Are you looking for ways to invigorate your research and teaching? Consider the following quotes from higher ed instructors who participated alongside their students in course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs).
“You have a synergy between your teaching and your research…”
“It’s refreshing. It’s new. It’s novel. It’s engaging.”
“My teaching, my research, and service are all done at the same time.”
(Shortlidge et al., 2016)
CUREs actively engage students (and researcher/educators) in an original research or creative contribution project that leads to a meaningful deliverable for external stakeholders. They are a unique teaching practice that provide many benefits for students and instructors alike.
This topic will help you understand the defining characteristics of a successful CURE and walk you through key considerations for planning a CURE project for your course.
Undergraduate research is a high-impact practice (HIP) with proven results. But what makes an undergraduate research activity a CURE? The primary characteristic of a CURE is that it involves all students in a course, and they are largely working on the research project during class time.
- Is relevant beyond your course (i.e., meaningful to external community stakeholders and/or your broader discipline) and provides opportunities for action.
- Has an unknown outcome and the findings are novel.
- Has an inherent risk of generating “messy” data.
- Is often iterative in process, requiring students to problem solve, reimagine, and redo.
- Collaborate with each other, as well as with you, your teaching assistants, and potentially other stakeholders.
- Engage with multiple and varied research practices throughout the course.
- Conducts scholarly research that is connected to the purpose of the CURE.
- Guides and mentors students throughout the research experience.
CUREs differ from traditional course projects because of the explicit relevance of the research to the scholarly community and integration with your own research program (or a national research program) that guides the direction of the project. CUREs have predominantly been used in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses, particularly in the biological sciences. But there are instances in other disciplines, including discipline-based education research, music psychology, anthropology, business, criminal justice, and writing and composition. CUREs can be used in introductory, upper division, and non-major courses.
CUREs Promote Equity
By opening research opportunities to all students as part of an undergraduate degree program, CUREs help level the playing field of HIPs. They give everyone the opportunity to participate in research, potentially sparking students’ interest in research careers and changing the demographic makeup of the research community.
Research experiences are one predictor of the persistence of underrepresented students in the sciences (Daniels et al., 2016; Genet, 2021; Lopatto, 2007; Malotky et al., 2020). CUREs can be a more accessible research experience for students because they are integrated with their regular course load and the work is guided, collaborative, and concentrated during class time (rather than done independently outside of class). This serves to increase and focus students’ engagement with research and combat many of the obstacles present in other research activities, such as internships. Through CUREs, all students can benefit from research experiences and become aware of research opportunities, without being limited by personal barriers, financial constraints, or social bias.
CUREs Benefit Students
Student gains in CUREs meet or exceed those observed in summer internship and mentored student research experience models and are higher than those experienced by students in traditional labs (Frantz et al., 2006; Hanauer et al., 2012; Jordan et al., 2014; Lopatto et al., 2008; Overath et al., 2016; Shaffer et al., 2010; Shapiro et al., 2015). Explore the many benefits of CUREs for students below.
Gains in content knowledge and technical skills
One of the strongest gains experienced by students participating in CUREs is improved content knowledge. This is observed across disciplines and can translate to improved grades as well as increased student retention. Several assessments of CUREs across disciplines have also found strong gains in learners’ technical skills including computer modeling, statistics, and laboratory techniques. CUREs also improve students’ ability and confidence to design experiments and interpret data. Notably, students' content knowledge gains in CUREs have been shown to be equal to or greater than gains in traditional lab settings.
Brownell et al., 2012; Genet, 2021; Kloser et al., 2013; Martin et al., 2021; Pavlova et al., 2021; Shaffer et al., 2014
Gains in broadly applicable skills
Students widely report growth in academic and professional skills such as written and oral communication, time management and organization, problem solving, graphical representation of data, and information literacy skills such as the ability to engage with primary literature.
