Lab Courses for Undergrads: Benefits Are Clear

Michael Toglia’s important invitation to comment on laboratory courses in the undergraduate psychology major (Toglia, 2002) arose from two questions. “First, is it important for psychology majors to engage in laboratory activities beyond what is required in the core? Secondly, if so how should or could we go about designing these laboratory experiences?”

In my experience as a long-time member of a small, experimentally-oriented undergraduate department, the dilemma of where and how laboratories should be incorporated seems to be a perennial focus of intense discussion. In this essay, my focus is on Toglia’s first question. I will try to show that it is useful to consider the roles played by undergraduate research – not just lab courses – in the undergraduate learning experience.

Toglia describes some of the reasons for having lab courses, and he also provides a few models of how they can be incorporated into the major. Explicit in his reasoning, and explicit in many departments (including mine) is the notion that a major goal of undergraduate psychology programs is to “teach students to think as scientists about behavior” (Brewer et al., 1993, p. 169). Clearly, it seems, lab courses are a necessary prerequisite to being capable of thinking as a scientist, and clearly, as Mathie et al. (1993) argue, active learning, including “hands on” lab courses, must be in the undergraduate curriculum.

Hmm. As I often ask my undergraduates about their hypotheses, “What are the data that make these assertions so clear?” Or in this case specifically, what do we know about undergraduate education that might help us provide answers concerning the importance of laboratory activities?

Greater student engagement. According to Hyek (2002) in his analysis of three years’ worth of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), students who work on research with faculty differ markedly from those who do not, on many measures of student engagement. Student researchers score significantly higher on the NSSE than non-researchers on level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, enriched educational experiences, general-education gains, practical competence, and satisfaction.

Better research performance. Not unexpectedly, research experiences lead to better research performance. Kardash (2000) showed clearly that various kinds of research skills (designing experiments and the like) as well as oral and written communication about research benefit from having a research experience.

Enhanced intellectual achievement. Spilich (1997) demonstrated that undergraduate research in psychology enhances intellectual achievement in psychology. Spilich reported that performance by majors in his department on the national achievement examination in psychology produced by the Educational Testing Service was directly related to the number of collaborative conference presentations by the majors with departmental faculty mentors.

Preparation for graduate school and employment. The effects of research engagement extend beyond the undergraduate experience. Graduate schools in psychology look favorably on undergraduate research experience in applicants for admission (Norcross, Hanych, and Terranova, 1996). Although an undergraduate laboratory course is preferred or required for admission by only about 12 percent of doctoral granting institutions, over 86 percent prefer or require statistics and 66 percent prefer or require research methods/experimental design (Norcross et al., 1996). These two courses, often accompanied by laboratory work, rank numbers one and two respectively in the 13 courses listed by Norcross and associates. Based on work concerned with the prevalence of research activity in undergraduate psychology departments (Elmes, 1995; Terry, 1996, 1997), Newman (1998) pointed to the general positive impact that research-based undergraduate science education has on PhD production. Finally, Lorig (1996) documents the skills and attitudes fostered by undergraduate research that are highly desirable to a broad range of employers.

The available data seem clear: undergraduate research is associated with being a more engaged student, a better scientist, a more attractive applicant for graduate school, and a more desirable potential employee. (Beware, however, because the data cited above have many drawbacks. The results come from a jumble of disciplines, ignore laboratory courses per se, involve mostly self-report data, and are mostly correlational in nature. We need systematic assessment of undergraduate laboratory courses and undergraduate research.)

There are numerous ways in which research and laboratory courses can be integrated into the undergraduate psychology major (e.g., Baker, Brinthaupt, & Elmes, 1998), but my guess is that where and how an undergraduate receives the research experience is less important than whether she or he has an opportunity to do it at all. Toglia’s question is not answered by this conclusion, but the importance of the question is clear: research at the undergraduate level has wide-ranging educational benefits for the students. This means that research experience is not important – it is crucial.

Baker, S, Brinthaupt, TM, & Elmes, DG. (1998, June). Models of undergraduate research in psychology. Workshop presented at the seventh national conference of the Council on Undergraduate Research, North Carolina Central University, Durham.
Brewer, CL, Hopkins, JR, Kimble, GA, Matlin, MW, McCann, LI, McNeil, OV, et al. (1993). Curriculum. In TV McGovern (Ed.), Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology (pp. 161-182). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Elmes, DG. (Ed.). (1995). Directory of research in psychology at primarily undergraduate
. Asheville, NC: Council on Undergraduate Research.
Hyek, J. (2002, June). Students who work on research with faculty: Perspectives from the National Survey of Student Engagement. Workshop presented at the Ninth National Conference of the Council on Undergraduate Research, Connecticut College, New London, CT.
Kardash, CM. (2000). Evaluation of an undergraduate research experience: Perceptions of undergraduate interns and their faculty mentors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 191-201.
Lorig, BT. (1996). Undergraduate research in psychology: Skills to take to work. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 16, 145-149.
Mathie, VA, Beins, B, Benjamin, LT, Ewing, MM, Hall, CCI, Henderson, B, et al. (1993). Promoting active learning in psychology courses. In TV McGovern (Ed.), Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology (pp. 183-214). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Newman, JH. (1998). Rapprochement among undergraduate psychology, science, mathematics, engineering, and technical education. American Psychologist, 53, 1032-1043.
Norcross, JC, Hanych, JM, & Terranova, RD. (1996). Graduate study in psychology: 1992-1993. American Psychologist, 51, 631-643.
Spilich, G. (1997). Does undergraduate research pay off? Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 18, 57-59, 89-90.
Terry, RL. (1996). Characteristics of psychology departments at primarily undergraduate institutions. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 17, 86-90.
Terry, RL. (1997). Correlates of faculty publication at primarily undergraduate institutions. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 18, 84-88.
Toglia, M. (2002, March). Lab Courses for undergrads: An invitation to comment [Letter to the editor]. [Electronic version]. APS Observer, 15(3). Retrieved April 2, 2002, from

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