable, with ratings of very good in almost all categories and a rating of acceptable in just one category. The work of three students (i.e., 25% of sample) was considered acceptable, with most of the categories being rated acceptable and only a few categories rated as very good. This fits well with prior faculty impressions that the final research products were always quite strong.
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Overall, we feel that we have a successful undergraduate research program. We have successfully increased undergraduate engagement in research, and the quality of the experience in terms of student learning appears to be strong. Although we have a solid foundation, there are still several issues we need to continue to consider.
One issue is that we have reached the asymptote of the number of students that can be accommodated in a one-on-one mentoring model for undergraduate research. This is a concern because we now routinely exclude one to two interested students each semester from engaging in research due to a lack of available mentors. Moreover, the number of undergraduates majoring in SPLH is increasing while the number of faculty is stable or declining due to budget cuts. Thus, lack of available mentors for interested students will likely worsen. If we want to continue to have robust undergraduate engagement in research, we will need to consider alternative models to our current practice. For example, it may be possible to incorporate early stages of research (e.g., literature review, question generation, methods formulation, IRB application) into existing courses and only conduct later stages of research (e.g., data collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation) in a one-on-one model. In this way, the one-on-one experience might be limited to one or two semesters rather than our current two-to-four-semester model. Thus, faculty would mentor more students over a shorter time frame. For example, in the current model, a given mentor might work with three students for both the fall and spring semester. In the alternative model, a given mentor might work with three students in the fall and then three different students in the spring, allowing six total students to engage in research. From a quantity perspective, this alternative model seems like a good solution. However, if we move forward in implementing this model, we will want to consider whether the quality of the experience is maintained.
In terms of evaluating the quality of the research experience, we are just in the beginning stages, having evaluated only one semester of research products. However, it was clear from this experience that we need to revise our rubric. Although judges generally had similar ratings (e.g., one judge rates an area as very good and the other rates as acceptable), it was rare that judges had the exact same rating (e.g., two judges rate an area as very good). Judges commented that it was difficult to distinguish certain ratings on the rubric from one another. In addition, judges commented that certain criteria for an outstanding rating were unrealistic within the current presentation format. For example, in a short presentation it is quite difficult to provide a comprehensive summary of the literature. Consequently, we plan to revise our rubric by condensing it into three ratings that are more clearly distinct from one another and by checking that the top category of performance is realistic within the presentation format. In addition, we also will use both the written abstract and the oral presentation to evaluate the product so that we have a richer data source. This will likely involve expanding the length of the abstracts and using a more structured format that is often used in our professional journals (i.e., clear headings in the abstract for purpose, methods, results, conclusions). Finally, we will share the rubric with students to more clearly communicate our expectations for final research products.
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