Monday, 29 August 2016


It's funny (funny-strange), but I get a sense of when students are derailing from their research projects. However, that is only when they are close to actual derailment.

You see, they go dark on me.

They stop sending email enquiries.

They stop asking to meet with me to discuss their project. I only see them in class, and they disappear at the end without stopping to have the normal chat.

They stop - or cut back on - contributing in class.

When I see them on campus, they say "Everything is going fine!" and then hurriedly rush away.

The worst thing is, the pattern start so small, but by the time I see it, it is usually quite a large problem. And some students are much better than others at hiding it.

But the pattern is the same, year after year.

Like I say, they go dark.

So why does that happen?

Research projects are very tricky beasts. When researching, we are creating something entirely new, that is never existed before. There is no real 'plan', because everything is uncharted territory. While we have guidelines, and we research other researcher's work, we have to create our own structure, our own method of working and research, curate our own materials, determine how we will manage and how we will communicate, and build our entire piece of work from nothing.

We make something new out of whole cloth.

This feeling of ‘lostness' is daunting when you're post-graduate, let alone when you're an undergraduate. But it is a really normal part of a research project. The trouble is, undergraduates have few tools to deal with it.

They have often not been this lost before, because undergraduate papers have a lot of structure.

Their sense of 'lostness' is quite profound and all-encompassing. They stop working, and that adds to their burden. Then they think they can never complete anyway, so they might as well drop out of the course.

On reflection, I think there are three main things that happen - possibly in order, maybe as a process -  to students. They are all related to confidence, decision-making, and clarity.
  1. Decision-making & Clarity. They get stuck at a pivot point, and cannot go forward until the 'stuckness' is passed.
  2. Confidence & Decision-making. They loose confidence in their ability to make the 'right' choices.
  3. Clarity & Confidence. The very scale of the project itself overwhelms them, and they can't see what the next move should be.
This is where a clear and detailed project plan can save a student project from derailing.

With coaching, the student can fall back on their project plan, and just plod through the steps that they have charted, until they get out of the doldrums.

  • Reference: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1834). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in H. Gardiner (Ed, 1985), The New Oxford Book of English Verse. UK: Oxford University Press (p. 529)

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