Maintaining Students’ Productivity During Busy Semesters

In this post, a team of PUI researchers share their strategies for maintaining lab productivity when the pressures of the semester bleed away student time and energy.

While summer research students are generally able to dedicate a substantial portion of their time and attention to their lab projects, students carrying out research during the academic year are faced with the challenge of balancing research and coursework. Finding a reasonable balance between these two areas can be daunting even for faculty. One mechanism for engaging students during the semester is to offer academic credit for research. However, we have found that in some instances, even students who are doing research for credit may not consider their research work to be as high-priority as their more traditional classes. As a result, student motivation, effort, and time spent engaged in research may decline during the academic year compared to the summer. This is particularly true during semesters that feature a challenging course load. Clear expectations and project goals are essential to a productive research semester. In addition, the authors have tried several other strategies to address this challenge, a few of which we suggest here.

…student motivation, effort, and time spent engaged in research may decline during the academic year…this is particularly true during semesters that feature a challenging course load

More frequent feedback

As noted above, clear expectations are key to success, and both formal and informal feedback are helpful in setting these expectations with students. More frequent and candid conversations about students’ effort and progress may take time during a busy semester, but they should also help preempt bad feelings and misunderstandings at the end of the semester when grades are assigned or even later when recommendation letters are needed. Beyond informal conversation, formal feedback, perhaps through a midterm evaluation and/or midterm grade, helps make expectations explicit and reminds students that their research should be treated like their other academic credit-bearing activities. One author has students complete an individualized contract showing how their grade will be calculated at the start of the semester. At midterm, students receive feedback in each area, a tentative overall grade, and a list of goals for the second half of the semester. This list of goals is often easier to generate mid-semester when it’s clearer how a project is progressing in lab and what an individual student is able to achieve in a given week with their current schedule.

One author has students complete an individualized contract showing how their grade will be calculated at the start of the semester.

Be part of a team

Kovarik Lab – Summer 2018

Students’ interactions with their peers in the lab also help them to keep each other on track. Students who work in teams of two are often more productive and hold each other accountable. (Larger teams are possible but could lead to scheduling issues.) By working in teams, students feel more responsibility to not “let the team down” while also giving them someone to immediately get feedback from when working through a protocol or trouble shooting. Additionally teamwork lightens the burden if one member of the team is having a more demanding week in their courses. Through the other partner’s efforts, research can still move forward at a steadier pace.

By working in teams, students feel more responsibility to not “let the team down

Positive peer pressure

Regular lab meetings, in which students from the same group (or perhaps the whole department, if small) check in and provide updates about their progress, can also send helpful signals to students about norms for productivity. Students notice when their peers are collecting more data, running more experiments, and generally moving forward more quickly in their work. No one enjoys admitting in front of their peers that they have not moved their project forward in the past week. That said, this strategy requires at least one student in the group to be making steady forward progress! Research groups at PUIs are often small, and their composition may fluctuate over time. Groups with many students who are new or are in a particularly challenging semester of their program may find that lab meetings are initially less effective at socializing students to lab expectations.

No one enjoys admitting in front of their peers that they have not moved their project forward in the past week. That said, this strategy requires at least one student in the group to be making steady forward progress!

What’s the goal?

A student presents at Pittcon in March 2019 in Philadelphia, PA

In some cases, the potential to make a conference presentation or co-author a publication may motivate students; however, these possibilities carry several caveats. Students need to understand the work as well as the lengthy (often multi-year) timeline involved in bringing a research project to completion for presentation or publication. For this reason, periodic oral or poster presentations to peers and faculty (as part of a sequence of research courses and/or an institutional research symposium) may be a more realistic motivation for students to move their project forward.  Most research students want to be able to produce a quality presentation that reports new experiments and results from the semester rather than reporting the same information from previous semesters. This approach is another mechanism by which deadlines can be built into the project, and it encourages students to reflect on (and be responsible for) their progress on a regular basis, which may help to foster a feeling of ownership.

…periodic oral or poster presentations to peers and faculty…may be a more realistic motivation for students to move their project forward.

Overall students feel motivated when they have ownership over their individual project or subproject and when they feel like they are making significant contributions to the group and scientific field with their work. Entrusting undergraduates with high-impact research, gives them the opportunity to understand the responsibilities of being a scientist and also the importance of the contributions that they can make. By maintaining an open dialogue and building in opportunities for scheduled feedback, faculty can help their undergraduate students maintain their productivity even during busy semesters.


Michelle Kovarik is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Trinity College in Hartford, CT
Ryan Steed is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at University of North Carolina in Asheville
Christina Vizcarra is an assistant professor of chemistry at Barnard College in New York.
Amanda Wolfe is an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.

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