Student autonomy in research: when and how much?

Higher Education, like Primary and Secondary Education, is to some extent polarized between direct instruction and inquiry modes of learning. However, these polarising perspectives can fall on the same educational continuum, if one asks ‘how much autonomy is appropriate at the moment?’ The Research Skill Development framework ( addresses this question by describing a continuum of autonomy comprising 5 degrees of student autonomy, from the highly structured ‘Modelled Research’ (Level 1) to the highly autonomous ‘Open Research’ (Level 5).

The webinar on this topic was run 7 June 2013, and the archive of this (audio, text and ppt) is available

A recent email from an overseas colleague who recently encountered the RSD observed that the striking feature of the RSD is its scope- from primary to PhD. He went on to say:

‘If you were to be asked, do you think the framework suggests an expected research skill level each student?

I answered ‘No’- there is no level of the RSD fixed with level of schooling. This is because most educational ‘levels’ consider degree of ‘betterness’ –deeper levels of understanding, more complex context, etc. The levels of the RSD are completely different, describing degree of student autonomy; it concerns how much scope students are given.  That means the RSD asks educational questions like ‘how much scope does this class need for effective research, right now? What is my educational aim over the next x weeks/months/years? Do I need to give low levels of autonomy/high levels of guidance for maximised development of research skills, then give higher levels of autonomy for student- inspired application of these skills? So First year courses may be given a lot of structure and guidance- Level 1- early in a semester , then progressively given increasing research scope in the same context towards level 4 or 5. Possibly the next semester of year, starting new context, they should be given Level 1 autonomy. Some PhD students do require a high degree of structure and guidance when they embark on developing new knowledge. The RSD framework is therefore conducive to conceptualising a spiralling curriculum.

A second question the colleague asked: ‘Is the framework coupled with assessment tools just to gauge the current level of students?’

‘The current level’ is bound up in the content, context, the year level and especially the main hidden factor in education- the degree of rigour required. Therefore a student working successfully on a task with scope at level 4, may need more structure and guidance eg Level 1 in a new context.
His final question was ‘ As teachers, what is or are our roles as students go through the framework? Do you think it advisable to let them discover what research is?’

Different educators have different pedagogical stances on this. Crudely speaking, level 1 and 2 are in keeping with an objectivist position (more didactic and focussed on acquiring content and practicing skills) with directed learning seen as premium. Levels 4 and 5 are more in keeping with a (social) constructivist mindset- where discovery learning is king. RSD doesn’t pre-value any of these positions- just puts them on the same continuum, so that all may educators consider their place in their students learning.

Author: johnwillison

Senior Leturer, Discipline of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Adelaide.

4 thoughts on “Student autonomy in research: when and how much?”

  1. I found it very interesting to see a Post-graduate student saying when asked about the factors that influenced him develop his research skills, ‘I never wanted to develop my research skills. It’s not a big priority to me.’ Whereas talking about his work experience in marketing he shared, ‘I looked at the movement of customers, so people that were churning, people that were disconnecting, people that were switching on, and basically I sort of plotted them all across a timeline and the way they picked them was I looked at what happens prior to competitors activating their D-slams…I looked at it basically a couple of months before they had it and a couple of months after, and then you could sort of see how they did it….It was not like a lengthy word paper, but it was a bit of research and findings.’ In here, I see this student at level 5 of RSD as he conducted a research with self-determined data and choosing an appropriate methodology to understand a phenomenon. I believe sometimes, students are not ready to consciously tell themselves they are researchers but actually they are engaged in research involving a high level of autonomy.

  2. Hi Fizza

    I think also that graduates may not relate well to ‘research’ as a term, possibly seeing it as ivory tower, unapplied, back-at-university. Yet the processes this graduate employed were research processes. Maybe the comment ‘it was a bit of research’ may also suggest that it was not worthy to be considered research- just a bit. This graduate had one semester of explicit RSD. As we have recently interview graduates exposed to multiple courses that use RSD in their degree program, we are seeing richer research understanding and, especially a deeper appreciation of the applicability of research skills to work places.

    Even one semester of RSD + more implicit experiences of research did enable this student to engage in sophisticated, applied Level 5 research; this is a fantastic outcome in terms of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ and other graduate attributes, enabled at least in part by an academic’s use of the RSD. The work-based research may not have had sufficient rigour to be publishable, but it seemed to inform the graduate’s practice.


  3. From my secondary teacher background with ESL and International students as well as a PhD researcher, I agree with Fizza that the students frequently are engaged in research involving a high level of autonomy without their fully consciously acknowledging this reality.I have found that interest and motivation can spur such students to tackle seemingly high level researcher-initiated tasks.
    Also I believe we need to take the home language and culture into account in terms of teacher respect for student’s identities and abilities.Data of Students of Dinka shows that they feel empowered as learners when not only their mother tongue language learning is made available but also accepted into the SACE school curriculum assessment. Thus such students speak of being and feeling valued by our education system.Consequently they feel released to aim high to gain university places and be individually motivated to achieve and learn.

  4. Hi Judith
    The are strong connections between ’empowerment’ and the motivation for students to engage with more open scope in research tasks ie higher degree of student autonomy. To acknowledge the mother-tongue of Dinka speakers must be empowering for the students- does this involve it as a language subject in its own right?


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