Under-graduate baggage?

This guest post was written by Prof Denise Cuthbert, the Dean of the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University (and my manager).

In our office we make time to have extended chats about the difficulties students encounter in doing research and how we can help. After one such chat, Denise sent me an article she wrote with Amy Dobson and Kate Cregan for “Undergraduate Research News” last November based on some prior research she had done.

I asked her if I could republish a modified version of the article here as it asks an important question: how does undergraduate education affect the transition to research and researching? I hope you enjoy this post and the questions it raises.

For a couple of years I helped to run a course called “Contemporary Issues in Sociological Research” which was designed to provide an ‘authentic’ research experience for third-year undergraduate students in the social sciences. While we had no doubt the unit offered a valuable and even transformative experience for the majority of students who completed, there were some real challenges to teaching it. Some of the brightest students had difficulties in making the transition from one mode of learning (course work) to another (research).

The students who enrolled were inured to highly regimented coursework units, with prescribed readings and circumscribed tasks set for each week of the semester. By contrast our research curriculum was set only in skeleton terms; the ‘content’ was to be largely to be generated by the students and there was a slender reading list. Some students, unable to cope with being handed this responsibility for their own learning, withdrew almost immediately. Several of these students confessed to being attracted to the unit precisely because the prescribed readings were minimal. On discovering that readings needed to be generated by them related to the specific work they were to do in the unit, their response was to walk.

A high degree of self-selection in (and out) of a unit of this kind is to be expected. Those that remained in the course were the best and the brightest, but they still struggled in these uncharted research waters. Notwithstanding their enthusiasm and excitement at doing ‘real’ research (as distinct, in their words, from the sort of research they had done in other units, including a compulsory methods unit), the sense of uncertainty, even danger generated both positive and negative responses. Clearly this transition to another mode of learning was deeply unsettling for even very competent students, despite their clear abilities to think and write at a high level.

We wondered: was the discomfort and inability to cope well with uncertainty a result of the kind of student being produced in undergraduate programs, both in the social sciences and humanities and perhaps elsewhere in the contemporary University? Does the structure of undergraduate programs inhibit students from acquiring the skills they need to become a researcher later on?

Over the last couple of decades Australian higher education has been audited and evaluated by the government with increasing fevour, all in the name of improving quality and avoiding risk. The upshot of this is that undergraduate coursework is much more proscribed and certain than it used to be. Assignments are set with clear expectations and criteria for assessment; reading lists are often exhaustive, reducing the need for students to search for their own literature.

Research degree study is profoundly different from this safe, walled undergraduate garden. You are largely responsible for your own learning. You need to make decisions about what to read and how to spend your time. Your supervisor is there to help you, but they cannot always anticipate your problems; nor can they reliably shield you from them when they occur.

There may be very good quality assurance reasons for the high level of prescription required at undergraduate levels (which looks set to increase under the rigours of the Australian Qualifications Framework). However, when educating to produce research outcomes and future researchers, real questions need to be asked as to whether this approach to undergraduate education fosters the capacities for risk and uncertainty entailed in good research.

It is well documented that getting good marks in coursework programs is not in all cases a predictor of success in research programs. The resilience, creativity and inventiveness required in researchers is more likely to be developed through working in business, industry and the professions. These qualities are harder and harder to foster in the highly controlled world of undergraduate coursework programs.

Perhaps we need to stop trying to straight jacket undergraduate courses into predictable formats, with predictable outcomes and predictable learning objectives. It is possible that we actually underestimate what undergraduate students are capable of. As one of our interviewees commented, once she overcame her initial fears and anxieties about what was being asked of her, our course generated the kind of excitement that she came to university to experience, but found wanting in her other undergraduate studies: ’This is what university should have been like from the start.”

If you are reading this blog you are probably teaching now, or have taught undergraduates at some point in the past. When you graduate you may well become a full time teaching academic. So – what do you think? Do some people start a research career with undesirable ‘undergraduate baggage’? What can we do to help people make the transition to researching from coursework?

