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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02770

Consumers to Producers: Scaffolding Undergraduate Student Research at Regional Universities

 Ranjana Dutta1*,  Travis J. Pashak1, Jennifer D. McCullough1,  Joseph S. Weaver1 and Michael R. Heron1
  • 1Saginaw Valley State University, United States

Consumers to Producers: Scaffolding Undergraduate Student Research at Regional Universities
As the daughter of a single mom, I took care of my younger siblings and worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. I knew I HAD to attend college if I wanted a different life. Talking to the faculty members at orientation made me decide to come here. – Student 1
My advisor kept me involved in her project. She had faith in me, and that kept me motivated despite working full-time and commuting from out of town! We presented at a conference and later published it in a journal! – Student 2
Introduction: Unique Characteristics of Regional Institutions
In this brief paper, we articulate suggestions and best practices for social science faculty to successfully mentor publishable research with undergraduate students. Valued for shaping students’ career-choices across fields (Frantz et al. 2017; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994; Robnett, Chemers, & Zurbriggen, 2015), we argue that regional universities such as ours present unique considerations which can complicate the process. Recent data show our student body is comprised of 33% first-generation college students—which often means they arrive less familiar with the cultural milieu of higher education, less prepared for the level of critical thinking required, and less valuing of scholarly creation. Further, many commute, have transferred from community colleges, and work substantial hours to afford college. These characteristics mean that our students juggle numerous time-demands and view academics through a lens of efficiency (i.e., aiming to complete necessary tasks as quickly as possible to progress from college to career). They often view course content as static knowledge to be received and regurgitated. Per APA guidelines (American Psychological Association, 2013), we argue that the best undergraduate outcomes include augmenting that mindset from consuming empirical knowledge to critically examining and eventually producing scholarly information. In this paper, we identify three phases of this journey with students—cultivating/motivating, identifying/selecting, and enhancing/polishing skillsets to produce research. (see Figure 1).
Cultivate and Motivate Phase
Many of our freshmen (particularly first-generation) are unfamiliar with the details, design, and value of empirical studies, so they struggle consuming (let alone producing) research. Thus, the journey’s first phase involves kindling students’ interest in the process of knowledge creation. Whether discussing how some research shaped existing views, demonstrating experiments with counterintuitive results, or scaffolding assignments requiring analysis of research articles, a motivated teacher who excites students about research and makes it relatable lures students into the discussion of “how do we know?” We believe developing student competencies and increasing self-efficacy occur through participation in research, constructive evaluation of peers’ research, critical analysis of current events through the lens of research methodology, brainstorming new ways to replicate/modify studies, and other routes.
The success of this phase rests on the pervasiveness of these tasks across courses to cultivate and motivate student interest in research. Curriculum decisions should be made to include research-related learning outcomes that ensure all students will develop skills necessary for producing knowledge (Chaley-Wilk, 2014). The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ VALUE rubrics (AACU, 2007) offers recommendations. For example, our Psychology department fosters understanding and interest in research through a departmental poster session each semester and career preparation meetings. The poster sessions showcase student research projects in which freshmen participate and later attend to see the outcomes. A concurrent Psi Chi induction ceremony coupled with student researcher presentations serves to model the path of research and builds self-efficacy. Career preparation meetings include invited guests who provide experience-based insights for graduate school applicants. Students meet faculty and guest speakers informally to gain relevant career information and networking.
At the institutional level, our university encourages students to be producers of knowledge, regardless of financial status, by awarding grants for independent projects or working alongside faculty. The grant winners and other student researchers present their work at the annual student research showcase, highlighting the importance of research, and that it is within reach for those interested.
Identify and Select Phase
This phase involves identifying and selecting students who demonstrate potential for growth and success. At regional universities, many students lack readiness (e.g., deep-reading, argumentative writing, analytical thinking, interpersonal confidence, professional networking) which confound their initial appearance of competence. Thus, we argue that the faculty’s task of detecting student potential is crucial—considering students’ possible outcomes given helpful mentorship, rather than simply choosing the most conspicuous. To that end, we find it important to choose and encourage students who are inquisitive, skeptical, and ask interesting questions rather than those who are savvy at maximizing their grades. This search for research acumen contributes to the diversity of future researchers and allows us to live our mission as regional university faculty: providing opportunity to those less privileged. Indeed, mentored research facilitates frequent student-faculty contact, enhanced self-efficacy, and bolstered science identity, which in turn improve college experiences for underrepresented minorities and may help shrink the disparities between racial groups such as graduation rates and admission rates to graduate schools (Hurtado, Cabrera, Lin, Arellano, & Espinosa, 2009).
Enacting this identification and selection process takes many forms and each faculty member handles this slightly differently. Despite variation, some basic suggestions are warranted: look for potential in creative, skeptical, open-minded, detail-oriented students; market opportunities widely to garner more interested students; consider team composition and synergy between students; include freshmen and sophomores (not just upperclassmen) to scaffold learning; seek out and encourage underrepresented student groups; ensure faculty buy-in to the research mentorship process by encouraging faculty who are research mentors; offer course credit, scholarships, or payment to student researchers so they do not have to choose between research and financial stability; and lastly, faculty may implement a formal application process for the research experiences they provide. The last suggestion is doubly helpful because the applicant’s CV/transcripts/essays serve as data for making wise choices to supplement interpersonal assessments, and this step also prompts students to prepare these materials and appreciate their significance ahead of their eventual applications to jobs and/or graduate/professional schools.
