July 2, 2018

Assessment of Undergraduate Research – from David Lopatto

Posted by Laura Guertin

On the second day of the 2018 Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Biennial Conference, the lunchtime keynote was given by David Lopatto, Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment; Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Natural Science and Mathematics. Dr. Lopatto is known for his leadership in assessing the benefits of undergraduate research – specifically, the design of several survey instruments that capture student self-reported feedback and enable analysis of the impact of experiences on student self-perceived gains in knowledge, skills, and confidence in research.

If you aren’t already familiar with these instruments, be sure to explore:

  • the CURE survey (Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience)
  • the RISC survey (Research on the Integrated Science Curriculum)
  • the ROLE survey (Research on Learning and Education)
  • the SURE III survey (Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences)

He also has written articles and full publications on assessing undergraduate research, from his article in Peer Review titled “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience” (Spring 2010) to the book Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning (Research Corporation for Science Advancement). Below is a recorded lecture from a presentation Dr. Lopatto gave at Iowa State in 2012 where he discusses his research and the SURE survey for students that recently completed a summer research experience.

What did Dr. Lopatto speak about at the CUR Conference? He had some specific points about undergraduate research he wanted us to note.

— He doesn’t like the distinction some researchers make between direct and indirect measures.

— He doesn’t like how some people support only quantitative measures, and some people only believe in qualitative measures. He argues that the best kinds of arguments we can make for undergraduate research is to use both to satisfy the “two audience problem” (audiences that want to hear quantitative vs qualitative data).

— We need to “let latent variables lie.” We should be putting aside these variables so that all students can be treated alike.

— Undergraduate research is a hypothesis, not a dogma. There is no one set definition for undergraduate research. There’s no right or wrong. Interdisciplinary research can especially be elusive, messy, and interesting (and as faculty, we continue to struggle to even define it).

— The higher-order outcome of undergraduate research is that “learning is learning to think.”

— Studies of communication may capture the confidence and authority that comes with accomplishment – not value added but value revealed, and this revelation empowers the student. Students overcome anxiety, nervousness, etc., and reach the potential they already have.


How did Dr. Lopatto end his talk? He posed the question: “What are the benefits of undergraduate research?” And his response was a quote from a colleague:


Thank you, Dr. Lopatto, for continuing to push us to continuously examine and explore our questions, our methods, and our impacts.


*Note that CUR and AGU, in furtherance of their shared goals to build and sustain the global science talent pool, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2016. The MOU outlines the organizations’ commitment to promoting undergraduate research opportunities, enhancing diversity in the geosciences, and supporting the geoscience talent pool.