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?