The influence of research participation on undergraduates’ engagement in learning: The case of China and implications for higher education


 Presenter (s) Xi HONG, Fei GUO, Xi GAO, Hamish COATES; Institute of Education, Tsinghua University
Title The influence of research participation on undergraduates’ engagement in learning: The case of China and implications for higher education

Purpose of the paper

A growing body of research has explored undergraduates’ participate in research. Empirical studies have affirmed that research participation is a ‘high impact practice’ which can improve retention and academic performance (O’Donnell, 2015). There are signs that contributions by undergraduates also increase the outcomes of research itself (Hajdarpasic, 2015). To date, however, little research has focused on the implications of specific research activities on different facets of students’ educational engagements. Building on research being conducted as part of the China College Student Survey (CCSS), this paper reveals the influence of different research activities on student learning engagement. The paper contributes to research in this area by addressing two questions: First, what effects do different research activities have on Chinese undergraduates’ engagement? Second, what research activities play relatively significant roles in Chinese undergraduates’ engagement?

Theoretical framework

The input-environment-outcome (I-E-O) model was developed by Astin (1991, 1993) to analyze student development. The‘inputs’ refer to the ascribed qualities students initially bring before entering education programs. ‘Environment’ refers to the student’s actual experiences in education, and the ‘outcomes’ refer to the talents to be developed through education (Astin, 1991). This theory focus on the institution’s efforts to enhance students’ comprehensive development (Bitzer, 2005). Based on I-E-O model, this research tries to reveal the value of research participation on undergraduates’ engagement in education.

Research design and analytical methods

The research is articulated in four main parts. First, the topic is conceptually framed and unpacked with reference to existing global research and practice, and more specifically with respect to Chinese higher education. This framing targets the intersection of existing work on research communities, undergraduate engagement, and university reform. Second, drawing on data from the 2015-18 CCSS, the paper presents multivariate descriptive results regarding Chinese undergraduates’ research activity participation and engagement. These results reveal insights into practices and contexts and render foundations for subsequent explanatory modeling. Third, the paper reports results from propensity score matching (PSM) and other regression methods which were conducted to reveal generalisable patterns in research participation and the differential and potentially interactive value of such participation. Fourth, the paper analyses results in terms of existing research and practices, and seeks to develop structured insight into the nature and value of undergraduates’ participation in research activities.

Data sources

This research uses data from the 2015-18 China College Student Survey (CCSS) run by the Institute of Education Tsinghua University. Based on the theory of ‘institutional effect’ and ‘learning engagement’, CCSS focuses on the learning process, experience and outcomes of Chinese undergraduates. The sample has good representativeness through the random sampling annually according to students’ grade, discipline and gender. 2015-18 CCSS involved 329,498 students from 58 universities, including 12 ‘985 project’ universities, 13 ‘211 Project’ universities and 33 local institutions.


In closing, the paper synthesizes the conceptual and empirical analyses to draw broader conclusions about the topic and its significance to shape new futures for higher education. It makes recommendations for future research and practice which enrich insight into how universities can best engage undergraduates in ways that foster individual competence, reposition research in new socio-economic situations, and enhance the contribution of research processes and outcomes. These insights are important to enhance higher education in China and, given the scale of this system, to guiding broader global developments.

Significance of the study

In recent decades university research has grown well beyond the walls of the academy into a phenomenon which both underpins and is shaped by major socio-economic development. Research, in turn, has grown from activity conducted by walled-in elite specialists to something which engages many more people within universities and beyond, including undergraduates. Efforts to engage undergraduates in research seek to build future research talent, to build people’s understanding of research, and to build research productivity. More broadly, such efforts reflect important enlargement and diffusion of knowledge discovery into much broader and non-traditional communities.

“Xi HONG, PhD student at Institute of Education, Tsinghua University. Her main research fields are student development and higher education evaluation.
Fei GUO, assistant professor at Institute of Education, Tsinghua University. Her main research fields are higher education quality and student development.
Xi GAO, Master’s student at Institute of Education, Tsinghua University. Her main research fields are international admission system and higher education evaluation.
Hamish COATES, professor at Institute of Education, Tsinghua University. His main research field is higher education evaluation.”

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