The Joy and the Fear of Learning: Ideas on How to Run an Undergraduate Research Course

Learn more about a new approach to undergraduate education, in which students are taught the key life skills that are all too often reserved for graduate school.

The Joy and the Fear of Learning: Ideas on How to Run an Undergraduate Research Course

On the students’ faces I began to see some reservation, some drawing away, even some fear. We’re losing them, I thought, with some fear of my own…they’re all going to leave the classroom today and hand in drop forms.

What had scared the students was our first description, in this, our first class, of what they would be doing for their research experience. The course they’d joined would guide them each through their own research experience, and it was for any undergraduate in any major.

First, each student each think up their own big goal question for the semester, something that would take a lot of work to understand, like, How will we discover life on Mars, if it’s there? Then, each week, they would ask a smaller question that were meaningful steps on their way to their big goal question (we call these smaller questions “Natural Next Questions;” more on that in another article), and then they’d look for information to help answer that smaller question. They would build up a tree of questions and answers, a mindmap of their progress toward their big goal question.

After seeing their apparent dismay, the course co-instructor, Prof. Evgenya Shkolnik, and I asked the students what they were thinking: “We see some of you looking worried…what are you feeling?”

After some hesitation, a student asked, “Should I make my goal smaller? I don’t know if I can answer it!” We said, no, don’t worry about that! In the real world, if you think about it, it’s very hard to ever know everything, to have covered the whole of any big, valuable question. So you probably will never answer your question! But having a really big goal to draw you onward is such a pleasure!

And you can whittle a big question or idea down more easily than you can build a small idea up.

Does a question about the quadratic equation bring you right to a brilliant new idea about ballistic transport on Mars? Nope. But if you ask, How can a rocket launch off the Earth and go straight to Mars? your intermediate steps, your smaller broken-down questions, will be much more profound and educational.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this answer did not console the fears of the students. Someone else, asked, “Then how will you know when we are finished? How will you grade us?”

Aha! The grading question.

We should have realized. We will grade you according to your persistence in the process, and whether you make progress. Progress is the goal, in life, in work. Do you learn from your efforts one week and apply what you learn in the next? Are you making progress toward your big goal? Are you going through the steps of metacognition, that is, assessing how you are learning and synthesizing what you are learning so that you can be more and more effective?

The looks of fear and reservation began to relax a bit. As I listened to the students’ concerns about being able to judge for themselves when they are finished with a project, I thought, welcome to the real world!

Because that is what we are trying to do: we are experimenting with a new approach to undergraduate education, in which students are taught the key life skills that are all too often reserved for graduate school: Asking questions, struggling forward in steps, toward some goal. Being unafraid to try. Learning to be your own judge of the excellence and completion of your work. Having patience trying to understand some reading that is really too hard for your level. Practicing learning the steps to understand it after all. Leaving behind the mindset that there is passing and there is failing.

Passing or failing. Actually, I think there is only either succeeding, or needing more work and time. As I explained this to the students, I found myself getting more and more excited. These are the most important life skills! This is how you become ready for work and life!

We talked about the weekly inquiry cycle: learn something, and then summarize it.

Think of the next question to lead you toward your big goal, and try to make the questions of answerable size.

But I saw the students sit up straighter and engage more when they started looking at a list of example big questions, and they began thinking of their own. I could see the beginning of that joy of ownership, of thinking, of discovery, in each of them.


The inquiry cycle: the process of research and learning.

By the next week, every student had their own big goal question, and almost every one had thought of it themselves. One student, a junior in physics and a native Spanish speaker, decided to learn what the universe is made of. He set out to learn all about dark matter and dark energy. I was a bit concerned, wondering how he could get enough out of a peer-reviewed research papers in physics (we required them to find and attempt to read primary sources). He quickly learned that the experimental papers were more approachable, and he dove in, googling parts he did not understand, and making exceptional progress.

We had juniors, seniors, and sophomores, and one really enthusiastic and game freshman. We had people from a wide range of engineering and science majors, and also someone in public policy, and someone in elementary education. They all stayed, and they all did it.

Here are some of the big goal questions our students chose:

  • What are the effects of radiation on the senses of astronauts?
  • What are the most important aspects of building a habitation?
  • How do we select who goes to Mars?
  • How much water do we need to live on the Moon, and how do we obtain it?
  • What are the biggest biological challenges associated with life in space?
  • How far along are the companies and entities that are working on space habitations?

The class met once a week, and on that day, the students would take turns telling each other what they had learned as they did their research to try to answer that week’s natural next question. One detail captivated me: they were so invested in their work that they seldom had to look at their notes as they explained what they had learned.


During every class each student decided upon a natural next question to drive their research forward for the next week. Then they had the week to find a primary source to help answer that question, summarize what they learned, put the question and summary in their mind map, and bring their summary to class the next week.

In this class, we also abandoned summative exams.

In our search to make school as much like life and work as we could, we reasoned, no one takes exams later in life. Instead, for the midterm, we had each student stand up in front of the graphic of their choice and explain these things:

  1. What has your path of research been so far?
  2. What have the big challenges been?
  3. What have the big successes been?
  4. What are your next steps?

One student made her mind map wavy like a roller coaster. She explained that she drew the mindmap path downward when her natural next questions did not lead her to very good or helpful material, and upward when they did. The shape of her mind map reflected the success of her research.

Another student talked about what he called Questioners Block, how to get past that feeling that he just didn’t know where to go next. He also said he found the class really successful just for the pure joy of learning.

The organization of this class is almost pure metacognition. That is, we are working on showing student how to learn. We want them to be able to take these ideas and techniques and apply them to any problem they face.

And so perhaps the sweetest reward was the day one student said, “I don’t read social media the same way any more. Every time I read something, I ask, ‘How do you know that?’ ” If we can create this transformation, then we have taken a giant leap toward real education.