Using CUR’s Characteristics of Excellence to improve undergraduate research: Considerations for integrating research into the curriculum

Best practices for incorporating research into the curriculum

By Susan Larson, PhD

Undergraduate research is defined by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) as an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline. Undergraduate research is recognized as a high-impact educational practice (Kuh, 2008), and its many benefits, which have been described previously (e.g., Lopatto, 2009; Laursen, et al., 2010), include gains in student learning (e.g., making use of primary literature, formulating research questions, logical and creative thinking) and personal gains (e.g., increased ability to work independently and greater tolerance for obstacles). Given the benefits of undergraduate research, institutions of all types are recognizing its value and making efforts to increase and enhance their undergraduate research offerings.

Because of the growing interest in and importance of undergraduate research, CUR recently published a monograph, Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (COEUR), which summarizes best practices that support and sustain effective undergraduate research environments (Hensel, 2012). The characteristics recommended in the lead article include items such as: aligning undergraduate research with campus mission and culture; the importance of administrative support, faculty recognition and professional development in crafting environments favorable for undergraduate research; and strategies for assessing an undergraduate research program (Rowlett, Blockus, & Larson, 2012).

In COEUR it is argued that an integrated, synergistic approach to enhancing undergraduate research is important for institutions wishing to develop and maintain undergraduate research programs. However, it is recognized each institution faces its own set of challenges to developing and maintaining undergraduate research programs. For some, lack of resources and infrastructure might impede the development of programming; however, such limitations ought not prevent faculty and institutions from embracing undergraduate research. Institutionalizing undergraduate research often begins with individual faculty or departments making a commitment to providing this learning experience for students, even without additional institutional resources.

One characteristic of excellence noted in COEUR is the integration of undergraduate research into the curriculum; COEUR’s authors (Rowlett, et al., 2012) encourage the development of research-supportive curricula as one way to attain excellence in undergraduate research. The integration of undergraduate research into courses can be an effective approach to enhancing undergraduate research since curricula already receive institutional resources and are built into faculty and student work. In institutions where significant resources for undergraduate research are lacking, or where offering research experiences to students is not part of the institutional culture, this can be one way of providing research experiences for students. COEUR notes that:

  • Research-supportive curricula should provide students with training in the tools and methodology of the discipline;
  • Research-supportive curricula are designed to scaffold undergraduate research experiences, such that early curricular experiences provide students with the transferable skills to subsequently undertake high-level scholarly projects;
  • Research-supportive curricula impress upon students the value of understanding methods and research results, noting that students undertaking scholarly work must be prepared to read and interpret primary literature.

COEUR’s recommendations align well with the APA’s recommendation that “students will understand and apply basic research methods in psychology, including research design, data analysis, and interpretation” (American Psychological Association, Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, 2007, PDF, 165KB). By far, a large majority of psychology programs offer a research methods course as part of their major (Stoloff, et al., 2010). Methods courses can be used to provide students with the skills to undertake a research study, but also to be able to read and interpret scientific literature. Taken early during the educational experience, they can provide the scaffolding experiences necessary to equip students for future research experiences. For psychology programs, methods courses are an important, but not the only, place to integrate research experiences into the curriculum; research experiences can be successfully integrated into many psychology content courses.

In at least some areas of psychology, the scholarship of psychology can be done with relatively few resources making integration of undergraduate research into the curriculum possible at all institution types. Faculty might integrate their own scholarly agenda into their courses; course projects can serve as pilot studies or even produce publishable scholarly outcomes for the faculty at the same time as exposing students to an effective high-impact learning experience. Oftentimes integrating one’s own research into the curriculum is no more costly than other curricular experiences (this can especially be true when purchasing laboratory supplies). Although integrating research into courses can be time intensive, the scholarly payoffs may be significant for the faculty and the level of engagement of both faculty and students may increase.

In some cases, faculty might maintain a scholarly agenda that is not suitable for integration into their courses, or faculty may be in part-time teaching positions or work at institutions where they are not able to secure lab space or resources for their research. Fortunately, the field of psychology offers many opportunities to integrate research and teaching by making use of publicly available datasets (such as the General Social Survey); participating in the Reproducibility Project, sponsored by Psi Chi in cooperation with the Open Science Collaboration (PDF, 73KB); or through use of APA’s Online Psychology Laboratory. OPL is a free resource that allows faculty to make use of many laboratory experiences permitting students to collect and analyze data; these online labs can be especially helpful tools for faculty who lack resources for conducting their own psychology research.

