What is Undergraduate Research?

by Matt D. Lunsford

Professor of Mathematics, Union University

“Undergraduate research is a student-faculty collaboration to examine, create, and share new knowledge or works in ways commensurate with practices in the discipline” [H]. Three critical elements of this definition of undergraduate research merit accentuation:

a. collaboration- the work requires significant faculty-student interaction

b. new- the work is partially or totally new, enriching the field of inquiry

c. share- the work is presented to peers, professionals, and/or other researchers in the field

As practices in the disciplines vary greatly, the terms “undergraduate scholarship” or “undergraduate creative activity” may be preferred to the term “undergraduate research.”

As an academic endeavor, undergraduate research focuses primarily on student learning. As such, it complements and enhances the effectiveness of classroom learning. Current educational theory states that the traditional classroom is not the optimal setting for student learning. Barr and Tagg [BT] call for a shift from the prevailing instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm in which the primary mission of undergraduate education is no longer to provide and deliver instruction but to produce student learning. This new paradigm elicits student discovery and construction of knowledge through the creation of “powerful learning environments”. In the same vein, Guskin [G] calls for colleges and universities “to create a learning environment that focuses directly on those activities that enhance student learning… by restructuring the role of the faculty to maximize essential faculty-student interaction….” These ideas are consistent with the recent student data reported by Astin [A] in What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited and by Light [L] in Making the Most of College. In both of these books, the authors reveal that students claim to learn more in academic settings that require frequent and meaningful interaction between the student and the faculty member.

An institution-wide undergraduate research program not only addresses the issues raised above but also provides additional positive outcomes for the institution. First of all, an institution-wide undergraduate research program facilitates the creation of “powerful learning environments” in all disciplines by encouraging dynamic interaction between faculty mentors and undergraduate students. Secondly, faculty scholarship is advanced given that faculty mentors and students make collaborative contributions to their field of study. Finally, through the acknowledgement and dissemination of the results of undergraduate research, the academic reputation of the institution is enhanced.

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is a national organization with 350+ institutional members that promotes the establishment and enhancement of undergraduate research programs at primarily undergraduate institutions. More information on undergraduate research programs can be found at their web site: www.cur.org.


[A] Astin, A. W. What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1993.

[BT] Barr, R. B. and Tagg, J. From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education, Change, Nov/Dec (1995),13-25.

[G] Guskin, A. E. Restructuring the Role of Faculty, Change, Sept/Oct (1997), 10-19.

[H] Hakim, T. M. How to Develop and Administer Institutional Undergraduate Research Programs, Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington, D.C., 2000.

[L] Light, R.J. Making the Most of College, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.