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This issue of CDTL Brief on Undergraduate Research features some articles presented at a CDTL and USP workshop, ““Undergraduate Research” an oxymoron? Can undergraduates do research?” on November 2005.
January 2007, Vol. 10 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
ISM: 7 Rules of Successful Undergraduate Supervision
Dr Reuben Wong
Department of Political Science

Independent Study Modules (ISMs) and Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programmes (UROPs) in their original form were highly intensive, self-directed projects pursued by undergraduate students in University Scholars Programme (USP). With inputs and guidance from a supervisor (usually a lecturer with cognate interests/expertise in students' chosen field of research), many bright and highly-motivated students have done very promising research work that exposes and primes them for graduate work.

In the Department of Political Science, students normally choose a topic, approach a lecturer who has to agree to supervise him/her, and then submit an ISM paper of some 5,000 words at the end of one semester of research work.

However supervisors may already have several PhD, Master's and Honours students in addition to their own research, teaching and administrative responsibilities. Thus most supervisors are usually left with very little time for undergraduate research, and can typically take on no more than one or two ISM students per semester. In view of these constraints, I have found the following checklist useful in helping me decide whether to accept students who approach me to supervise their ISMs:

1. Choose Only Very Motivated Students

There is nothing worse than accepting an unmotivated student who wants to do an ISM only because it is a requirement. I usually ask potential students for as detailed a research proposition as possible. They should be able to at least identify a research question or puzzle that interests them and have some ideas of the leading arguments in their field of research.

2. Accept Only Do-able Topics

Some topics are just impossible to do within a semester (the usual duration of an ISM in the FASS, although other faculties may have topics that stretch over a full academic year). Thus, the lecturer may have to advise students to trim down their research objectives or scope of work.

3. Meet Students for a Getting-to-Know-You Interview

This is an important means of getting an idea-after the initial round of emails (if approached by a student one does not know)-of students' time and academic goals/constraints.

4. Group Students

If a lecturer is approached by more than one student and there are students with similar research interests, it is often feasible and productive to group these students so that they can meet together with the lecturer. I did this once with a student who was doing research on the integration of Turks in Germany, and another who was working on the position of France in the EU after the "No" result on the European Constitutional referendum in 2005. Both students found it meaningful and productive to meet me together and even shared some of their research findings and readings between themselves. It was a win-win situation for all.

5. Postpone if Necessary

There may be some semesters where the lecturer is burdened with more responsibilities than he/she can handle. In such cases, it would be wise to suggest to students other supervisors whom they could approach, or postpone the project to another term. It is better to be able to devote quality time and attention to students than to take on too many ISM projects only to give them all half-hearted attention.

6. Draft Writing

Unlike the normal practice of producing only one term paper at the end of the semester in some faculties, I have found it useful to make students prepare short (1-2-page) outlines (e.g. list of references) before they embark on actual research, and then to produce at least one draft of their paper before submitting the finalised product. This not only ensures that students are familiar with important scholarship in the field, but also helps them make informed and critical decisions about which lines they would like to pursue in graduate research, and produce original and creative work.

7. Question Thoroughly

In humanities and social sciences at least, much of students' learning experience lies in working through questions of methodology and epistemology that the supervisor should be posing as the project/essay develops. Such training would prepare undergraduate students for research work at a higher level (e.g. Honours, Master's and PhD).


The ISM is an invaluable undergraduate research training programme. In supervising undergraduate research, supervisors can benefit from the exposure to bright and potential Honours and postgraduate students particularly if their research interest coincides with the supervisors'.

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Is Undergraduate Research an Oxymoron? Can Undergraduates do Research? A Perspective from the Faculty of Science
ISM: 7 Rules of Successful Undergraduate Supervision