CUR reminds us that an important consideration for integrating undergraduate research into the curriculum is to ensure that you outline and understand the objectives for doing so (Karukstis, 2012, as presented by M. Malachowski). Is, for example, creating an atmosphere of discovery the goal of integrating undergraduate research into your classes? Or, are you interested in developing critical thinking skills, providing opportunity for your students to work collaboratively with faculty or improving retention? Thinking carefully about your objectives will allow you to integrate suitable experiences into your classes; thinking carefully about who you serve in this endeavor will ensure that your work is aligned with the needs of your students. Students as early as those in their first year of college have been shown to benefit from engaging in undergraduate research; however, their intellectual needs differ from juniors and seniors, necessitating different kinds of objectives and pedagogy.

As departments seek to integrate undergraduate research into the curriculum, COEUR recommends that they consider whether there are opportunities to provide workshops and training outside of a particular course that might serve the needs of many different course offerings. For instance, a department might provide workshops on using PsycINFO, writing an IRB application, giving an oral presentation or making an effective poster. These workshops could be open to students from many courses, allowing the faculty member to free up time in class for other learning and ensuring many students have access to the skill building necessary for successful execution of a research project.

Other things to consider when encouraging faculty to integrate undergraduate research into the curriculum are course scheduling and managing teaching loads. One often reported challenge faculty face in engaging students in undergraduate research is not feeling like they have the time to work with and mentor students or not have the time to maintain a scholarly program that would serve to engage students. Allowing faculty to teach multiple sections of the same course in a given semester is one way to use the curriculum to manage faculty workload and provide more time for faculty to engage in scholarly work with students. For faculty maintaining active research laboratories and mentoring students in their laboratory, having relatively large blocks of time to do this is important. COEUR recommends scheduling courses in such a manner as to facilitate this.

In sum, COEUR recommends integrating research into the curriculum as one strategy for achieving excellence in undergraduate research. The integration of research into the curriculum can be rewarding and invigorating for faculty. It also provides a high-impact learning experience to students that can result in important student learning outcomes and professional development, such as presentation skills and opportunities. Course-based research experiences may lead to conference-worthy outcomes, and psychology has many local, regional and national conferences that welcome the participation of undergraduates. Additionally, the Council on Undergraduate Research offers the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, open to students from all disciplines.

This article focused on one aspect of the Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research, and the COEUR monograph is but one of many publication offered by CUR, an organization focused on providing resources for faculty, departments and institutions interested in developing undergraduate research experiences. More information about the resources offered by CUR (including free access to COEUR) can be found on the website.

Susan LarsonSusan Larson (BA, University of Manitoba; PhD, McMaster University) joined the faculty at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., in 1998. She is a professor in the psychology department, and in 2009, she was appointed the college’s first director of undergraduate research, scholarship and national fellowships. Larson served as chair of the psychology division of CUR and on its executive board from 2009-2012. During this time, she enjoyed the chance to work with other members of CUR’s board, Roger Rowlett and Linda Blockus, on the Characteristics of Excellence document.

Larson regularly teaches research methods, learning and behavior, drugs and behavior and senior capstone in psychology, and she is a contributing member of the neuroscience and women’s studies programs at Concordia. Larson maintains an active research program with undergraduates as collaborators. Working with three to six students each year, her laboratory investigates behavioral and cognitive changes associated with immune system activation. She and her collaborator were recently funded by the Lupus Foundation of Minnesota to evaluate the behavior and gene expression of lupus prone mice.


  • American Psychological Association. (2007). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major (PDF, 165KB). Washington, D.C.: Author.
  • Hensel, N. (Ed.). (2012). Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research. Washington, D.C.: Council on Undergraduate Research.
  • Karukstis, K. (2012). Integrating research into the curriculum. In Institutionalizing undergraduate research for state system and consortia (presented by M. Malachowski). A Council on Undergraduate Research workshop funded by NSF DUE grants #0920275 & 0920286.
  • Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter? Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Lopatto, D. (2009). Science in solution: The impact of undergraduate research on student learning. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation for Science Advancement. 
  • Laursen, S., Hunter, A-B., Seymour, E., Thiry, H., & Melton, G. (2010). Undergraduate research in the sciences: Engaging students in real science. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
  • Rowlett, R., Blockus, L., & Larson, S. (2012). Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research. In N. Hensel (Ed.), Characteristics of excellence in undergraduate research. Washington, D.C.: Council on Undergraduate Research.
  • Stoloff, M., McCarthy, M., Keller, L., Varfolomeeva, V., Lynch, J., Makara, K., Simmons, S., & Smiley, W. (2010). The undergraduate psychology major: An examination of structure and sequence. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 4-15.