Drew & Triplett, 2008; Jordan et al., 2014; Martin et al., 2021; Shelby, 2019; Genet, 2021; Jordan et al., 2014; Makarevitch et al., 2015; Shaffer et al., 2014; Shelby, 2019; Stoeckman et al., 2019; Ward et al., 2014; Wiley & Stover, 2014; Williams & Reddish, 2018; Kortz & van der Hoeven Kraft, 2016; Olimpo et al., 2016
Improved confidence and self-efficacy
CUREs develop students’ willingness and capacity to engage in conversations and collaborations, as well as promote the ability to work independently.
Openness to new academic or career paths
For many students, CUREs help clarify academic and professional goals. CUREs can increase matriculation in the majors, graduation rates, and student interest in conducting further research. This may translate to new career paths and increased interest in graduate and professional schools.
Harrison et al., 2011; Rodenbusch et al., 2016; Waynant et al., 2022; Bascom-Slack et al., 2012; Brownell et al., 2012; Carr et al., 2018; Harvey et al., 2014; Overath et al., 2016; Shaffer et al., 2014; Ward et al., 2014
CUREs Benefit Educators
CUREs positively impact you as well as your students. Explore the many benefits of CUREs for educators below.
Learning the craft of teaching and research
CUREs are a great opportunity to train postdoctoral scientists and graduate students in the instructor role, beyond assisting with grading and content delivery. CUREs provide the opportunity to learn how to develop instructional materials, incorporate and practice active learning and other teaching strategies, and build an identity and practice as an educator. CUREs also provide a platform for trainees to become familiar with the management and operations of large research projects that involve personnel, deadlines, and budgets.
Engaging in a meaningful research-driven teaching practice
CUREs provide the opportunity for you to integrate your research and teaching missions, opening new avenues for your research program. You might evolve your pedagogical practice or develop an interest in the formal assessment of your own teaching. You can also incorporate a CURE as a component of a broader grant proposal or project. Some instructors even report that CUREs improve their relationships with students and their job satisfaction (Shortlidge et al., 2016).
Boosting engagement in research and increasing productivity
CUREs are often useful in generating data for research and leading to publications. They also offer the chance to identify and recruit motivated students for mentored research internships. Leveraging CUREs for your research and teaching may even further your reputation within the institution or enhance opportunities for promotion and tenure.
If you’re interested in incorporating a CURE into your course, there are three possible paths to consider.
- Implement a researcher-independent CURE for which there is a pre-existing model available through national programs.
- Develop a new researcher-independent CURE that could be implemented at multiple institutions.
- Design a unique researcher-driven CURE.
If you’re designing a new CURE, you should adopt a backwards design approach, which requires you to first identify the outcomes desired from the CURE, then determine the acceptable evidence that those outcomes have been met, and finally to plan the learning activities and instruction (Cooper et al., 2017). Consider also how to use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to facilitate the engagement of all students in the experience.
Read more about Universal Design for Learning.
Designing and implementing your first CURE can be an immensely rewarding experience, but it also poses some challenges for planning your course. Some key issues to consider when embarking upon this process are outlined below.
Align your CURE with the curriculum.
As you are planning a CURE, it is critical to determine answers to the following questions:
- Who is the student audience for your course?
- What level of preparation and prior knowledge can you expect from them?
- What is the intent and scope of the research?
- What program requirements will you need to integrate in your course?
- What will be the duration of the CURE?
- What will be the roles of the postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students you work with, and how will the CURE benefit them?
Keep in mind that you will need to:
- Identify the expected learning outcomes (ELOs) of the relevant department, program, major, minor, or certificate and plan how your course outcomes will align to them.
- If proposing a new course, know the guidelines and requirements of the course approval process. Contact the chair of the undergraduate curriculum committee of your department or unit for guidance.
- If revising an existing course, engage colleagues (staff and faculty) that have been involved in its implementation.
- Engage external research stakeholders in your planning, as needed.
Give students intellectual responsibility and ownership.
