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Guiding Undergraduate Independent Work

Some Departmental Practices

Spring is always a busy time for juniors and seniors at Princeton as they work on their junior projects (JPs) and senior theses. These independent projects also place additional demands on faculty and departments as they seek to guide students through this new and challenging phase of learning. We recently began polling departments to find out some of their “best practices” for managing this vital part of the Princeton experience. Below are some initial highlights from five departments to help you think through these processes in your own work as faculty and department staff. This list is in no way exhaustive or definitive, but rather represents current information that a few departments have shared with us. We will continue compiling and sharing ideas as we receive them.

Departmental Atmosphere

Beginning the conversation with students about independent work early helps in communicating possibilities and expectations and breaks down barriers to student interaction with faculty.

  • For example, the department representative from one department meets with each student soon after he or she declares a concentration in the department. This conversation helps forge a connection between the student and the department as well as orienting students to the department’s procedures and expectations for independent work. Important to maintaining this atmosphere is the close link between the departmental representative and the undergraduate program coordinator in orienting and integrating new majors.

Building a sense of community is a vital piece of guiding students into independent work

A common thread throughout many of our conversations with departmental representatives or individual faculty or staff is the importance of community in encouraging student interest and success in research. Representatives in both small and large departments pointed out how they seek to generate this link by providing either informal or structured ways for students to interact regularly with faculty and staff: for example, colloquia, tutorials, and laboratories. Faculty involved in laboratory research often include their undergraduate research advisees in regular lab meetings and journal clubs, making them a part of the collaborative nature of that inquiry. One science department, for example, encourages and supports students in attending and presenting at conferences and visiting laboratories of co-workers, thus connecting them to the broader scientific community.

Research Training in the Discipline

Providing a structured, “scaffolding” experience helps develop the kind of skills and processes students need for independent work.

Much of an undergraduate’s time in college is spent in structured classes learning the history and content of a discipline. It therefore often represents a significant intellectual leap for an undergraduate to undertake and produce original research. Several departments described courses or structured reading sessions designed to introduce students to the literature and/or methods required to develop the skills necessary for research.

  • The Junior Colloquium in one humanities department both directly introduces students to resources available for their projects at the library and Art Museum and orients them to ways of thinking about research in the field through presentations by faculty. The faculty we spoke with cited the visit to the Princeton Art Museum as a particularly exciting and productive way to help students generate research projects of personal interest to them.
  • Faculty in one small social sciences department talked about the importance of their key methods course in building students’ research skills. But all their courses give close attention to methodological issues to keep students close to the research as an imaginative process. And the students’ opportunities for research do not necessarily begin there and end with the JP and thesis. Several faculty also incorporate research into other courses so that students continue to use and build on the skills they learn.
  • In another social sciences department, Junior Workshops in the fall serve as vehicles for students to learn how to write a research paper. Library skills sessions conducted by one of the librarians are also incorporated into these sessions and introduce students to the resources available to them.
  • One science department provides a structured approach to independent work that allows students to start “small” and work up to the demands of the senior thesis. Specifically, juniors in the fall term submit three 10-page papers each mentored by a different faculty member. They also attend colloquia in which faculty discuss their research. Working with and hearing from different faculty provides students with a knowledge base from which to choose a spring research mentor and project that best fits their interests and goals. They then spend the spring engaged in laboratory research which culminates in a 25-page paper. This staging helps prepare students for the senior thesis, research for which may begin in the summer.
  • Juniors in a different science department participate in an 8-week “tutorial” in the fall in which they read and critique journal articles. In the spring they begin research with a faculty advisor who will ultimately direct their senior thesis. They end the spring term by developing a literature review and a research proposal in the form of a grant proposal. The junior core laboratory in the spring helps students learn the process of inquiry and further refine their technical expertise for laboratory research. Thus, throughout the junior year students receive guidance on various aspects of scientific writing and research. They then spend the summer beginning their senior thesis research.

Sustained engagement with a project allows undergraduates to deepen their understanding and enhances their ability to do significant research.

Several departments found that allowing students to continue their JP research into their senior thesis had many merits. Some departments provide opportunities for summer research leading into the senior thesis.

Resources for Undergraduate Researchers

Providing students with multiple levels of support helps encourage and sustain them through various phases and challenges of the work.

  • Many departments provide a wealth of information through their websites, especially about logistics of the JP and senior thesis. Some also provide a guide to help students think through the research process, including organizing their time. For example, one science department’s website includes information about procedures, ways to get started in research early, the summer research program, and an interesting tip-sheet on the research process from an undergraduate perspective.
  • Departmental administrators are an invaluable source of guidance and support for students. They are easily accessible and students may feel less inhibited in asking them for help. They also often remind students of deadlines and provide them with vital information about the department and faculty research. Some departments particularly emphasized the key role these staff members play in encouraging and supporting students in their research efforts.

  • Most of the departments that spoke with us utilized the Senior Thesis Writing groups funded through the Dean of the College and the Princeton Writing Program.
  • Several departments mentioned the support provided through the University librarians. Librarians were often willing to reach out to students and meet with students one-on-one to help guide them to meaningful resources.
  • Some departments mentioned that they have Blackboard sites dedicated to information for juniors and seniors.

In summary, many of the departments that we have spoken with have put in place systems for undergraduate advising of independent work that in one chair’s words are “affirming, supportive through critique, and provide a structure.”