Spring is coming! And so is Assessment Season…

In this edition of CURchem, we tackle the “a” word…yes, assessment. What does assessment of student research experiences look like…and what should it look like? The answers are not what I expected.


Perhaps you’ve heard the “a” word spoken around your campus. “Assessment” is an integral part of higher education these days, and we (as faculty) are learning how to effectively incorporate assessment into our teaching with the help of our colleagues and

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the institution. At the broader level, institutional assessment is typically handled by a dean. But what about our research with students? Doing research with students is some of the most effective teaching I do – never mind that at my institution (and perhaps at yours too) that teaching is not acknowledged. For others, the teaching and learning happening in the undergraduate research lab is an integral part of the curriculum they have designed for their students in the major.

So how do we think about assessment of mentored research experiences? Assessment data are  valuable when arguing for the institutional and external support of student research. We know that productive student growth is happening in the research lab –  but how do we demonstrate that growth in a way that speaks to administrators and external reviewers?

CUR has many experienced voices that can help us in this effort.

“…deep learning from authentic undergraduate research experiences requires that students have opportunities to try out their own ideas, make mistakes, and try again. At the same time, giving students such independence may also slow faculty’s acquisition of publishable results…” ~Sandra Laursen (CU Boulder)

cur-quarterlyIn the CUR Quarterly, Sandra Laursen (University of Colorado Boulder) writes.  “This tension between the educational and scholarly purposes of UR also generates challenges when it comes to measuring the outcomes of UR. Traditionally, at least in the sciences where UR is most established, institutions have counted their successes in terms of student researchers’ scholarly contributions—such as numbers of student-coauthored publications and presentations—and research-oriented career choices, especially the number of students who go on to pursue graduate degrees in a similar field. Such measures help to identify the value of students’ contributions to new knowledge; they call out the importance of maintaining the scholarly engagement of faculty (especially at primarily undergraduate institutions) and of developing the skilled research workforce in scientific disciplines. Yet these measures may overstate the role of scholarly publication, which is valued by faculty and institutions but which research to date has not linked to the quality or extent of students’ educational outcomes.”

Did you hear that? Publication – as measured by papers and presentations – does not correlate to quality of student outcomes! If we reflect for a moment…we know this to be true. We know that the students in our research labs that never publish anything are still learning deeply…and in truth – that is why I do any of this in the first place.

Publication – as measured by papers and presentations – does not correlate to quality of student outcomes!

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“Indeed, deep learning from authentic undergraduate research experiences requires that students have opportunities to try out their own ideas, make mistakes, and try again. At the same time, giving students such independence may also slow faculty’s acquisition of publishable results (Laursen, Hunter, Seymour, Thiry and Melton 2010). And, by counting only those students who go on to graduate school, we undervalue other contributions to the nation’s workforce and electorate, such as developing research-literate technicians, science teachers, physicians, parents, and citizens.”

And herein lies the paradox – students are learning deeply whether or not my research  is moving forward and whether or not I get any closer to publication (sigh). And research with students is likely just as valuable because it produces better thinkers. Measuring that is important – because it is a message I want my administrators to hear.

Stay tuned…


mc-pictures-kitchen-chemistry-at-muhlenburg-co-002!Dr. Keri Colabroy is an associate professor of Chemistry and coordinator of student research at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. She has eight research students in her lab this semester.

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