Research shows that student ownership of the research project undertaken in a CURE positively impacts their experience of the course (Hanauer et al., 2012; Harrison et al., 2011; Hatfull et al., 2006). Promote ownership of learning by involving students meaningfully in the design and implementation of the research project at all stages. For example, your students should tackle questions and test hypotheses relevant to the broader research community. Give them multiple opportunities to develop their own claims and to defend them with evidence from the literature or their own work. Encourage students to make judgments and decisions throughout your research protocols, and to redirect and iterate on the process when needed.
Integrate the research process into your CURE.
The scientific method requires identification of an appropriate scientific question, collection of data, analysis of that data, interpretation of outputs, and communication of the knowledge gained from research. Identify which of these elements you will include in the CURE, how you will teach them, and how students will be involved in their execution.
The approach to research undertaken in a CURE should follow the standard process of scholarly pursuit in your field of study. No matter the approach, you should introduce students to all stages of the research process, iterating whenever it is called for along the way.
An effective CURE will empower students to think for themselves while enabling them to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment. Encourage students to embrace the joy of discovery as well as the uncertainty of investigating a question with unknown outcomes. The research process often comes with surprises. Assuring students this does not equate failure but is rather a natural part of investigation and learning can help to alleviate some academic stress. Set up checks and balances for student-collected data and build ample room into the course for redirection, feedback, and iteration.
Balance your research aims with student learning.
The power of CUREs resides in the combination of research and teaching to create a unique pedagogical experience for both students and researcher-instructors. But achieving balance between your research and teaching goals can pose challenges. The time constraints associated with a traditional course structure may place limits on your ability to repeat experiments, increase your sample size, or simply to fully explore a particular question or dataset.
How will you train students in the whole of the research process if they cannot fully engage in all stages? Present the trajectory of a research project from inception to publication, including the role of formal and informal peer-review of ideas, conference presentations, and manuscripts. You might incorporate mini-workshops and whole-class or small-group activities that use already analyzed or published datasets to help students understand critical concepts that cannot be authentically explored on your timeline.
CURE students benefit from intellectual exchanges with other members of the research team, including graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates in mentored research experiences. Consider how collaboration across your team will help you accomplish research tasks and goals while providing new knowledge and practice opportunities for students.
Structure tasks to support and develop students.
Many undergraduate students are not well-versed in research activities. Your course activities should incorporate intentional scaffolding to help them navigate new information and unfamiliar or challenging tasks. Plan a series of assignments or steps that guide students through the entire project, support them to practice important skills, and provide opportunities for feedback and improvement. Students’ prior knowledge should inform the first rungs of your scaffolding, while your course learning outcomes provide the endpoint. Read more about scaffolding assignments.
It's crucial that you provide the supports needed for students to learn. Present all necessary background information to help students understand and complete research tasks. Coach them through challenging tasks, include opportunities for reflection, and encourage them to repeat or expand upon their work when needed.
- Articulate the purpose and criteria for important research steps, activities, assignments, and evaluations. Transparency in teaching can promote metacognition and help students reflect upon and meet learning goals.
- Teach best practices for responsible and ethical research conduct. Formally train students in the reading and analysis of primary literature and in the use of published data, online databases, citizen-science projects, and/or data collected by previous CUREs or collaborators.
- Provide ancillary resources, such as those created by University Libraries, to support the research process and promote information literacy.
- Consider incorporating writing-to-learn activities to facilitate reflection. Writing-to-learn promotes students learning and helps them develop as writers.
- Design and supervise group work to foster accountability and collaboration among students, as well as to help students meet their personal learning goals.
Assess student work.
Ongoing assessment of students’ work in a CURE enables you and your class to stay up to date on research progress, including any setbacks to address. Well-designed assessments help students reflect on their learning and identify challenges so they can find tools to overcome those obstacles.
- Align your assessments with the expected learning outcomes for the CURE.
- Provide rubrics and clear criteria for success so students understand the level of mastery that is expected of them.
