Journal of Nursing Education

Major Article 

Building Undergraduate Nursing Students' Knowledge of the Research Process in Nursing

Heather Spence Laschinger, RN, PhD; Gail Johnson, RN, MScN; Rosemary Kohr, RN, MScN


This article describes a simple approach to teaching a nursing research course to undergraduate nursing students which was received with enthusiasm by both students and faculty. Through short answer progressive assignments throughout the semester involving students in the thinking processes required at each stage of the research process, student knowledge of the research process was progressively developed. Students chose a topic of personal interest for a proposed study and carried this topic through the various phases of the research process. Students positively evaluated this approach frequently commenting that the approach helped them to “think in different ways than before” and strongly recommended continuance of the approach in future course presentations.


This article describes a simple approach to teaching a nursing research course to undergraduate nursing students which was received with enthusiasm by both students and faculty. Through short answer progressive assignments throughout the semester involving students in the thinking processes required at each stage of the research process, student knowledge of the research process was progressively developed. Students chose a topic of personal interest for a proposed study and carried this topic through the various phases of the research process. Students positively evaluated this approach frequently commenting that the approach helped them to “think in different ways than before” and strongly recommended continuance of the approach in future course presentations.


Teaching nursing research in an undergraduate baccalaureate nursing program can be one of a professor's greatest challenges. How can a researcher's enthusiasm and excitement about conducting research in nursing be instilled in a group of doubting undergraduate nursing students who view research as the exclusive domain of nurse academics? In the past few decades, formal courses in nursing research have become common to undergraduate nursing programs. Price and Thomas (1979) observed that 96% of 205 baccalaureate nursing programs surveyed in the US required courses in nursing research. It is generally agreed that the focus at the baccalaureate level should be on developing consumers of research and encouraging students to think about the utilization potential of research results rather than producing “doers of research” (Price & Thomas, 1979). As nurse researchers gain higher profiles in clinical nursing settings, students are more likely to come in contact with clinical nursing research projects and gain a more positive attitude towards the process. However, it is probably safe to say that the research exposure of the average baccalaureate nursing student is minimal. This lack of exposure to role models probably contributes to the indifferent and often negative attitudes towards courses in nursing research found among undergraduate nursing students.

Evidence of this indifference towards nursing research courses among undergraduate students is documented in the literature. Nursing authors have shared their experiences in teaching nursing research to undergraduate students and described helpful strategies for presenting research content (Downs, 1980; Goshman, 1983; Shelley, 1983; Sweeney, 1984). The essence of most reports of this nature is that student involvement in the research process appears to foster more positive attitudes towards nursing research. This article will describe an approach used to present a formal nursing research course to 3rd-year baccalaureate nursing students based on the concept of active participation in learning. Structured assignments over the duration of the course were designed to progressively build understanding of the research process. Both qualitative and quantitative evaluation data will be discussed in relation to students' responses to this approach.


The nursing research course in this curriculum takes place in the first semester of the third year of a 4-year program in a combined class of generic and post-RN baccalaureate nursing students. The course involves 2 hours of class lecture time and 1 hour of tutorial per week per student. One doctorally-prepared professor and two teaching assistants enrolled in the Masters of Nursing program presented the course. A nursing research text common in undergraduate programs and targeted at developing consumers of research results was used.

At the beginning of the term, faculty's assumptions about the nature of the learning process were made explicit and faculty expectations of the students were discussed with the class. Consistent with the belief that learners should be involved in their learning experiences, students were given index cards and asked to write down their expectations for the course and of the faculty. Students were also asked to suggest which teaching strategies they would find helpful in learning about nursing research and to identify an area of nursing practice which they thought should be researched. This information was reviewed by the teaching faculty to “get a feel” for the class and its needs. Faculty obtained class pictures and made a conscious effort to learn students' names as soon as possible and to associate information from the cards with names and faces as a way of establishing a trusting learning environment. In an informal class discussion, students were given the rationale for the learning strategies selected for the course. Students needed reassurance that they would be evaluated using criteria reflective of their level of expertise in the research process and that the focus of the assignments in the course was to promote learning. Since assignments throughout the course represented 70% of the course grade, this reassurance was critical to establishing a positive learning environment.

