Undergraduate students are increasingly keen on expanding their CVs and their academic credentials; students seeking to transition into further, advanced study have the added difficulty of needing to prove and establish their research credentials as early as possible. This post HEA Associate Fellows Andrew Struan and Scott Ramsay discuss the way in which a multidisciplinary, undergraduate conference allowed undergraduates - with the aid of PhD mentors - to begin the process of engagement with research through public communication of their work.
Andrew is Effective Learning Adviser (College of Social Sciences) at the Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Glasgow (Andrew.email@example.com).
Scott is Effective Learning Adviser (College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences) at the Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Glasgow (Scott.firstname.lastname@example.org).
‘[...] with love and knowledge, if you share it, it doesn’t disappear. So I feel like I’m sharing the knowledge and it doesn’t disappear. [...] I was like: I didn’t know it, and now I do, and I’m going to tell you about it, because it’s valuable and it’s worth knowing’ (Focus group participant, Summer 2015).
Engagement in undergraduate research is one of the key determiners in continued academic success and development into further, advanced study (Laursen et al., 2012). In the current higher education research environment, students and academics alike are expected to speak to, and engage with, a wider, multidisciplinary public sphere - and, importantly, to speak capably to these audiences.
This pressure of communication comes at the same time, for undergraduate students who wish to go on to advanced study, as the need to mark themselves out as distinctive within their academic field (and, therefore, the job market). At the University of Glasgow, our undergraduates are increasingly aware of the need to engage in research, to communicate their research effectively to a wide audience, and to engage in high quality, impactful research engagement more generally. More than that, however, some of the highest achieving undergraduate students lament the lack of opportunity for them to showcase their contribution to knowledge.
Working closely with students transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate level, we in University of Glasgow’s Learning and Teaching Centre’s Student Learning Service decided to give our high-flying students the option to prepare (with the help of dedicated graduate mentors) and present a research paper in a multidisciplinary, academic conference, entitled Let’s Talk About [X]. This conference, the first of its kind at Glasgow, had student development at its heart, and sought to showcase the work of our undergraduates.
Situated centrally as we are, and with a multi-disciplinary team and a pool of Graduate Teaching Assistants from a range of subject backgrounds, we were able to offer a truly multi-disciplinary conference while also building in many of the skills and experiences the students seek. This meant that, in addition to offering students the chance to present their work for the first time in an academic setting, we were able to offer tailored, specific guidance throughout the process - and to encourage more nervous would-be presenters into the creation of meaningful multidisciplinary presentations.
The conference was targeted at students in their third and fourth years, with the idea of allowing them to present the research and results of their dissertations. We received submissions from across the entire student body: topics ranging from sexual equality from a sociological perspective and philosophical understandings of morality to physics research part-conducted at CERN and groundbreaking analysis of sleep patterns were all covered capably by our students. The presenters were challenged with making obscure, difficult subjects like these open to a non-specialist audience, and were asked to sell the importance of their research findings in a more generalised light.
Fully aware of the need to encourage students unaware of how to best present their research, and with a keen eye on the development of our students’ Graduate Attributes, we made the role of Graduate Teaching Assistant mentors a central component of the conference experience. Our student presenters were paired with GTAs from a completely different subject background (for example, a particle physicist was paired with a creative writing PhD candidate) in order to best encourage truly multidisciplinary communications.
This mentoring process was viewed by the students as an essential part of the presentation creation. The GTAs worked with the students on earlier drafts of the presentations, encouraged effective presentation styles, and oversaw the development and design of visual aids. Our undergraduates’ presentation skills ran the full spectrum: we had confident public speakers who had presented their research in other ways, and we had participants who had never spoken in public before and who were extremely nervous about talking. For the latter especially, the mentoring programme was particularly useful: the student commented in feedback after the event that, without the support, help and encouragement of the mentor, she would have dropped out of the conference because of fear.
Feedback on the conference was exceptionally positive: the presenters praised being able to build their skills, enhance their CV, and enjoy the experience of public speaking; and audience members were treated to an interesting range of well-delivered, well-conceived topics. Focus group discussions with our presenters after the event confirmed three main findings: academically-inclined students want an increased range and wealth of opportunity to develop and enhance their research credentials; undergraduates are keen to become involved in academic research, but feel that they lack the confidence to participate in postgraduate-level events; and the mentoring programme was a key element in the success of the event and in preparing the students for public speaking.
Going into its second year in 2016, we intend to broaden Let’s Talk About [X] by running a multi-day event (we received more than double the number of submissions than we had space to present after only 5 days of advertising in 2015) with multiple streams. The focus will remain on a multi-disciplinary display of undergraduate research, and will again have mentorship at the heart of the whole process for the undergraduates.
Moreover, we are in the process of establishing a Glasgow-based undergraduate research journal. This journal will allow students an alternative way to showcase their research, and it will make use of established expertise in the university’s Writing Centre by providing detailed feedback and mentoring on the writing process and conducting peer review.
Our ultimate goal with the Let’s Talk About [X] initiative is to provide, through multiple streams of multidisciplinary engagement, an outlet for ambitious undergraduates to showcase their research output and experience. More than that, however, we seek to scaffold into the process, through our mentorship programmes, a skills-based approach to the development of undergraduate confidence, public engagement, and CV enhancement.
If we are to seek to continually develop and challenge our aspiring undergraduate students as they move into postgraduate level research, are there any further points we could consider developing? We are keen to maintain the role of mentorship for the undergraduates throughout the process, and want to engage as wide a population of the undergraduate body as possible. Do you have any examples of undergraduate student research engagement that have been a success?
If you would like to contribute to the discussion you will need to first log-in to your MyAcademy account. If you don't already have an account, you can create one here: https://my.heacademy.ac.uk/welcome/.