- Ensure that formative assessments are helping students practice key skills and prepare for any summative assessments in the course.
- Include frequent low-stakes assignments—with opportunities for feedback—to help reduce the equity gap.
- Promote accountability in group work by incorporating peer review and self-review in your grading.
- Consider ways you might use contract grading, specifications grading, peer-grading, and self-assessment instead of traditional grading.
Have students communicate research results.
Communicating research findings is a critical component of any student-led research project. Presenting at conferences, publishing findings in a research database, and submitting to peer-reviewed publications have all been shown to benefit undergraduate students (Kloser et al. 2013; Spronken-Smith et al., 2013; Little, 2020; Wiley and Stover, 2014; Turner et al., 2021). Student-authored manuscripts and presentations serve to motivate learners, provide accountability for their work, and enhance their belief in themselves as researchers and scholars.
How you communicate the results of your CURE should reflect authentic scholarly communication in your field. You may choose one method of communication or prepare multiple deliverables in different formats. Once you determine the ideal mode(s) for disseminating findings, it’s important to consider how this work will be divided among students and to establish clear guidelines for authorship. With your support, students can gain confidence in their research skills and engage meaningfully with real-world audiences.
Foster collaboration and define roles on your research team.
Your role in a CURE involves shaping a positive learning environment, mentoring students in the research process, assisting them in practicing and acquiring key knowledge and skills, and explaining the purpose and significance of the research work. As such, a successful CURE is easier to implement with help.
Identify collaborators that will support and enhance your project and consider how you will define their roles. Assistance may come from fellow investigators, lab personnel, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, instructional support staff, or colleagues across campus. As an authentic research experience, your CURE will introduce students to the importance of collaboration in research.
Keep in mind that every member of a CURE has goals, needs, and expectations. This is true of students and instructor(s), but also applies to any other team members involved in the project. Carefully consider your shared purpose and how your CURE will help all stakeholders accomplish their goals.
Tackle logistical challenges.
The implementation of a CURE requires students to access the tools of the research trade. These tools will be dependent on your discipline but may include the following: lab space; specific equipment, materials, and technologies; library and archive resources; research specimens; and software or computing facilities. Perhaps you will even need to plan research activities in the field. Advance planning is critical to the success of your CURE. Failing to anticipate and plan for needs and potential roadblocks could limit the types of research questions and activities you pursue with students.
You can overcome obstacles to data collection by using existing research databases, citizen science data, online archives, and museum databases. Consider how you might integrate CUREs with mentored student research projects and collaborate with other researchers to facilitate funding, data collection, and data analysis. Leverage campus resources such as IT services and University Libraries collections and subject librarians when troubleshooting technology issues or solving research problems.
Designing a Successful CURE
The guidelines in the table below* will support you as you choose the topic of your CURE, design your course activities, and make plans for communication, feedback, and reflection activities.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A SUCCESSFUL CURE
|Topic and Focus||
* Elements modified from Dolan, 2016; Kortz & van der Hoeven Kraft, 2016; Wiley & Stover, 2014; Turner et al., 2021; Kloser et al., 2011; Hatfull et al. 2006.
If you need guidance or support as you are planning your CURE, browse our Teaching Support Forms to contact the unit most aligned to your consultation needs.
Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) integrate your research and teaching through an inclusive high-impact practice that enhances the student experience and your professional development.
CUREs support students to:
Engage in original research significant to others.
Design and implement authentic research protocols.
Communicate their research findings.
CUREs require you to:
Encourage student ownership.
Scaffold research activities.
Provide frequent feedback and mentorship to support students.
CUREs enable you and your students to:
- Reflect often on the research process, your learning, and personal gains.
- Connect and collaborate meaningfully within and beyond the classroom.
- Enjoy an exciting and engaging—if sometimes demanding—mode of teaching and learning.
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- Wiley, E. A., & Stover, N. A. (2014). Immediate dissemination of student discoveries to amodel organism database enhances classroom-based research experiences. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 131–138. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-07-0140