Learning outcomes for research skills

tl:dr: I’d love some feedback on the SEEC approach with students:

  • S: Students should see that all ideas are embedded in a complex web of ideas
  • E: Students should explore that web when dealing with an idea
  • E: Students should evaluate the connections to the idea, looking at issues like authority, history, etc.
  • C: Students should contribute to the web when dealing with ideas.

One of the hats I wear these days is “Director of the First Year Seminar” at my school. This year we’ve been looking at nearly every aspect of our undergraduate curriculum with an eye toward student success and retention. The first year seminar (FYSEM) program is a big piece of that, at least from my perspective. Last year we streamlined the learning outcomes for the program from 17 down to 3. If you were to look at the list of the 17 you’d likely nod your head to them, but they were unwieldy from a training perspective, especially for new faculty to the program. So now we’re at three and it’s been fun to work with the faculty and staff to really think about them all from a student success and retention framework.

In this post I’d like to talk about what we’ve been up to for the learning outcome that’s about students doing a scholarly or artistic research project. We did a lot around it this past fall, but I’m hoping to get some feedback about a new paradigm we’ve come up with to place fysem in the larger picture of the entire undergraduate curriculum for this issue. We call it SEEC (see the acronym spelled out at the top of the post).


We want our students to understand that all ideas are connected to other ideas. Even thoughts off the top of our heads are in the complex web of ideas that exist. We want students to realize that research isn’t just formal research projects but rather that it’s all a matter of degrees when swimming in the sea of connections around an idea.

Critical thinking is key here. One of my colleagues asks her students in class if they’ve engaged in critical thinking that day. Sometimes they shrug but she reminds them that just getting dressed in the morning involves critical thinking. They had to determine how their clothes would interplay with the weather, the people they’d see, and their laundry schedule. While admittedly they weren’t overly explicit about it, they were drawing and exploring many connections around that single task. Similarly we want students to see that every idea has connections to other ideas in myriads of ways.

As students dive into a field of study, we want them to develop tools that help them see whole new layers of connections. Lots more of that below.


Once students start to see and seek out the connections, we want them to explore them. What types of connections exist? What tools or skills do you need to even see the various types? Are any contradictory? Are any tangential? Are any connected to whole other ways of thinking that you’ve studied?

As they continue to pursue a field of study, the students not only see whole new levels of connections, but learn how to examine the connections. In physics I think about the various models we want students to think about: the momentum principle, conservation theorems, wave/particle duality. I want my students to have those approaches handy when they explore a new idea in their physical lives.

At the FYSEM level we want students to be able to use library research tools to explore connections and to hone skills that their future field of study will lean on and further refine.


Seeing connections leads quickly to evaluating those connections. Trimming them to refine an argument. Ranking them on scales including authority, history, appropriateness, meta steps, etc. Seeing and exploring can get students lost in the forest, collecting trees instead of critically evaluating the idea. Evaluation tools can help students craft critical arguments, especially from different viewpoints.

At the FYSEM level this is strongly connected to source evaluation that the librarians help our students with. We want, for example, our students’ annotated bibliographies to be deep, rich, and most of all useful. Evaluating sources and making clear their connection to an idea that a student is researching is vital in not getting lost in the forest.

As students get deeper into their field of study they will see and explore whole new layers of connections for an idea. They need to be able to evaluate those connections using tools developed in their field. In physics this could be connected to subtleties of energy use/flow/conservation, for example. As students think about more ways that energy can be stored, they get a deeper understanding about things like inelastic collisions, for example.


This one is vital to our plan. We want students to add to the web of connections around an idea. Even something off the top of their head should be placed in the web and appropriately connected. Students should be able to draw new connections, question existing connections, contribute whole new nodes to the web.

Another hat I wear in the dean’s office is speechifying for prospective students and parents. I’ve been heard many times talking about how at our institution we want students to be practitioners while they’re still with us. We don’t want to simply give them tools/knowledge in the hopes that they’ll be practitioners after they graduate, rather we want them to put those things into practice with us. This often gets a decent reaction from parents, but recently we’ve been having conversations internally about whether that’s an appropriate goal. While I’m ok calling my students physicists while they’re working with me, my psychology colleagues struggle with calling their students psychologists, both from the perspective of societal titles and from the idea that perhaps undergraduate majors don’t yet have the skills/tools/knowledge to own that title. I think this notion of students “contributing” to the web of ideas is likely more palatable to everyone.

At the FYSEM level this would likely get the least attention, as S, E, and E would get the primary work. However, our hope is that work will help our students realize that everything they’ve been seeing, exploring, and evaluating is produced by human thought and interaction and that they are expected to do the same.

The students’ field of study is where this will happen, particularly at the capstone level. Armed with the tools they need to interrogate the web of connections around ideas, they’ll be able to produce new ideas that are carefully embedded in the web. They’ll do collaborative research with my faculty colleagues, honoring the great meme: “if we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”

So, what do you think? Can you help me refine this? Here are some starter comments and questions for you:

  • How do you pronounce “SEEC?”
  • I like this, but I think it needs more. Here’s a new letter for you . . .
  • I don’t like this because it has too much, here’s one fewer letter for you . . .
  • Why do you think FYSEM won’t concentrate on “Contribute?” It seems like a great place to do it. Here’s a few ideas how . . .
  • Why do you use the big first letter option in WordPress? I think it looks dumb.
  • This is exactly what my school does, thief. We call it _____, though, loser.
  • I teach _____ and this would work great for grounding the work that my students do. Here are some ways I think about that . . .
  • I teach _____ and this does not at all reflect what my students do. Please don’t push this on us!
  • What school do you teach at? I want to encourage my kid to go there.
  • What school do you teach at? I want to discourage my kid from even thinking about going there.
  • They let you direct the FYSEM program? That’s awesome, I think you bring the following great qualities to that . . .
  • They asked you to direct the FYSEM program? What were they thinking?!
  • I never see you wearing hats, stop lying.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in dean, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Learning outcomes for research skills

  1. filmclass says:

    I like this.

    Couple thoughts:

    —I get hung up on “see.” I wonder about the way that really nice simple verb is undercooked for what we’re trying to do here — seeing seems a bit less engaged than “paying attention,” for instance. Observe, reflect, unpack assumptions shaping what and how we see. ?

    — I am firmly in the “yes, of course contribute, even in FY classes” camp.

    —missing letter: another C, for communicate? It is distinct from contribute, as you are laying that out — and factors in more about audiences, purposes?

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      so OEECC then? I’m intrigued by “communicate.” Could that be folded into contribute, I wonder? Do I just want it to fold in to keep the numbers down? Maybe.

      I also agree on the undercooked “see” verb. It does seem a little too passive.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    filmclass took mine! I didn’t think that “see” was quite right, and I was wondering about what the Contributions look like. Where do these Contributions live? How are they made? Does uttering a contribution in class “count?”

  3. Mike Reynolds says:

    If we follow bretbenesh’s point, and your thoughts Andy, I agree: we could spell out “contribute” in ways that address the continuum of ways to contribute, and structure in “communication” (and audience, purpose as a way to inform and evaluate the nature of effective contributions).

  4. Pingback: Talking to parents of admitted students | SuperFly Physics

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