Saturday, 26 March 2016

Celebrating student research

There are number of problems in getting students to engage with research: it can be quite difficult for first year students in particular (but not first years exclusively!) to "get" the point of research; it can be a challenge for them to design their own research projects and it is even more challenging for them to read academic research articles. Nonetheless, I think it is a nettle worth grasping for all sorts of reasons - and as early as possible in the undergraduate life-cycle.

This year I have been engaged in a year long project trying out a new way (for me) of encouraging first year students to engage with research - one that is to culminate in a few weeks' time (18 April 2016) with an undergraduate research conference.

The process began back in the first term with an open door conversation between first and second year students on the significance of research in their studies and the sharing of ideas about possible research themes. I then invited library and learning support staff and a couple of early career researchers to come in to my classes and teach basic skills. I also provided an introduction to research methodologies, methods and ethics, and devised various activities around constructing surveys and interview questions.

Since Christmas the students have been working in small groups to investigate a topic of their own choosing - firstly outlining this in a five minute presentation to the rest of the cohort, and secondly, designing a research poster which has to include a literature review and some primary research of their own (mainly based on surveys of their fellow students).

On the whole - judging from the results so far - the students seem to have enjoyed this activity and are certainly showing evidence of beginning to "get" research. Some of the primary research has been creative: one group surveyed a small group of social work lecturers to get a professional's eye-view of child protection; others sent out survey invitations via the course Facebook group. Similarly, the approach to poster design has allowed many to show their artistic and technical flair with a number using Prezi, and many incorporating really eye catching visuals.

The skills the students acquire during this process are multiple: information searching; evaluation of literature and research results; managing group work; presentation of information in graphical form; writing concisely; citation and referencing; finding, downloading, inserting and editing copyright free images; communicating ideas verbally and in public..... and probably lots more.

And yes - if you are thinking this all sounds like really hard work - it is. Students constantly complain to me that the whole business of working in groups is painful (and I empathise to some extent: it's damned painful for me sorting out squabbles and no-shows!); they extol the virtues of lecturers who simply give them handouts and essay questions to turn in at the year end; I get dispirited by the rubbish module evaluation results I get as a result ... and on top of all that I have a bloomin' conference to organise! I have to keep telling myself  - and them - that it will all be worth it in the end: and now the posters are being submitted for marking - you know what? I almost believe it is!

So the conference will be a chance for the students to show off all their hard work: students from local school and colleges will make up the audience. There will be short, themed discussions; presentations from post graduate researchers and final year students; and I am hoping the course budget will stretch to tea and cake .....

I promise there will be a full report here on my blog, with photos and examples of students' work, just as soon as I have recovered! In the meantime - here's a short video I created for the schools and colleges we have invited to participate, explaining how to create a research poster.