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20 thoughts on “Under-graduate baggage?

  1. Judy Redman says:

    In medicine, nursing and some of the ‘harder’ sciences, there is a growing enthusiasm for Problem Based Learning (PBL), Enquiry/Inquiry Based Learning (E/IBL) or Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). They are all very similar and I’m not on top of the subtle differences, but basically, they trust students to find out information for themselves rather than being told everything they need to know by a lecturer. The evaluation suggests that while they don’t actually learn *more* than they would in more traditional forms of learning, they learn as much as they do in traditional forms, they enjoy it more and develop skills which enable them to find information for themselves in the future. One of the big hurdles is convincing academics that students can be trusted to do this kind of thing for themselves, but it seems to work with nursing students, who are traditionally less academically inclined than the med students. There’s quite a bit of information about all three of these methods available electronically. I should also have a bibliography from a research project I got paid to do last year if you’re interested. 🙂

  2. Kathryn Daley (@Kat_Daley) says:

    This is a real dilemma. My undergrad was in psych, where every single course has a research component. At the time, we were all like, ‘We don’t want to be reserachers, we want to be psychologists – why are we learning this stuff? I don’t care about regression analyses – tell me how to work with clients!’. Evidently, I switched career choices and now appreciate these research skills.

    I was especially appreciative when I started Honours in Social Science. The other students in my compulsory methods course who had done an undergrad in the humanities were having to learn what a literature review was as well as the basics of sampling. ‘How can you think a sample is representative if you only ask students in Arts degrees?’, ‘How have you been lucky enough to have NEVER suffered through the boredom of writing a lit review?’ I thought to myself while I was learning that writing in the third person is totally rubbish and unwelcome anywhere except psychology.

    I didn’t realise that a degree in straight humanities meant all essays, no lab reports. This does not provide a good foundation for an Honours year where you have minimal time to prepare a sound research propsal, let alone have to learn what research actually is, first. Some students avoided this hurdle and wrote a long essay for their Honours thesis. Fortunately I had the whole year to improve my writing skills (i.e. learn how to write all over again).

    Jump to the present day, as a teacher in undergraduate humanities courses, my students are given very prescriptive assessments, where criteria are spelled out explicitly and we penalise them if they deviate from it – ‘You did not follow the criteria as specified in the course guide’, I write each semester. Given this, how can we then give undergraduates a single methods course and say, ‘I’ll tell you the specifics of your assessment once you’ve come up with research ideas’, and expect them to feel confident (or competent) at having a go? In every other course it’s all about avoiding their own ideas and paraphrasing other people’s.

    As a PhD student, it’s bleedingly obvious that something needs to be done. The peers who I see struggle the most with the PhD experience are those who did exceptionally well in undergraduate coursework – where what was required was made so explicit that to do well meant lots of hard work rather than lots of original (or critical) thought. These grades have given them a PhD scholarship, but without anyone assessing their research capabilities. So with scholarship in hand, and a heavy sense of expectation on their high-achieving shoulders, this student is expected, through some process of osmosis, I assume, to know the research process and to feel competent enough to execute it at a doctoral level.

    Gosh it’s no wonder so many students are half way through their candidature having a breakdown about their research (or lack thereof …).

  3. Kirsty says:

    Excellent post. I went straight from my undergraduate degree into an MPhil, with the intention of progressing to the PhD on completion. Nearly a decade later I am only just embarking on the planned PhD. I couldn’t cope with the MPhil (it took 3 years to complete, rather than 1). Although I had written 2 x 10000 word dissertations as part of my undergraduate degree I couldn’t believe the amount of reading needed to complete a 40000 word thesis. I’m now able to go into the PhD with my eyes open. I know exactly what is required in terms of self motivation, reading and time management. I still haven’t worked out how to balance it all though.

