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Characteristics of psychology students who serve as research assistants.

Undergraduate students who engage in research opportunities beyond the classroom (i.e., laboratory work) tend to have higher grade point averages, graduation rates, retention rates, and rates of acceptance and enrollment into graduate programs (Boyd & Wesemann, 2009). Our university's Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Program (URCA) provides undergraduate students the opportunity to get involved in such research. The primary goals of this program are to help students develop the knowledge and skills that professionals in their chosen fields require and to make students more competitive in the job market or for graduate education. The URCA program has two levels of participation, Associates and Assistants; this project centers on the URCA Assistant program.

In the URCA Assistant Program, undergraduates at any grade level work on faculty-led projects for one semester; this is designed to provide an introductory experience. Each semester, faculty apply to become an Assistant mentor and the most competitive 80 are accepted. Students then apply directly to these faculty members who have the final decision on which students are chosen. Each faculty member is allotted one $ 1,000 stipend to give to an assistant, and each semester many students serve as unpaid, volunteer assistants. In our Psychology department, it is typical for participating faculty to have, on average, 4 URCA Assistants per semester, only one of whom receives the stipend. All Psychology URCA Assistant participants are strongly encouraged to take this experience for course credit through our Independent Studies course option.

The URCA program is available across all disciplines on campus. However, students and faculty in the Psychology Department are consistently accepted into the program at a higher rate than nearly any other discipline (behind Biological Sciences). Research Assistants in the Psychology Department engage in a variety of tasks, but commonly assist faculty with literature reviews, experimental design, 1RB submission, data collection, entry and analysis, and summarizing results in both written and oral presentations. Many are included as co-authors on conference presentations and occasionally these students are listed as co-authors on publications. Faculty mentors not only guide their Assistants through the research process, but also serve as informal advisors on such issues as career paths, graduate school, and professionalism in the field.

The purpose of this study was to determine whether Senior Psychology students who had gained experience as URCA Assistants were distinguishable from those who had not in terms of psychology knowledge, critical thinking, writing, and technology skills.



We gathered data on 229 Senior Psychology students from a mid-sized, Midwestern public university between Fall 2010-Spring 2012 (4 semesters). For each, we recorded a) basic demographic information, b) scores on the mandatory Senior Exit Exam, c) self-rated knowledge of SPSS and PowerPoint, and d) participation in the URCA program. Eighty-three students (36%) had participated in URCA. The sample was predominately female (78%) and Caucasian (83%) with a mean age of 24.16 years.


The Senior Exit Exam was developed by faculty in our department to assess knowledge gained in our courses, across our Psychology curriculum. The multiple-choice questions were organized into several sections: Career Knowledge (12 questions about careers, and career preparation, based on the content taught in our required Careers in Psychology course), Statistics/Methods Knowledge (26 questions on psychological statistics and research methods from our required 2-semester course sequence), Core Knowledge (57 questions from the required content courses in our curriculum (Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, and a developmental course)), Critical Thinking in Psychology (10 items modified from Lawson, 1999), and Writing for Psychology (10 items created to assess knowledge of good writing skills). Two additional items yielded self-ratings of Technology Skills (ratings of SPSS and PowerPoint on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale).


A series of independent-samples t-tests were conducted to investigate differences between students who had URCA experiences and those who did not. There were no significant age or gender differences between the two groups. However, the URCA group had significantly better performance on the tests of core, career, and statistics/methods knowledge and on the measures of critical thinking and writing in psychology (all p < .05). Please see Figure 1. URCA students also rated their knowledge of SPSS, but not of PowerPoint, significantly higher than non-URCA students (p < .05). Please see Figure 2. See Table 1 for descriptive statistics across the entire sample.


Students are often encouraged to seek research experience in faculty labs during their undergraduate education in Psychology. While positive effects related to participating in undergraduate research have been widely documented, (e.g., Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007), less is known about the outcomes for Psychology students in particular. Our results suggest that students who participated in at least one semester of laboratory-based research work have significantly better outcomes, in terms of discipline-specific knowledge and self-rated SPSS skills, than students who did not. Work in a research lab exposes students to all areas measured by the Senior Exit Exam, so it may be that experience in a lab leads to enhanced outcomes among Psychology majors.

However, because of the non-experimental nature of this study, we cannot conclude that experience as an undergraduate RA has a causal influence. Instead, self-selection biases may be at play. Future work could seek to disentangle these effects by controlling for measures of cognitive ability, GPA, and motivation.


Boyd, M. K., & Wescmann, J. L. (Eds.). (2009). Broadening participation in undergraduate research. Washington DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.

Lawson, T. J. (1999). Assessing psychological critical thinking as a learning outcome for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 207-209.

Russell, S.H., Hancock, M.P., & McCullough, J. (2007). Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316, 548-549.



Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Caption: Figure 1. Performance across curricular variables by research assistant status.

Caption: Figure 2. Self-ratings of technology skills by research assistant status.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics across the Entire Sample

Measure                                       Mean   SD    Min    Max

Careers Knowledge (proportion correct)        .78    .15   .25    1.00
Core Knowledge (proportion correct)           .71    .11   .29    .95
Statistics/Methods Knowledge                  .74    .12   .19    1.00
  (proportion correct)
Critical Thinking (proportion correct)        .69    .20   .10    1.00
Writing in Psychology (proportion correct)    .59    .17   .20    1.00
SPSS Self-ratings (1-5)                       3.91   .69   1.00   5.00
PowerPoint self-ratings (1-5)                 4.69   .56   2.00   5.00
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Author:Pawlow, Laura A.; Meinz, Elizabeth J.
Publication:College Student Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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