Learning Strategies and Course Evaluation

An overview of the course assignments and their weightings is shown in the Table. Short answer progressive assignments and a critique on a research study were established as a means of formative and summative evaluation for the course. A short mid-term test and a final multiple choice exam were also part of the evaluative process but were deliberately weighted lower than the ongoing learning assignments. Much of students' anxiety is related to their prospective performance on heavily weighted exams at the end of the course. Therefore, it was felt that weighting course work throughout the semester in small increments towards a major proportion of the final grade, would lessen this anxiety and promote learning.

Formative and Summative Evaluation of Course


Formative and Summative Evaluation of Course

Progressive Short Answer Assignments

The short answer progressive assignments were designed to involve students in the thinking processes associated with each stage of the research process. Prior to each major unit of content, students were asked to read the chapter in their text related to the component of the research process scheduled for class discussion and complete a short (one page or less) instructor-directed assignment based on the reading. Students were asked to select a topic of interest to them which they would like to research and to use this topic as the basis for the ensuing assignments. The assignments were due on the day of class and used as a basis for discussion during class time. Faculty worked hard to provide feedback on the assignments as soon as possible to enable students to use the feedback in preparation for the next assignment.

To build confidence and start off at a more concrete level, the first assignment relating to ethical aspects of nursing research was to create a consent form which met the criteria for ethical protection of human subjects. A sample consent form was provided as a model and students had to include information pertinent to their chosen research topic on their consent form.

The second assignment was a brief statement of the research problem. Students were asked to briefly state why they felt the research topic was important to nursing, attempt to give evidence from their experience that nurses were concerned about this topic, describe briefly what had been done in the past to deal with this problem, and finally, indicate what aspect of the problem they would like to investigate. It should be noted that this problem statement was intended to get students to think about an area of concern from their practice and to try to justify its value as a researchable problem, not to have them develop a full-blown problem statement as would be required in a graduate program. A sample problem statement illustrating the level of expectation was also provided. Students commented that this assignment was one of the most difficult. Some students needed assistance in differentiating between nursing research problems and medical research problems.

The next assignment required students to generate three different research questions from their research problem. The objective was to illustrate how any given problem can be investigated in a variety of ways. Many students chose to generate questions at the three different levels of inquiry described by Brink and Wood (1983) if this was feasible for their topic. The fourth assignment involved locating two research articles in the recent nursing research literature which dealt with their research topic and summarize it briefly on an index or “bib card.” This assignment served two purposes: 1) exposing students to the nursing indexes, computerized data bases and research journals in the library; and 2) learning bibliographic format and the skill of summarizing key components of a research article in a useful reference system. Students were given a model “bib card” and a lecture from the librarian on the use of university library resources for research purposes supplemented information in the textbook.

To emphasize the importance of placing a research question within the context of a larger conceptual or theoretical nursing framework, students were then asked to locate a research article in which the research question was placed in a nursing conceptual framework, briefly summarize the findings and suggest how their own research question might be placed in the context of a nursing theoretical framework. Many students chose Roy's adaptation model since their curriculum is based on an adaptation model. Although students found this assignment difficult, many expressed the thought that they found this exposure to research relating to nursing theories very stimulating. It also highlighted the fact that research in this area is in its infancy and helped students differentiate between nursing and non-nursing theory.

The next assignment dealt with deciding on an appropriate way to design the study. Feedback from previous assignments guided students towards questions which could be investigated using one of the basic designs described in introductory nursing textbooks. The emphasis was on matching the design to the type of question selected. Most students selected correlational survey or comparison group designs. Once the design was selected, students were asked to identify the variables to be investigated and to indicate how they might operationalize these variables. Students were encouraged to use existing instrument compendiums in the reference section of the library when appropriate. Many students chose instruments identified in their earlier literature review assignment. Part of this assignment was to document reported reliability data on the instruments selected.

Finally, students had to suggest an appropriate sampling method for their project and explain how they might go about collecting data from their subjects.

Data analysis and interpretation and communication results were not addressed in these assignments. In a statistics course in the following semester taught by the same faculty, students are assigned a group project which involves creating a poster presentation of a proposed study. A simple data analysis plan is required on the poster in addition to other components of a proposed study. The concept of communicating research findings is experienced through a formal poster session of their projects which is attended by faculty and students in other years of the program. Thus, over the two courses students are taken through the steps of the research process at an introductory level, using a problem of their choice providing a sense of ownership.

