Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Early Exposure to Undergraduate Research Positively Impacts Later Academic Performance

Bowman, N. A., and Holmes, J. M. 2018. “Getting Off to a Good Start? First-Year Undergraduate Research Experiences and Student Outcomes.” Higher Education.


The purpose of this study was to assess the impact of participation in undergraduate research experiences during the first year of college on many student success outcomes of interest, namely undergraduate grade point average, university satisfaction, intentions for graduate school, retention, and four-year graduation. The authors grounded their study by using George Kuh’s 2018 definition of undergraduate research experiences which “involve students with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions” (p. 10).

This study used methods that allowed the authors to draw conclusions about two questions: What is the impact of participation in undergraduate research experiences on these outcomes? Would these outcomes be achieved by students who did not participate in undergraduate research experiences? Essentially the method serves as a quasi-experimental strategy for accounting for selection effects by creating a control group within a survey research design. Through this method, the authors can explore more substantive relationships between participation in undergraduate research experiences and outcomes of interest since outcome achievement is more related to participation in the undergraduate research experiences than to students choosing to participate in the undergraduate research experience. Participating in undergraduate research during the first-year increases student satisfaction with college and fourth-year GPA but doesn’t affect persistence or intentions to go to graduate school.


The authors found that participating in first-year undergraduate research generally increased students’ academic performance in their fourth year of study and enhanced their satisfaction with college at the end of their first year. It’s possible that performing research only had a measurable effect on GPA at the end of four years of study because the skills developed by conducting undergraduate research are only called for once students begin the highly advanced coursework and independent research activities that characterize the later college years. Regarding the increase in satisfaction, it’s possible that undergraduate research exposes students to more frequent and close interactions with faculty members, and that students find these relationships to be fulfilling and supportive. This increase in satisfaction appears to be especially powerful for students of color. Alternatively, participating in research appeared to have no effects upon retention, graduation rates, or desire to pursue a graduate degree.


Get students involved in research early and often. The link between undergraduate research opportunities in the first-year and fourth-year grade point average is noteworthy, as higher college GPAs have been associated with higher earnings and better job placement. Of course, the mechanisms for understanding why undergraduate research experiences are effective remain underexplored, but hypothetically may involve closer connections to faculty, higher exchanges of information between peers, and more opportunities to collaborate—to name a few benefits.  If retention is the focus however, this one practice solution does not seem effective. Retention efforts, especially after COVID-19, must be part of a multi-year strategy designed to support students across various opportunities and modalities.


Nicholas Bowman is the Mary Louise Peterson Chair in Higher Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies at the University of Iowa.

Joshua Holmes is the director of institutional research and assessment at Suffolk University.


Kim, Y. K., and Sax, L. J. 2009. “Student–Faculty Interaction in Research Universities: Differences by Student Gender, Race, Social Class, and First-Generation Status.” Research in Higher Education, 50.5, 437–459.