Departmental and institutional factors also play a role in the successful identification and selection process. For instance, within a department, collegial relationships allow faculty members to refer students to their colleagues with matching research interests, ultimately benefitting the student. This cross-faculty/student-networking enables us to connect with students we may otherwise not meet in classes—and thus create otherwise missed mentorship opportunities. Further, the institutional support of dissemination opportunities for student research (e.g. departmental poster-sessions, university-wide project showcase) further improve visibility of students, help us network, build awareness of up-and-coming research programs, and spark novel research ideas. Each of these opportunities connect students to one another and creates an ethos that nurtures the production of scholarship, while also connecting faculty and university administrators. To other research mentors at regional universities, we strongly recommend taking a similar approach to cultivate as well as identify and select future mentees on potential competence.
Polish and Enhance Phase
The final stages of publishing with students (including posters and papers at conferences at the university, regional, or national level) can include numerous obstacles. As most research students are seniors, their availability and timelines are often not congruent with the length of time it takes to publish. For the challenges associated with this final stage of the journey, we offer added suggestions.
When working with students on research, we have found the most success by delicately balancing “hands on” techniques with delegating meaningful tasks to pursue independently. We enhance research skills and teach the importance of keeping detailed logs of procedures, analytic decisions, and measures obtained. We polish their communication skills in synthesizing research and writing professional correspondences. We enhance career skills by attending to their online presence (e.g., LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Mendeley). Discussions of validity and reliability of measures, replicability of procedures and results, how to minimize response bias in constructing surveys or programming of stimuli become routine. Presenting at regional or national research conferences is always an eye-opening experience and makes tangible the significance of clear dialogue in a research community (Gumbhir, 2104). Together, we examine journal outlets, read specific guidelines, or rewrite drafts to hone the argument for the paper to fit with the literature giving them glimpses into our own incessant learning. The faculty mentor can thoughtfully orchestrate the pairing of senior and junior students on tasks to effectively polish and enhance the research skills of the budding members. Besides research, important conversations about mutual expectations regarding interpersonal interactions take place and how to co-create meaningful mentor-mentee relationships (Shanahan et al., 2015).
We aim to disseminate the knowledge produced, both at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. With the proliferation of digital publications, more creative ways of publishing may evolve including respectable non-peer-reviewed outlets (e.g., books, magazines, Twitter, blogs, etc.) as exemplified by a faculty member’s ambitious project of coaching his entire class to co-author a book in social psychology (Fairchild & Fairchild, 2018). We are also intrigued by non-traditional outlets which could be stepping stones for fledgling undergraduate scholars such as the Wikipedia initiative of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), encouraging teachers to build writing skills with students by contributing to Wiki pages (Banaji, 2011). Such projects could serve as scaffolds of writing experiences for students on the way to professional dissemination in peer-reviewed journals.
Research needs time and money, so we draw the attention of our students to resources in the department and the university, such as departmental scholarships for research and options for receiving course credits for doing mentored research. The departmental poster sessions mentioned before are low-risk environments for students to further polish their skills and get feedback on design, analysis, and presentations from peers and other faculty members as well. A collegial department environment allows students (and the mentoring faculty) to consult with other expert faculty on methods, statistics, stimuli, questionnaire design, literature, and manuscript production.
Institutional policies and procedures are pivotal to creating the culture of research which is facilitative or prohibitive of the final steps on the students’ journey from consumer to producer (Brew & Mantai, 2017). Institutions can enhance the likelihood of publications by committing resources to funding the dissemination of research. Our institution has a scaffolded opportunity structure supporting disseminating of findings through a university-wide research symposium, financial support for conference presentations, and as well as institutional initiatives to publicize and promote awareness about colleagues participating in conferences or publishing through campus-wide newsletters, stories on websites, and press releases.
The role faculty members play is pivotal to help the undergraduate navigate their journey from consumer to producer of publishable research, particularly at a regional university. This role goes well beyond the classroom in bringing to the student the courses, colleagues, and financial resources at the department and the university. We engage with students from the outset, sometimes even before they have signed on the admissions forms. We mentor and facilitate scaffolding peers, building competence, cheering their accomplishments, and bolstering their confidence all through their journey with us, and support them after they graduate. As beneficiaries of such mentoring, we pay forward to the next generation of culturally diverse, economically challenged, and often first-generation students that come to us. Encouraging mentors of undergraduate research with funds and ongoing training would be a great investment, as facilitating such research activities in social sciences at regional universities may be an important path to diversify future scientists and creators of knowledge (Meadon & Spurrett, 2010).
Seeing my name on a published paper was pretty crazy… like “I DID THAT!” The research process really helped me understand where knowledge comes from and helped me to see myself as having the potential to contribute to this field. – Student 3

Keywords: publish with undergraduates, Mentoring undergraduates, research at regional university, faculty mentors for undergraduate research, Psychology and social sciences

Received: 24 Nov 2018; Accepted: 24 Dec 2018.

Edited by:

Traci Giuliano, Southwestern University, United States

Reviewed by:

Mark J. Brandt, Tilburg University, Netherlands  

Copyright: © 2018 Dutta, Pashak, McCullough, Weaver and Heron. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Ranjana Dutta, Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, United States,