The final assignment for the course was a critique of a research article using criteria outlined in their textbook and course content. Having gone through the process of building a researchable problem from question to data collection, students did not find the critiquing process foreign. Having thought through some of the potential problems of implementing their own proposed study, they tended to be more realistic in critiquing problems associated with the research report.

Evaluation of Learning Strategy

Students' subjective comments about this approach to learning about nursing research were positive. At first, they were reluctant to trust their abilities to apply readings “before taking it in class”. However, with rapid constructive feedback and positive reinforcement from faculty, students became more confident and trusting. They enjoyed the freedom to develop their own ideas and the opportunity to use their creativity. They appreciated the written and verbal feedback they received and the opportunity to re-do the assignments if they were totally off-base. Students commented that “writing out the assignments forced them to think in a different way than before” and helped them understand research article format better, especially with regard to the critique assignment. Finally, they noted that they were less anxious about their final exam knowing a large proportion of their final mark prior to the exam date.

An objective analysis of the results as demonstrated by significant positive correlations between scores on the progressive assignments and objective exam scores, assignments and critique scores, and critique and exam scores suggests that this strategy is educationally sound. When students were asked to rate the usefulness of the progressive assignment strategy as a method of learning about nursing research using a 15-item, 4-point Adjective Rating Scale, the mean score for this method was 3.11 suggesting that on average, students considered this a useful method. Means for learning by the lecture method (2.4) and by the computer-based learning package used in the tutorials (2.5) were lower, but also considered helpful ways of learning about nursing research suggesting that students find a variety of methods to be helpful to them.

Faculty also found this approach to be valuable. Students were familiar with the content in the text when they came to class and asked appropriate questions and were able to apply knowledge to research examples. Sharing their examples with the class helped other students clarify confusing content and provided a rich source of potential research projects to consider. Faculty also noticed that the writing skills of students improved over the semester. Allen, Bowers and Diekelmann (1989) suggest that writing is an effective way to develop thinking, a view shared by the authors and verified by many subjective comments from students in regard to this method.

Problems associated with this approach were related to the heavy time requirement for faculty to grade assignments and provide feedback quickly to students. Without the teaching assistants, this approach would be difficult given the characteristic workload of most nursing faculty. We estimated approximately 15 hours per week of marking for 100 students although this time decreased as the teaching assistants became more familiar with student research questions over the school term. Students often exceeded the one-page limit which added to marking time. Although the students commented that they found the workload heavy, they strongly recommended keeping the assignment format in the future.

In summary, the approach described in this article seems to be useful and valid for introducing nursing research to undergraduate nursing students. Both subjective and objective evaluations of the approach, were positive suggesting that active involvement of students in learning about nursing research is beneficial. By taking ownership for the development of a researchable question in nursing, students in this class gained an enthusiastic and involved attitude towards the research process in nursing.


  • Allen, D., Bowers, B. & Diekelmann, N. (1989). Writing to learn: A reconceptualization of thinking and writing in the nursing curriculum. Journal of Nursing Education, 28(1), 6–11.
  • Brink, P. & Wood, M. (1983). Basic steps in planning nursing research, from question to proposal. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Downs, F. (1980). Teaching nursing research: Strategies. Nurse Educator, January–February, 27–29. doi:10.1097/00006223-198001000-00012 [CrossRef]
  • Goshman, B. (1983) Strategies for teaching nursing research: Involving students in faculty research. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 5(3), 250–253. doi:10.1177/019394598300500327 [CrossRef]
  • Price, M. & Thomas, B. (1979). Strategies for teaching nursing research. A survey of research education in baccalaureate nursing programs. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 2(3), 327–331.
  • Sweeney, S.S. (1981). Strategies for teaching nursing research. Poster session for undergraduate students - A useful tool for learning and communicating nursing research. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 6(3), 356–358.

Formative and Summative Evaluation of Course

Grading Schedule for Research Course
Short Answer Progressive Assignments
Consent Form5%
Problem Statement10%
Research Questions5%
Literature Review (“bib” cards)10%
Conceptual Framework5%
Operationalization of Variables5%
Design of Study5%
Sample and Data Collection5%

Critique of a research report20%
Objective tests
Midterm test10%
Final exam20%


Heather Spence Laschinger, RN, PhD is Assistant Professor, Gail Johnson, RN, BScN, and Rosemary Kohr, RN, BScN are MScN Candidates, University of Western Ontario.

Address reprint requests to Heather K. Spence Laschinger, RN, PhD, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Nursing, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5C1.


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