  4. El says:

    Is this a recent thing? I did my undergrad 20 years ago and even though it was in music performance, most of our musicology subjects involved devising our own research question and chasing up the literature ourselves. The funny thing is that the one text book that we were never allowed to reference because it was considered the book equivalent of Wikipedia is now the musicology text that everyone sets! I recently tried to set an assignment that was very similar to the ones that I was given and the class had a collective melt down!

    I wonder if teaching the same sorts of research skills but taking them out of the scary essay format might be a way to make acquiring early research skills in the humanities less terrifying? For instance in my field I could set students to write a set of program notes on a recorded performance of their choice that illustrates an aspect of the course (many program notes are extensively researched and referenced). They would need to find their own way of approaching the performance and find lit to support this? Less scary but still effective? I haven’t had the courage to try it yet.

  5. M-H says:

    I’m not sure why academics don’t think about the gradations from first year to final year undergrad. Sure, first-year students are just getting used to ‘the way we do things’ at Uni, but by third year they should be undertaking some research tasks. Are other Unis bringing in ‘capstone’ subjects for final-year students? The idea of these is that they will teach at least some research skills in the discipline the student is majoring in.

    Also, what is meant by ‘research’ can be very different it different disciplines. In Literature, you learn to read and to deconstruct text a certain way. This is taught from first year, although it may not be made explicit until later. In History you learn to find and select sources and assemble them to tell a story. You don’t need to know regression analysis to do a PhD in many subjects, Kat, and there wouldn’t be any point in learning how to do it. I have two Masters degrees, one in English and one in Womens Studies (both of which were textual analysis with a bit of history), and I’m writing an ethnographic study in Education for my PhD, and there’s been no stats in any of these. 🙂 I wouldn’t know a regression analysis if it bit me.

    • Kathryn Daley (@Kat_Daley) says:

      Nor do you want to know how to do a regression analysis – I’ve never used it either! … And given that most psych undergrads aren’t going to become researchers, I still think the heavy emphasis on research methods is of dubious relevance. Parts of it just happened to come in handy for me!

    • Ben Kraal says:

      As a Research Fellow, I have very little teaching contact. What contact I do have is with final year industrial design students in their “capstone” research subject. They have to write about 20,000 words, learn to read academic papers, learn to search the library, etc. For the majority of the class, these are their least-used (or what _they_ regard as their least-used) skills after 3 years of very focussed Design training.

      But we to turn out more than a few students at the end of the year who can string together a sentence, read an academic paper and do the basics of credible design research.

  6. TokenLefty says:

    I once met a final year engineering student who boasted that he had never visited the library. You can indeed complete without a BE without visiting the library. This has to change!

    • M-H says:

      You can easily complete a degree without physically visiting a library, because the library is now available to you wherever you are. All recommended readings (including book chapters) are available to students online. All journal articles that a student would be reading are available online. Up until now, you have had to visit the library if you wanted to borrow a physical book; soon, if not now, you can access that book online.

      Most students use the libraries as places to work rather than as places to physically get information from. That’s changing too, as more and more areas across campuses are given this function, complete with places to plug in the laptop and access the net.

      Libraries ain’t what they were!

  7. Victoria Sublette says:

    I graduated cum laude with a BA from the US, and had never heard of a “literature review” (isn’t that the introduction?) and found myself pursuing a Masters in Australia with a very steep learning curve.

    Now that I’m a PhD student, I would have to agree with many of these posts that I was taught to comply more than to consider.

    Today, when my supervisors ask what my conclusions are about some of my research, my hair still stands up on my neck, as I am awkward with the transition from answering questions to making conclusions.

    What we need in the undergraduate programs are courses that incorporate literature reviews, database searching skills, and basically how to think academically. What can we say? What are we never supposed to say? How do we put forth an argument or a conclusion?

    These are the skills I wish I had learned earlier.

  8. Chris Griffiths says:

    You wrote:

    “The upshot of this is that undergraduate coursework is much more proscribed and certain than it used to be.”

    The verb ‘proscribe’ means to condemn or prohibit. Judging from the context, it is possible you meant ‘circumscribed’, although this would create an unwelcome alliteration with ‘certain’.


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