Gaining a Glimpse Into Educational Research for Undergraduate Students

by Amanda Gamwo

The FE-R (First Experiences in Research) program provides a unique opportunity for University of Pittsburgh undergraduate/first year students to work with a faculty member on a research project across various subject areas. The student spends the spring semester working 5 to 10 hours week on the project and taking a one-to-two credit course on conducting research.

I chose to work on School of Education Associate Professor Amanda Godley's research on the effectiveness of peer feedback on writing in high schools. Although I am a natural science premedical major, I’ve always been interested in education and I wanted to know more about writing and technology. In our weekly meetings, we compared the quality of high school students’ peer feedback to their English teacher’s feedback.  We looked for feedback that was clear, specific, and offered suggestions for improvement. Through my work on the project, I learned how to code and analyze data, consider educational implications, and create a research poster.

The project strived to address the issue of whether peer feedback can be as good as teacher feedback. Many high school teachers limit the amount of writing they assign due to the time it takes to give feedback. If peer feedback is as helpful as teacher feedback, then teachers won’t have to give feedback on every writing assignment and can assign more writing. In fact, the findings of our study showed that students are capable of providing high quality feedback.

Through this project, a number of my previous misconceptions about research were clarified.

Misconception #1: The FER program is for students needing to complete research requirements for graduate school.
The First Experiences in Research program helps students attain valuable skills even if they aren’t interested in graduate school. At first, I was interested in the program to list on my resume for graduate school applications. However, I realized that the program had more to offer than checking off a box on my checklist. In the FER course, I learned useful research skills, such as how to write an elevator speech and abstract. The one-to-one meetings with my faculty mentor proved more rewarding. She was very collaborative and taught me how to use Excel to code data and how to find statistical significance in research. I had learned about statistical significance in a psychology course, but now I have seen this applied in actual research.

Misconception #2: Students should choose research projects in their major.
While it may be convenient to choose a research project that directly relates to your major, students can learn from research in other areas. I am planning to complete the natural sciences pre-med degree program. However, I chose this project partly because I believe education opens doors to opportunities, so it is important that high school students attain the writing level needed to move onto college and other professions. I had a lot of help with writing and reading in primary and secondary school. However, not everyone is as fortunate as me. I also realized that writing is an interdisciplinary skill that should be mastered regardless of one’s major.

Associate Professor Amanda Godley and student Amanda Gamwo collaborating on research.

Misconception #3: Research is focused a lot on “doing” rather than reading and writing.
When I envisioned research, my imagination turned more to the hands-on activities I would do rather than the critical thinking, writing, and reading aspects of research. Data coding was a large part of the research but I also needed to read related studies. In addition, I needed to write an abstract for the project and a research poster.

Misconception #4: Most research projects are on science and health issues.
Although it seems like a lot of the research we hear about focuses on science and health issues, I learned that many research projects aim to solve educational issues. In my research project, the educational issue was improving writing instruction for high school students. Our study helped to prove that students are capable of providing high quality feedback. The project may have been a step forward in convincing teachers to assign more writing activities, knowing that their feedback can be supplemented with feedback from students.

The FER experience helped me to re-familiarize myself with important elements of academic writing and Excel.  Now that I’ve gained experience doing educational research with Dr. Godley, I feel more confident in my ability to apply for research positions in science fields. I know the basic framework of what doing academic research entails, including weekly meetings, individual work, making a research poster, presenting the research, making an abstract, and giving an elevator speech. I now have the skills to more confidently contribute to a research position and to write about my research.

The First Experiences in Research (FE-R) program includes faculty research projects in the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities as early as the spring semester of the freshman year as a “gateway to more sophisticated, independent research.” The program culminates with a presentation of research findings at the FE-R Celebration of Research, which is open to the entire campus community.

To apply, FE-R accepts applicants each fall semester to implement research projects in the spring semester. For faculty mentors, the Office of Undergraduate Research solicits faculty researcher mentors for First Experiences in Research each summer through the early fall term. If you are interested in learning more about FE-R or submitting your research project to the First Experiences in Research program, email

AMANDA GAMWO is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in natural sciences.