Defining Undergraduate Research

As a faculty member, you know what research is. You also recognize and respect that what counts as research is unique to each discipline. This perspective – a working knowledge of research coupled with a scholarly regard for research and creative scholarship in other disciplines – is an essential starting point for understanding undergraduate research and creative scholarship.

Undergraduate students come into higher education at various levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is likely that many of the students have not been exposed to rigorous academic research, possess vague ideas of what faculty research looks like, and may be intimidated by the concept.  However, they do know that research is a vital part of a university and they do appreciate that faculty who are productive researchers translate to the university and their discipline having prestige.  And more importantly, they are at a stage in their life when they are most eager to learn and explore their interests, and are therefore ripe to discover the joys of inquiry and discovery.

This setting illuminates the difficulty with defining undergraduate research.  It is not simply undergraduate students conducting research in the same arenas as faculty, using the same research methods and techniques, and working towards contributing original knowledge.  While that is an important part, a more accurate definition of research includes the learning, education, and developmental components that students go through as they learn about and experience academic research.  To further conceptualize this understanding, think back to your own undergraduate education and your first encounter with research.

  • How would you describe that experience?
  • What were some of they key moments and characteristics?
  • Who were the key players?
  • Why were you successful?
  • How did you overcome challenges?

Contemplating and answering these questions is crucial to understanding undergraduate research and creative scholarship. All of these attributes, factors, and forces are what defines undergraduate research and creative scholarship. It isn’t simply a project, a report, publication, or presentation.  It is the experience — the learning, the intellectual growth and development, the acquisition of skills, the maturation of thought and self, and the fostering of an inquiring and critical mind.

It is from this perspective that the difference between research conducted at the undergraduate level and that which is conducted at the graduate level and beyond is revealed.  It is the pursuit of not only the answers to the research question, but also the pursuit of the positive outcomes associated with student learning and growth. It involves maintaining the ideals of rigorous and ethical research while simultaneously developing students as scholars.

Therefore, how we think about undergraduate research and creative scholarship is more important than how we define it.  Taking this approach allows us to use a broad definition of research that results in increased synergy between teaching and research (Colbeck, 1998; Healey & Jenkins, 2009; Jenkins & Healey, 2005; Zamorski, 2002), which can lead to beneficial educational activities for undergraduate students.

Next – The Teaching-Research Nexus

Suggested Readings


  • Colbeck, C. (1998). Merging in a seamless blend. The Journal of Higher Education. 69(6), 647-671.
  • Healey, M. & Jenkins, A. (2009). Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. Research report to the Higher Education Academy.
  • Jenkins, A. and Healey, M. (2005). Institutional strategies to link teaching and research. York: The Higher Education Academy.
  • Zamorski, B. (2002). Research-led teaching and learning in higher education: a case, Teaching in Higher Education. 7(4), 411–427.

Mentoring Undergraduate Research Directory