First Advisor

Erin E. Shortlidge

Term of Graduation

Summer 2021

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biology







Physical Description

1 online resource (xv, 288 pages)


Evidence of positive student outcomes from course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) has sparked implementation of CUREs in introductory biology laboratory courses, as one approach to boosting student engagement in research. In a CURE, students collaborate with other students and instructors on a research project, where they conduct novel scientific research that has relevance to a local or scientific community. However, previous research rarely considers that graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) often teach introductory labs. The classroom role of GTAs expands in a CURE--they no longer need to simply teach a lab class, but also to serve as research mentors. GTAs, who may be novice researchers and/or teachers, likely vary in their interest and capacity for teaching a CURE, which could impact their students' experiences. In this work, we explore undergraduate student experiences in a CURE, the barriers that GTAs face in learning to adopt evidence-based teaching practices, and the challenges and impacts of utilizing GTAs as CURE instructors.

We first aimed to identify the elements of a CURE that influence students' perceptions that they are engaging in an authentic research experience. Through analyzing written reflections collected throughout a CURE, we learned that experiencing failure, in conjunction with perceiving the CURE design element of broadly relevant novel discovery, can be a powerful and productive experience that contributes to student perceptions of engaging in real scientific research. CURE instructors should therefore carefully facilitate student perceptions and experiences with failure and relevant discovery.

We then explored how graduate students adopt evidence-based teaching practices in general. Through interviews, we learned that many biology graduate students place high value on evidence-based teaching. However, some struggle to adopt evidence-based practices into their teaching, due to barriers such as training, limited autonomy in the classroom, and perceptions that teaching is not valued within their graduate studies.

To explore the impacts of GTA-taught CUREs, we designed a case study at a research-intensive institution, where GTAs teach CURE lab sections in the introductory biology curriculum. We used Expectancy-Value Theory, Self-Determination Theory, and the framework of essential design elements of a CURE to guide our approach to both data collection and analysis. During a single term, we: 1) interviewed GTAs and a selection of their students; 2) conducted in-class student focus groups; 3) administered multiple surveys, including both open-ended questions and the Laboratory Course Assessment Survey to measure perceptions of participating in essential CURE elements; and 4) asked students to complete a worksheet regarding their perceptions of the lab objectives that their GTAs emphasized. Teams of researchers developed codebooks to systematically analyze interview, focus group, and open-ended survey data.

We found high variability among GTAs, both in their value and perceptions of their role as a CURE instructor, and in the experiences of their students. From interview data with GTAs, we established three profiles to describe GTA perceptions of their role as CURE instructors: "Student Supporters," "Research Mentors," and "Content Deliverers." Most of the GTAs perceived that their role in the class should be to both support their student's affective needs in the classroom ("Student Supporter") and to develop their student's autonomy and competency as researchers ("Research Mentors"). However, some GTAs did not describe balancing these roles.

In class-wide focus groups, students of different GTAs described differences in their classroom environment: while some GTA's students reported that their GTA was highly capable in creating a positive and supportive learning environment, others reported that their GTA created a negative and unsupportive lab environment. Students who described supportive environments also reported experiencing more of the essential CURE elements, such as collaboration, iteration, and recognizing the relevant discovery aspects of their work. Students reported GTA-driven differences in the objectives that were emphasized in their labs, and GTAs also impacted student perceptions of whether their institution implemented CUREs for student-centered or non-student-centered purposes.

We further explored the mechanics of how a GTA's support impacts students' experience in the classroom through interviews with students. Students who perceived that their GTA was unsupportive of students' competency, autonomy, and relatedness (or sense of belonging) in the classroom were less likely to experience high autonomous motivation in the CURE. Autonomous motivation also appeared to be positively related to perceptions of experiencing essential CURE elements.

Our case study revealed differences in GTA's conceptions of their role in the classroom and patterns in the experiences of their students, such that students of some GTAs experienced high support and a positive classroom environment, which fostered student motivation and perceptions of engagement with essential elements of the CURE. However, students of other GTAs did not receive this support. Therefore, we may not be offering students equitable opportunities to engage with research through GTA-taught CUREs, depending on the capacity of individual GTAs to support their students and facilitate essential design elements in the CURE.


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