What is undergraduate research?

What is undergraduate research? Many of us automatically associate research with science, engineering, and health; we think about lab coats and test tubes. But research is a process that involves asking questions and using the methods of our discipline to advance our knowledge and understanding of the subject. Although the methods used may differ among disciplines, research can be conducted in any field – natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, humanities, and fine arts.

Many students also assume that they’re only doing undergraduate research if they’re involved in a mentored research project or independent study. However, there are many ways to develop research skills, and if you’re a student, chances are you’ve already taken your first steps!  

Have you ever:

  • Heard your instructors talk about their own research in class?
  • Attended a seminar where a researcher talked about his or her work?
  • Learned about new developments or breakthroughs in your field of interest?
  • Taken an undergraduate lab or tutorial as part of a course?
  • Used the library to find research articles to help you write a paper?
  • Participated in a field trip, tour, demonstration, performance or exhibition related to your field of study?

Although you might think of these activities as just an ordinary part of your classes, you’ve actually begun learning about the research process and the methods of your discipline, which is a large part of what we consider to be undergraduate research. The skills and knowledge you develop through your coursework provide you with the tools to begin exploring your own questions, which is what mentored research and creative works are all about.

Considering that mentored research builds on a foundation of skills and knowledge learned through other activities, it can be useful to think about undergraduate research as a spectrum of activities and learning outcomes, as illustrated below:

A framework for undergraduate research at the University of Alberta

Framework for undergraduate research at the University of Alberta 
(Adapted from the Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) sub-committee report: Teaching, Research and Discovery Learning: Recommendations for a Great University., January 2010)