Faculty Focus


Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries: Conversations about Student Research Projects

One of the most enjoyable aspects of running a faculty development program on teaching is seeing first-hand how much our various disciplines intersect when it comes to teaching and learning. Whereas it can be hard, if not impossible, to speak about disciplinary research with colleagues outside our fields, the common teaching problems we face allow for readily understandable dialog, no matter how far apart the discussants’ fields of expertise.

Two recent presentations by faculty in my program made this abundantly clear. Both concerned authentic research projects required of students in science fields, but the ostensible similarities ended there. The first entailed having graduate-level pharmacy students design a hypothesis-driven research project, something which only a minority of pharmacy programs require. The second took place within the context of a junior-level genetics laboratory for biology and biochemistry majors, where a multi-week experiment had students performing genetic sequencing on microorganisms.

I won’t pretend to understand the technical details behind these projects, but as a historian who’s published on undergraduates’ first experiences with archival research, I was intrigued by the teaching and learning implications. The discussions following these presentations unveiled commonalities that one might not expect between such disparate fields, particularly the problems and opportunities that transcend our disciplinary boundaries. (Publications on these three projects by Burkholder, Myers, and Vaidean et al. are cited below.)

First, all of us were far more concerned with the process of the students’ research than we were with the results. In this sense, we differed markedly from our students, who at least initially remained locked in a dualistic, “correct/incorrect answer” mindset. Genuine research is a messy process: experiments go awry, evidence doesn’t fit or is unintelligible, and dead ends are a constant hazard. Our concerns as educators were not whether students ultimately produced some expected result because such a result often didn’t exist. Rather, we were all primarily interested in how students grappled with challenges as they arose – especially whether they clung to preconceived but potentially unproductive notions of project success, or whether they embraced a new mindset allowing them to overcome the inevitable hurdles in their path. The notion of Ken Bain’s “expectation failure” was applicable here, where students could not continue in their projects without first acknowledging that extant modes of understanding stood in their way.

Second, we all saw value in introducing students to what academics actually do. How do we know what we say we know? What are the limitations of what we can know? Answering such epistemological questions doesn’t come so readily in the context of the usual sanitized research we often ask of our classes. And although the students ultimately saw real value in these projects, many concluded they had no desire to pursue research as a career path. Not that this is a bad thing: on the contrary, eliminating a line of work from consideration gives sharper focus to what genuinely interests students for their professional futures.

Finally, all of us agreed that getting our students involved in authentic research forced us to step back, to carefully examine, and to retool our classes for the challenges participants would face in the laboratory or archives. We needed to systematically deconstruct the steps that would go into such research, and to anticipate and prepare for the problems that would arise. We thus had to detach from our own levels of expertise and try to remember what a novice would know and feel as she or he entered the unfamiliar landscape of research. As Susan Ambrose et al. recently point out, “unpacking” and decomposing complex tasks can be especially challenging for experts, who perform research steps automatically and even oblivious to the difficulties faced by their students.

Perhaps inevitably, we overestimated the preliminary knowledge and skills of our students, requiring us both to be patient as the students developed these faculties (my biology colleague estimated her students take four times longer to do the necessary tasks than it takes her), and to help fill in the gaps as they arose. In my own case, having run archival projects for years now, I’ve gotten better at preparing my students for the job and can more readily empathize with the problems they run into. Yet, just as there is ambiguity and messiness in the students’ projects, there are myriad challenges, some of them unforeseeable, that arise from requiring such work from novices. Just as process trumped results in our students’ research, we all concluded that it’s the process of constantly reassessing our roles and responsibilities that holds the most value to us as educators.

In pushing our students into authentic inquiry and discussing the results, none of us anticipated finding teaching and learning commonalities between our disciplines. But as we tell our own students: when you enter the unscripted realm of research, expect the unexpected.

Susan Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Peter Burkholder, “Getting Medieval on American History Research: A Method to Help Students Think Historically,” The History Teacher 43/4 (2010), 545-562 (link).

Edith Myers, “Laboratory Exercise: Mapping a Mutation in Caenorhabditis elegans Using a Polymerase Chain Reaction-Based Approach,” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 42/3 (2014), 246-256 (link).

Georgeta Vaidean et al., “Student Scientific Inquiry in the Core Doctor of Pharmacy Curriculum: Critical Issues in Designing and Implementing a Student Research Program,” Innovations in Pharmacy 4/4, Article 131 (2013), 16 pp. (link).

Dr. Pete Burkholder is an associate professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he is also the founding chair of the faculty development committee on teaching.