Students’ experiences in higher education go far beyond the curriculum of their programs. Beyond the walls of the classroom, there are extracurricular and social activities and many other opportunities to learn unique skills and experiences. One of these opportunities is for students to become involved in research. This may take the form of a paid research assistant (RA) position, volunteering in a research laboratory, or completing an independent project (of general interest or as a thesis requirement). An additional opportunity to involve students in research could be to integrate it directly into the curriculum via course-based research. The types of research-related opportunities available to students will differ depending on the type of institution (interested readers may refer to our previous article, “Writing Your First Grant” (Cappon & Kennette, 2022) for guidance to obtain funding). There may be more opportunities at a research-oriented university than at a community college or more liberal arts-oriented school. For example, at our institution, professors are not required to do research, so there are fewer opportunities for students. Despite this, 53% of students surveyed at our two-year college indicated they would be interested in research opportunities and identified far more benefits than barriers. This is data from a survey we administered to a group of first-semester students enrolled in a two-year social service work diploma program at a Canadian college in Ontario. We will share additional data from this survey throughout this article.
Advantages and obstacles
Clearly there are benefits for us as professors to include students in research. For example, hiring a research assistant (RA) or having a student volunteer to help us with projects reduces our workload. But what are the benefits for students?
There are documented benefits for soft or transferable skills for students, including critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and organization (Harris et al., 2016; Landrum and Nelson, 2002; Valdez and Liu, 2020). And these soft skills, among others, are so important for graduates to be competitive in the job market (Schultz, 2008; Succi & Canovi, 2020). In fact, many RA job postings ask for some of these soft skills in order to get hired for the position.
To get a better idea of the benefits and barriers in more detail, we also asked our student sample about these issues. They identified a number of benefits, including the perception that a research position: could help them in their future career (84.38%), would be an experience they could include in their resume (84.38 %), would help them learn to do research (78.13%), could help them stand out and get a job (78.13%), and would help them acquire skills beyond those acquired in their program (75.00%). On average, students identified 3.91 barriers to their participation in research, but on average 9.28 benefits, so it is clear that they understand that there are disproportionate benefits to participating in research.
Unfortunately, there are also barriers preventing students from engaging in research during their studies, including lack of time, mentorship and/or funding (Lovern, 2018; Marais et al., 2019; Schauer, 2018) . This sentiment was echoed in our student responses as well, with most students citing a lack of time due to school (68.75%) or work (68.75%) and many fearing they would not make a good job (53.13%). Additional barriers have recently been documented for STEM students of color (see Pierszalowski et al., 2021), and while that discussion is beyond the scope of this article, it merits further exploration.
Suggestions for increasing participation
How can we help minimize barriers and encourage students to participate in research projects during their studies? Our first suggestion is to share opportunities widely. Advertise them at your classes (in-person and/or online), refer students to a college-wide job/volunteer board (if there is one), and post information outside the door your office and in common areas. Although paid opportunities may be more appealing to students, many would also be interested in volunteer positions if they find they are learning valuable skills that they can add to their experience and resume, and that this could help them in their future job searches. So, explicitly sharing the value of research opportunities with students can also help.
The two most significant barriers that students identified were related to lack of time (due to school or work). While we can’t give our students more time in a 24-hour day (we all wish we had more time in our day, right?), we can help by being sensitive and flexible to their academic schedule, so that we schedule research activities during less stressful times of their semester. For example, during spring break/reading week, they might try to line up some data entry or literature review work, or a more active or traditional research role (e.g. AR) during the months summer, when they are less likely to take a full course load.
Students in our survey also mentioned the fear of not doing a good job in a research-related position (likely due to a lack of knowledge) as a possible barrier. Thus, incorporating research-related training into our courses (for example, a certificate of ethics training or course-based research) can help build students’ capacity to engage in research in increasing their confidence in their research skills. Perhaps your institution’s library has the ability to offer research-related workshops that will help orient the student into a research role as well as connect with other students interested in research.
Additionally, webinars or panel discussions, especially those that feature fellow students discussing their own concerns before successfully engaging in their own research endeavors, can help overcome this barrier. Finally, ensuring that research job postings clearly indicate that training and support will be provided should help reduce this concern among potential students.
In addition to minimizing barriers, we can also leverage the benefits students see in research to help recruit volunteers or paid positions. As our survey suggests, one of the main values that students see in research relates to their future career and/or landing a job. We may make these highlights in the job posting or when discussing research opportunities with students, emphasizing that it counts as volunteer and/or work experience that they can include on their CV.
Students report that time constraints are the main barrier to participating in research activities, but they recognize the value of these efforts. Faculty can encourage research engagement among students by sharing these opportunities with students and by trying to schedule research activities during times that might be less busy for students.
Amanda Cappon is a professor in the social service work program at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. She holds a Masters of Education in Counseling and Psychotherapy and is a Registered Psychotherapist in the Province of Ontario.
Lynne N. Kennette is Professor of Psychology and Research Coordinator in the Faculty of Liberal Studies at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. She has a doctorate. in cognitive psychology, and is passionate about the scholarship of teaching and learning.
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