Member Article

Psychology Research with Undergraduates: An Interview With Debra Zellner


Debra Zellner

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is a membership organization with a mission “to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship.” This organization, founded in 1978, promotes undergraduate research by providing faculty development opportunities; sharing information on the importance of undergraduate research with state and federal elected officials, private foundations, and government agencies; and giving students opportunities to share their research.

CUR defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” According to CUR, undergraduate research results in students producing content that makes an original contribution to the field and includes mentorship by a faculty member and communication with peers in the discipline. The benefits of undergraduate research are many, including greater gains in learning, personal gains such as increased ability to work independently, improved student-faculty relationships, retention in the major and stronger enrollment in graduate school (see: for a description of these and other findings).

Psychology has a long history of engaging students in undergraduate research both within the curriculum and through independent research experiences. In this interview, Debra Zellner, an APS member and Psychology Division Councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research since 1998, discusses her experiences with undergraduate research.  Zellner is on the editorial boards of the journals Appetite and Food Quality & Preference, is the Psychology editor for the CUR Quarterly, serves as advisor for the Psi Chi Chapter of Montclair State University, and is currently the chair of the Montclair State University IRB. More than 35 of her published papers have student co-authors. She has published with more than 40 different students.

SL: When did you first become interested in undergraduate research?

DZ: I became interested in undergraduate research when I was an undergraduate and became involved in doing research with one of my professors. It was a life-changing experience for me. Although I was a Psychology major, I was interested in every subject I studied and didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating. I started doing research as a junior and was soon addicted. I have been doing psychological research ever since.

SL: When did you start involving undergraduate students in research?

DZ: I have had undergraduates involved in my research ever since graduate school. In graduate school at American University and in my post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, I had undergraduate students doing research with me. They attended lab meetings, helped with the data collection and analysis, and assisted in the writing of the manuscripts. I had undergraduate student co-authors on publications prior to ever getting my first permanent job. Some of them went on to PhDs in psychology and are now my colleagues.

SL: How are students involved with your research?

DZ: Students are involved with the research at different levels. When they first come to work in my lab, I usually pair them with another student and give them a research project to do that is something I already have in mind. They help with some minor parts of the design because usually most of the design is already thought out. I give them articles to read on the topic and tell them to find others. We meet and discuss the articles, I teach them about how to conduct human subject research, and we practice testing each other before they see a real subject. After data collection, we do the data analysis together and then I have them write some parts (that I edit) of drafts of the final article. Usually, after letting them write their sections, I write the final general Introduction and Discussion, integrating what are often the studies of several students. They also usually present their research at professional conferences where they are responsible for making the posters (again with my editing).

I have a student working with me right now, Elizabeth Cogan, who first worked on a research project with me last year (her sophomore year). She, along with her student partner, presented it as a poster at the meeting of APS last year in San Francisco. That study is part of a paper that just got accepted for publication in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics. This year she will be presenting part of her undergraduate Honors Thesis at the APS meeting in Boston. Elizabeth came up with the idea for her thesis based on what she did with me previously. After obtaining rather surprising findings in her first experiment, she came up with some good ideas about why she got those results and is pursuing them in her subsequent studies.

SL: What do you think are the benefits of undergraduate research for the students?

DZ: I think one of the big benefits of doing undergraduate research for students is that they gain a new appreciation for the information that they learn about in the classroom. They learn how one goes about obtaining those facts. It also gets them excited about psychology and often helps them, as it did me, decide what they want to do after college. Some years ago, I had an advisee who had lots of SAT points but who was consistently getting Cs in his classes. After getting involved in research, he started getting all As and now has his PhD.

SL: What are the benefits of undergraduate research for you?

DZ: There are many. One is that it keeps me from being lazy. I have always had jobs with very high teaching loads, and it is easy to decide that you are too busy to do research. However, when you have eager students wanting to get research done, they keep you motivated. Another benefit for me is that it is personally rewarding to see the undergraduates working on research get excited about doing research. It is nice to see the difference it makes in their lives, and is worth the effort it takes. I feel like doing research with undergraduates is where I do my best teaching. Engaging students in research has also resulted in lifelong friendships with many of the students who have worked with me. Many of them have gone on to mentor students in research. It is nice to see the tradition continued.

SL: How has your involvement with CUR enhanced the experience you provide undergraduates?

DZ: CUR is a great place to get to know people who also value undergraduate research. I learned a lot from the colleagues I met there about how to be a better faculty mentor. I also learned a lot about opportunities that are available to students who are engaged in undergraduate research. Their support is invaluable.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.