Almost done. You just have to turn in grades.

As anyone who has mentored undergraduate research can tell you, research is certainly not the typical, quantifiable classroom activity. How do you measure success and give an undergraduate student researcher a grade at the end of the semester? While written by Dr. Keri Colabroy, this post contains wisdom on grading from about a dozen seasoned faculty that successfully engage undergraduates in original research. 



The end is in sight. You can taste Winter Break. Almost.

Just a little.bit.longer. And what is standing between you and holiday bliss? Just the grades. You’ve got to turn in those grades before Winter Break is all yours.

Grading your classes…sure, it’s labor intensive. But you’ll eventually get through every exam or paper. But what about the student researchers? Many students engaged in undergraduate research do so for credit – so that means, you need to assign a grade at the end of the semester. How do you assess the many failed attempts at a procedure (was it the science? was it the student?), or good technique but incomplete data analysis, or a student that tried so very hard but just couldn’t catch a break?

How do you assess the many failed attempts at a procedure (was it the science? was it the student?)

What you need are some strategies to organize and execute your student research assessment plan! And I have strategies for you! They range from the highly involved to those with minimum effort invested. In today’s culture of assessment in every arena of higher education, it is safe to say that the best assessment strategy is the one you implement at the beginning of the semester. So, we have some of those too.

You’re welcome.

But WAIT? Do I need Learning Goals?

You might. I’ve already mentioned the modern day culture of assessment. If a student engages in research in your lab by way of registering for a course of some kind (perhaps a 4xx course called “Research” or “Indpendent Study”) then you will likely (at some point, if not already) need learning goals on your syllabus for said course. If you hire students and pay them a salary (perhaps out of a grant, or work study arrangement) then you don’t have to give them a grade, and learning goals are not an issue.

It is easier to evaluate a student if you’ve told them up front what it is you expect as the faculty mentor.

It is easier to evaluate a student if you’ve told them up front what it is you expect as the faculty mentor. Here are some great examples of syllabi with learning goals graciously shared by my colleagues in chemistry (and biology) departments all over the country. I know that you don’t have time now to think about learning goals for this semester of research…it’s safe to say, that ship has sailed. But, as you plan for next year or next semester even – crafting some learning goals is a way to shape the learning experience for your undergraduate researcher. You can also work up a “contract” of expectations with which to evaluate them later on.

What do Faculty members evaluate?

While some faculty only evaluate some of the items on this list, all the faculty I surveyed evaluate something from this list.

  • periodic_table_science_elements_custom_wall_clock-r8e24d5e034404a5799273973d604be05_fup13_8byvr_324Time spent in the lab (a minimum number of hours per week is typically specified). Although many require time spent most rely on personal observation or self-reporting to log student hours. I’ll put in a plug here for electronic lab notebooks! Those time-date stamps are a handy way of seeing when students are actively recording data…(that is of course assuming they are recording the data when they actually collect it…but let’s be optimistic, shall we?)
  • A written paper: Most faculty require some kind of written paper at the end of the semester. For honors or thesis students, this paper could be very substantial in length, but for “regular” research students, the paper likely details their progress for the current semester only. The requirements for this paper are largely of the faculty members own design, but could include elements of the ACS style guide or use a specific rubric (see rubrics below)
  • A Presentation: This might be an oral presentation in the style of a seminar, or perhaps an oral presentation at a poster (in a 2014.09.19_Summer Research Poster Sessiondepartmental or college-wide poster session). Some faculty require and/or evaluate student presentations in group meetings of the research lab (which occur at least several times during the semester) or presentation of a paper from the literature surrounding the student’s research topic. Some faculty use a rubric to evaluate presentations (see rubrics below)
  • LaurenWarningRyanFerrie-5294(1)Effort applied: Most faculty try to assess the quality of sincere effort applied by the student to the project. While this is often also expressed in “time spent” – it doesn’t have to be. A student can spend a substantial amount of time without intellectual engagement. It seemed that universally this element was assessed qualitatively – that is, in a holistic way – based on the faculty mentors observations of the student’s work. Faculty seemed to prefer this metric over “results obtained” – acknowledging that quantifiable progress on a project may or may not be achieved in one semester.

Most faculty require some kind of written paper at the end of the semester.

Need a Rubric?

About half of the faculty surveyed did not use a rubric. But many found the rubric helpful and even essential. And we have some excellent examples here for you. If assessment at your institution is done within your department (for example, all the faculty in the department go to a poster 10025824-good-work-paper-grading-in-red-ink-stock-vectorsession of student researchers), then you need a rubric to make the assessment uniform. If you are a new faculty member, a rubric can help you figure out what to consider in your grade. A rubric can also be a tool for student learning. It is a way to quantify expectations for the student. Rubrics should be adapted to fit the teaching and learning that is happening in your laboratory – but if you need a place to start…here are some great examples.

Paper Rubrics:

Presentation rubrics:

Comprehensive Rubrics:

The semester is winding down, but the science never stops! Keep researching and keep engaging students. We’ll see you back here next week.


KeriColabroy-0258~Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College where she conducts research in bacterial enzymology with undergraduates. And no, she has not turned in her grades yet.



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