"A Creative Adventure": Undergraduate Research at the College of Wooster
When College of Wooster Assistant Professor Meagen Pollock stands in front of one of her geology courses, she's thinking beyond what her students need to accomplish during that class period, or even during that semester. Pollock is constantly thinking about how she can ensure that her students—all her students—develop good research skills. That's because every single student in Pollock's course will eventually complete an in-depth senior research project called Independent Study. And while some of her students will complete their IS projects in other departments, no one will be exempt from producing original research. "I need to teach them to do so much more than just regurgitate information," Pollock says. "Even in introductory courses, the activities we do in class are related to the things we do as researchers—collecting data, analyzing, asking ourselves what questions are important to answer."
A Common Intellectual Experience
The IS research requirement is not unique to Wooster's science departments. Since 1947, every student at Wooster, a liberal arts college of about 1,900 students in north central Ohio, has completed an independent research project as a prerequisite for graduation. "It's absolutely key to our program that everyone participates," explains Heather Fitz Gibbon, Wooster's dean for faculty development and a professor of sociology. "We know, when we step into an intro course, that each student is going to have to produce research senior year—even the students who seem marginal. We can't handpick the best for research, and we can't write off any student."
Wooster's democratic approach to undergraduate research began with former university president Howard Lowry, who had previously worked at Princeton University—also home to a long tradition of required senior thesis projects. In his inaugural address in 1944, Lowry called for "a creative adventure in self-discipline and self-discovery," in which every student would complete a significant capstone project. And in order to provide the framework for this new program, Lowry also pledged increased support for faculty members, in the form of funding to attend conferences, teaching time to work with undergraduates on research projects, and a full year of release time to conduct their own research after every four years of full-time teaching. "From the start, the system was structurally built to reward and support faculty," Fitz Gibbon says. "The assumption is that faculty can't advise on research if they're not good researchers themselves. And working with students on research isn't an add-on; it's part of the normal teaching load."
Wooster's program not only challenges students to achieve during college, but also prepares them for future success. Surveys of employers commissioned by AAC&U confirm that research skills are very important to employers as they seek recent graduates with the kinds of abilities required in today's workplace. For example, 84 percent of employers report that "expecting students to complete a significant project" would help prepare them for professional success. And 81 percent of employers report that "ensuring that students develop the skills to research questions in their field and develop evidence-based analyses" would help in their preparation for the workplace.
Teaching with Research in Mind
Wooster's emphasis on research is unusual at a liberal arts college, but it does not displace the college's traditional focus on strong teaching for undergraduate students. "Our research emphasis profoundly changes the interactions we have with students in the classroom," Fitz Gibbon says. "There is a bit less breadth in our curriculum compared to some other schools, in terms of the number of courses, but we move very quickly into active learning in all our courses." Independent study is a significant part of the campus culture at Wooster, and prospective students first hear about it during campus tours. Once students enroll, faculty members in the earliest introductory courses mention ideas for IS projects and frame questions around how they might be investigated. Katie Holt, an assistant professor of history and Latin American studies, asks her students to think about what courses they've most enjoyed, what books they've been most eager to read, and what questions remained after they completed these tasks. "My job is to help them turn their ideas into a research question," Holt says.
While "independent" is the focus of the independent study project, students are never left on their own, Fitz Gibbon says. In addition to the training they receive in their courses, Wooster has numerous other opportunities for students to gain research exposure before the IS project senior year. The college's first-year seminar, a required course, introduces students to the culture of critical inquiry at the Wooster. Some students in natural sciences disciplines participate in a summer science research program before the beginning of their first year, and sophomores can participate in the Sophomore Research Program, in which second-year students can apply for paid positions acting as research aides to professors in nearly every discipline. A similar Summer Research Program provides additional paid student research positions in fields such as applied mathematics, the physical sciences, and science education. And even for students who don't participate in any of these programs, the design of the IS project ensures that they are guided throughout the process.
During the junior year, Wooster students take a junior IS seminar, tutorial, or course, in which they explore methods and theories of research and, depending on the department, complete a research plan for their proposed senior IS project or a separate intensive research paper. In the history department, Holt's students produce term papers of at least twenty-five pages. Students develop their ideas in weekly one-on-one tutorials with faculty members, and explore ideas that they might choose to research in greater depth during the senior year, including possible study abroad tie-ins. One of Holt's students got a grant to spend the summer before his junior year working with an indigenous group in Chile on a fair-trade collaborative. The student's experience led him to develop an interest in how the Chilean state teaches people about its ethnic minority groups, and for his senior year IS, the student will conduct a larger-scale research project on the topic.
By the time Wooster students begin their senior year, they've been steeped in the IS culture of the college for three years. Seniors take a weekly individual credit-bearing IS seminar each semester, taking the place of a regular class, and these meetings with the faculty adviser provide a regular time and place to discuss progress and setbacks in the research process. "Students tend to develop a lot of ownership of their topics, and sometimes really surprise themselves," Holt says. One history student used her curiosity about the recent explosion of the local-food movement to develop a project about the evolution of American gastronomy, from can-opener cuisine to local eating and farmers' markets. The student got funding from Wooster's Copeland Fund for Independent Study to travel to the Radcliffe College Library and study Julia Child's personal papers as part of her research.
Assessing Independent Learning
Wooster has been working in recent years to develop a more clear set of assessment guidelines for the IS projects, Fitz Gibbon says. Each department has developed its own rubrics to assess student projects, and these cover content, methodology, and form (the quality of the written paper). The rubrics, which students receive during the junior IS seminar, allow faculty members to assess students' research process and outcomes, as well as provide valuable data for departmental improvement. "If we see that the majority of students are only using X method, or are struggling with theory, then we know we need to do more in those areas," Fitz Gibbon says.
In addition to the IS paper, students are assessed on an oral defense of their research results, which Pollock explains is framed as a conversation between an expert—the student—and interested, knowledgeable respondents—the adviser and a "second reader" from the student's field. After the defense, students are awarded a designation of either satisfactory, good, or honors on the entire IS project. Occasionally, a student will fail to complete his or her IS project on time—all projects are due to the university registrar the first Monday after spring break—and will have to finish it during the summer or following fall semester before graduating. "Very occasionally, we have someone fail to complete IS and come back twenty years later and say, 'Ok, now I'm ready,'" Fitz Gibbon says. But more than 90 percent of students earn at least a satisfactory rating.
While Wooster's focus on undergraduate research is unique in that the entire curriculum is designed around the independent study project, Fitz Gibbon says it's possible for other institutions to benefit from some of Wooster's experiences, even if on a smaller scale. "Providing students with a taste of research early on is key. Simply inserting a requirement into the senior year isn't going to make students succeed." She suggests that schools that don't have the financial resources or institutional support necessary for an all-college research program can start by having small cohorts of students work together on research projects. And it's vital that undergraduate research be part of the faculty reward structure—not work against it, Fitz Gibbon says. That support will help bolster an institutional culture of research that will attract additional faculty, as well as students. "IS really draws students to Wooster, and it repels a few, too. But we emphasize the excitement and the independence. And when they leave, they're not afraid of research."
They're also resilient and adaptable. "Anyone who's ever done research knows how up and down it can be," Pollock says. "The students go through times when they're celebrating and times when they're frustrated and overwhelmed. But in the end, they feel very accomplished and confident."