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Undergraduate research impacts learning

10/23/2013

Every year for the past 11 years, MCLA has held an Undergraduate Research Conference, where our students present their findings on a wide variety of topics that interest them. It's a great opportunity for deeper learning, to share insights and discoveries while building presentation skills, and to prepare for graduate school.

However, Dr. Maria Bartini, chair of the psychology department and a member of MCLA's undergraduate research advisory board, had a question: "Can even just attending the Undergraduate Research Conference have some impact on learning, or at least on students' perceptions of learning?'"

It would appear that indeed is the case.  

Over the past two years, MCLA has gathered and assessed data through a pair of surveys - one for students who merely attended the campus conference, and the other for students who presented their research at this annual, all-day event.

"We were curious to see if attending the conference promoted curiosity to learn, or a desire to participate in the conference as a presenter in the future," Bartini explained.

Earlier this month, she presented her findings via a poster at "Undergraduate Research and Change in Higher Education: A Scholarly Discussion," a one-day symposium presented by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), at the Raleigh Convention Center in North Carolina, held just prior to a conference of the International Society for the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL).

The surveys indicated that, "Students viewed attending the conference as a positive experience that did seem to stimulate their curiosity to learn about subjects that they hadn't thought about before. Students were interested in presenting at the conference in the future," Bartini said.

Students who present their research at MCLA's Undergraduate Research Conference perceive an even greater benefit.

"They feel it helps their presentation skills, builds their confidence, and gives them an increased curiosity to learn more about their subject," Bartini said. "We were pretty pleased. Students are getting a lot out of it."

The surveys - collected over the past two years - drew similar results both times they were administered.

"The comments we got from students were overwhelmingly positive," Bartini said. "Students were surprised at the quality of the work their classmates are doing. They hadn't realized the kinds of opportunities that are available to them, and they are feeling excited about being able to pursue that themselves."

Bartini was pleased to see that more than half of the students indicated faculty had required them attend the conference as part of an assignment. "That shows our faculty are integrating undergraduate research into their courses."

Requirements aside, students also indicated that they would have attended on their own, out of interest.

While other schools may offer similar research activities, "What I think is exceptional about what we do at MCLA is that we have such a high proportion of participation," Bartini said.

"We filled up our space with well over 100 presenters at this past year's conference. Pretty much every room where we held the talks was packed. We're running out of some space, which is a great problem to have, as we run multiple sessions at the same time."

By presenting her poster on these findings to other educators, Bartini is helping to get the word out about the MCLA experience. "It's synonymous with a high-impact learning environment."