Undergraduate research as a high-impact practice

Students in UNIV 201: Global Challenges hosted a dinner with community members to discuss the theme of feeding nine billion people by 2050

By Nahum Arguera, NSSE Research Analyst, Educational Development Unit, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Fika in the TI session, where I was able to connect with colleagues, faculty, staff, and students over coffee, discussing topics relevant to teaching and learning in our UCalgary community. This session’s main topic was undergraduate research. First-year students from the UNIV courses in the College for Discovery, Creativity and Innovation were invited to share their experiences and barriers in engaging in an undergraduate research project. The discussions were guided by questions that asked individuals what skills they valued most about engaging in research, what excited them about research, and what favorite courses/projects incorporated this practice. One statement that really stuck with me came from a first-year student. When discussing the course requirements for UNIV, he stated that although he felt that the workload was heavy, he didn’t mind it because he felt like he was actually working on something that mattered. He continued to discuss his excitement in interviewing a member of the community for one of his assignments.

I begin this discussion of high-impact practices with this anecdote because both undergraduate research and research with faculty are considered high-impact educational practices. The anecdote also highlights the positive student learning experiences associated with these practices (Kuh, 2008). High-impact practices (HIPs) in teaching and learning enable in-depth content exploration, allowing students to interact with faculty and other students collaboratively while facilitating learning inside and outside the classroom (Kuh, 2008).  The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) highlights and measures six different practices that allow students to be part of these experiences. These practices include learning communities, service-learning, research with faculty, capstone courses/projects (culminating senior courses), study abroad, and internships, co-op, field experience, and clinical placements. A handout from Kuh (2008) provides an in-depth description for each of these practices.

The University of Calgary is committed to using the Institution’s 2017 NSSE data on high-impact practices to spark discussion about how these practices can be further incorporated within courses and programs across faculties. As part of this initiative, the Student Engagement Action Map was developed to provide the university community with examples of courses that incorporate high-impact practices. As the list of exemplar courses across the university grows, the intention is to collaboratively generate ideas about how they can be integrated into courses and programs. In looking through these examples, instructors or programs may consider some of the following questions:

  • How might I/we incorporate this high-impact practice within our program’s courses? What value would this practice add to student learning experiences and outcomes?
  • How does this high-impact practice relate to learning approaches within the discipline? What other high-impact practices do we identify within our discipline that enable in-depth exploration, encourage faculty and student collaboration, and facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom?
  • What barriers should we consider to implementing high-impact practices across our program? How could these be overcome?
  • What strategies do I/we already use that integrate this/these high-impact practice(s) and what other strategies can I/we incorporate?

Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Practice

Literature suggests that there are many positive outcomes when students engage in undergraduate research. Positive effects on student learning can include enhanced intellectual skills (inquiry and analysis), reading and understanding primary literature, communication, and teamwork (Lopatto, 2010; Salsman, Dulaney, Chinta, Zascavage & Joshi, 2013). As I engage in faculty discussions on undergraduate research as a high-impact practice, it is evident that there are many perceived barriers for faculty and students to participate in such experiences. Barriers that have been mentioned in discussions include funding challenges, lack of available opportunities, program structural issues, incentives, and the existing research culture. Although important, it is valuable to realize that undergraduate research experiences can go beyond the traditional apprenticeship model with an individual professor, where collaborative opportunities between peers and instructors can be provided through course-based experiences (Shanahan Ackley-Holbrook, Hall, Stewart & Walkington, 2015). The following strategies are suggested to help implement undergraduate research experiences across programs:

  • View students as capable researchers, whose input and contributions are valued (Rogers & Galle, 2015)
  • Provide opportunities for students to critique, review, and interpret data reports or literature to build their research skills
  • Allow students to practice various research methodologies (for example, by developing surveys, interview questionnaires, and conducting low-stakes observational studies)
  • Encourage and develop collaborative peer-review by fostering opportunities for peer feedback and critique before submission
  • Provide scaffolded cumulative assignments working towards the submission of a final research paper through cumulative submissions of 1) The Research questions & literature Review, 2) The Methodologies & Analysis, and 3) Final research paper write-up, providing opportunities for formative feedback from instructors and/or peers at each stage.

Here are some additional resources for integrating undergraduate research as a high-impact practice:

Although this post focuses on undergraduate research experiences as a high-impact practice, it is important to continue conversations on these practices as a whole in order to provide opportunities of in-depth course exploration, and collaborative opportunities with instructors and peers for students. The NSSE results can be used to start these discussions at the University of Calgary.


Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching to benefit student learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education29(2), 183-201.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Levy, P., & Petrulis, R. (2012). How do first-year university students experience inquiry and research, and what are the implications for the practice of inquiry-based learning?. Studies in Higher Education37(1), 85-101.

Lopatto, D. (2010). Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience. Peer Review12(2), 27.

Rogers, S., & Galle, J. (2015). The Undergraduate Research Experience. In How to be a” HIP” College Campus: Maximizing Learning in Undergraduate Education (pp. 39-45). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Salsman, N., Dulaney, C., Chinta, R., Zascavage, V., & Joshi, H. (2013). Student effort in and perceived benefits from undergraduate research. College Student Journal47(1), 202-211.

Shanahan, J. O., Ackley-Holbrook, E., Hall, E., Stewart, K., & Walkington, H. (2015). Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentors: A review of the literature. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning23(5), 359-376.

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