Engaging Undergraduate Students In Research

There is no singular set of prescriptions or best way to engage undergraduate students in research. This is particularly true when one views undergraduate research as a learning activity, as we encourage you to do in the Defining Undergraduate Research section. Students learn, develop, and mature in different ways and at different velocities.  Therefore, the best preparation for engaging undergraduate students in research begins with gaining a basic understanding of student development, and how they obtain and develop research skills, so that you can be a flexible and resourceful practitioner and best prepared to take on students of varying ability.

Before moving forward, it is important to take a moment to talk about setting your expectations appropriately. As it is with any new learning and research activity, the amount of preparatory work required is substantial. If this fact isn’t obvious by now, it will become so in the near future. Undergraduate research and creative scholarship is as much a teaching activity as it is a research endeavor. Bridging these two areas, undergraduate research can inhibit the best attributes of both practices, but getting there can be difficult and often messy. To be effective, an undergraduate research activity requires thoughtful planning, careful conceptualization, and dedication from all parties involved (faculty, staff, and students).

We begin by examining what motivates students to learn and then discuss the implications this evidence has for student learning activities, programs, and support structures.

What Motivates Students to Learn

Research on student motivation in learning stems from research on motivation in general. Unsurprisingly, motivation is a complex phenomena and varies according to multiple factors and influences.  That said, McMillan and Forsyth (1991) cite three factors that are instrumental in determining student motivation:

  • Whether the student’s needs are being met.
  • Whether the student sees value in the learning that occurs.
  • Whether the student believes they have the ability to be successful when a reasonable amount of effort has been given.

From this perspective, McMillan and Forsyth (1991) posit a model of student motivation that is developed through an examination of theories on student needs and expectations  The model looks at the implications that these two factors have on student perceptions of the value of their educational activities and their ability to achieve.  We begin exploring this model by examining the area of students needs.

Next – Student Needs


  • McMillan, J. H., & Forsyth, D. R. (1991). What theories of motivation say about why learners learn. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, 39-52.

Mentoring Undergraduate Research Directory