Monday, 15 June 2020

Students who can't make decisions

Sometimes I get students who just absolutely doesn't get what a research project is. They dither around the edges, and can't seem to find a way into their project. It is like they are blocked right from beginning the project, and cannot make a decision about where to start.

They seem unable to make decisions, and therefore derail themselves, because a research project is all about decisions; every step of the way. Decisions about scope, about secondary data, about literature, about definitions, about methodology, about methods, about participants, about data collection processes, about data collection questions, about analysis, about writing styles, about planning, about communicating and about argument... ad infinitum. They appear overwhelmed by having to create a project of their own. Some need to be 'told' what to do; that without explicit and instruction, they cease to make progress.

While I provide plenty of information about processes, some students seem to remain stuck, unable to take even the first steps. As a supervisor, I will work with them, and at the end of each meeting, I will think, "Yes! At last they have got it!", only to find that they are still in the same impasse at our next supervision session. It is Groundhog Day, every meeting, until they fail the course.

The situation is frustrating as a supervisor who wants all students to succeed; just as frustrating - or terrifying - as it is for the students, I am sure. I provide as many resources as I can without adding to their overwhelmed state. I get them to talk to others on the course. I arrange peer mentoring. They get as much support as can be provided, however, they also inevitably end up on watch for 'failure to progress'. Semester after semester, out of each 100 students, there are always a few who simply don't 'get it', and - despite all efforts - fail.

It is difficult to know whether these students are (a) unable to think creatively, or (b) whether they are afflicted by "analysis paralysis" (Brown, 1960, p. 4), or (c) simply lacking the ability to learn independently. Without clear identification of what is causing the behaviour means strategies cannot be meaningfully applied. Strategies needed for those who can't think of a project are different to those where the student is terrified - paralysed - by the idea of making a decision (Ansoff, 1965; Roberts, 2010). Further, a student who has no appreciation of independent learning cannot be successful. They have apparently been pushed beyond their ability to perform.  

For some of these 'stuck' students, their project success can be further jeopardised by an inability to change their minds once they have made any decisions, no matter how small. It is like the energy that has gone into making a decision about something has taken so much effort that they will hold onto the decision for grim death and will not be swayed from it; even if their choice elements simply will not fit a potential project. It seems that, once they have decided, they are decided. Forever.

Working with these students can be like being in the film, Groundhog Day (Ramis et al., 2002). We would like to think that we could eventually work out what intervention to apply, but time and time again, we find ourselves unable to effect any change.

What I need to develop is a way of finding out what is causing the initial barrier: to identify if students are lacking creativity; suffering from analysis paralysis; or are not independent. There may well be other characteristics at play too, which I am not yet aware of. 

Some work to do. 



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