Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Three blocks in student research projects

Hokusai's Under the wave off Kanagawa (1831)
I have written previously about students who just absolutely don't get what a research project is, and so simply can’t progress (here). In my experience, it appears that students appear to become blocked in one of three ways: that they are not creative enough; that they are fearful of making decisions; or that they are not yet independent learners and want to be ‘told’.

So, let's step through these individually:

  • Creativity block: the student simply can’t come up with any ideas at all. They try hard to find a project but simply cannot come up with an idea that either engages them, or that seems ‘good enough’ (Author, date).
  • Decision-making/risk averse block: the student has collected lots of information, but is paralysed when it comes to making a decision. They vacillate between all the options and see the good in all of them are worry about making the ‘wrong’ decision. They suffer from analysis paralysis (Ansoff, 1965; Brown, 1960, p. 4; Roberts, 2010)
  • Dependent learner block: the ability to be an autonomous learner – to be in charge of our own education – has been defined in a number of ways, but basically it comes down to how well learners can take responsibility for - and to seek and use appropriate tools, tactics, and strategies to control - their own learning (Chan, 2001; Cotterall, 1995). This student is passive, and waits to be told what do to next. There is little display of initiative. 

These blocks can appear at different times. Sometimes students can't seem to find a way in to begin their project (creativity block or dependent learner block); sometimes they start, but repeatedly change their mind until the semester ends (either decision making block or dependent learner block); sometimes they stall partway through the research project (either decision making block or dependent learner block). 

For students who lack creativity, I have an ideas bank of non-profit project briefs. An existing idea sometimes helps these students to get started. If not, then there are a range of online resources which I use judiciously to try to shift students onwards:

  • Boudah’s (2019) chapter 2 on the research question (here)
  • McCombes (2019) page on defining a research question (here)
  • Sacred Heart University Library’s (2020) guide on the research problem/question (here)
  • University of Phoenix’s (2017) guide on identifying the research problem (here).

Students lacking decision-making skills are harder to work with. Providing more structure seems to help them to get started: working within rules appears to reduce their indecision. Over time I have created lists, frameworks, tables, flowcharts, videos, exemplars, and very, very clear marking schedules to help these students understand what is required and how to navigate each decision and when, including:

  • Finding a topic flowchart that I have developed (here)
  • A week by week task list (here), developed from three pages of Foss and Waters dissertation plan overview (2007, pp. 18-21) 
  • A Research process flowchart I have developed including assessment milestones (here).

A key element in the New Zealand education system is to develop students from dependent to independent learners by the time they exit secondary school (NZQA, 2015). It is often international students, not domestic students, who present as dependent learners. These students get taken through the NZQA learning levels document (2015) and shown examples of what is expected of them in order to work at level 7 or 8 on the framework. They usually get a mentor to work alongside them to coach them in independent learning behaviours. The combination sometimes gets those students moving.

However, sometimes we get what I like to call a 'great wave' - conflating Hokusai’s print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (image accompanying this post, 1831), and the aphoristic sailor’s wave pattern where each ‘seventh’ wave is a rogue (Te Kete Ipurangi, 2020) – where students have two, or all three, of the blocks impeding their progress as an apparently insurmountable learning curve.

These doubly or trebly afflicted students are very hard to work successfully with. Giving them the tools they need without overwhelming them is an unpredictable process. They are the ones who will most often fail, despite all our efforts. 

More work yet to be done.  


Sam

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