What makes students want to continue researching?

This week I said to a large lecture theatre full of First Year students :

‘We have many search engines, such as google, library searches and data base search facilities. However, there is only one ‘research engine’ known to humanity. What is it?’

One student called out ‘Us’. Yes, the only research engine is the ‘human mind’. Many animals can search, but only the human brain is known to have the capacity to research (although dam-building beavers make me wonder about that).

One of the defining features of research is the ‘re’ part- ‘doing it again’. This is an element of research that requires hardwork. Whilst we may be driven by curiosity to want to research, as we get into it it just gets hard. This reflects the move from ‘query’ to ‘inquiry, where being ‘in’ the query, being immersed in it, is all encompassing, requiring effort to keep one’s head above water. What does this need to keep on going tell us about the affective or emotional side of research?

The second cognitive facet of the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework is that students find information and generate data using discipline-appropriate methodologies. If this is completed in a half-hearted or slapdash way, that which is found is likely to lack sufficient rigor or credibility. Therefore, the affect associated with this facet is:

What makes us determined to get there in the end?

                                           Determined

Students being determined enough to find information that addresses their questions or purpose, formulating an answers. Then, with a dawning realisation that they may have only found a partial answer, or drawn on a set of articles that were somehow biased in orientation, they seacrch for more information. Students generating data in laboratories, field research, clinical research or surveying  opinions, analysing their results and deciding to go back and regenerate to test the voracity of findings. Determinination entails keeping on going until the job is done properly.

Another statement from Albert Einstein about one of his key researcher characteristics was:

‘Its not that I am so smart. Its just that I stay with problems longer’

How can we facilitate the development of determined students who stay with problems longer? Some students give up easily when they encounter obstacles. Others, given a challenge, may not let go until it is resolved. Maybe one key  is building a supportive ‘community of inquiry’ where there is a social norm to encounter problems, share problems and work through problems as part of a research process, ie smooth sailing is abnormal! Another key may be personal committment by students to the phenomena being researched, where this can be realised through ownership and autonomy being as high as possible, but no higher. A third, and more readily realisable, key  to develop determined students is the process of making the need to be determined more explicit; stating this as a core characteristic, as well as lecturer modelling of determination, may go a long way to helping its gestation in students. Ultimately, there may be a strong link between the engagment suggested by ‘curiosity’ and the persitance suggested by ‘determination’; these are an inter-related couple amongst the vital six affective facets of research.

What makes students want to research?

When given the opportunity, some students love to research while others find it tedious or intimidating. Many more lie between these extremes. Why are there so many different emotional (affective) responses to engaging in research processes?

In the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework, the first facet of research is:

Students embark on research and clarify a need for understanding

Students have to enter into research, and how they  begin is a function of 2 things: each student and the phenomena in question. Social dimensions will also play a great role in some contexts, but less in others. Whether the phenomena is a quark or a work by Shakespeare, student prior knowledge, experiences and interest in the phenomena will all play a part in the embarking.

Two years ago we began searching for one-word descriptors of affect that match each of the 6 facets of the RSD. The idea was not to attempt to measure or quantify affect, but rather make explicit the existance and importance of it. The descriptor that relates to embarking on research is:

Decidedly curious

curious

This was epitomised by Albert Eistein’s statement about one of his defining characteristics:

I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.

That students would be curious, where they would say that learning experiences ‘inspired something in me that wanted to find out’, as one First Year Medical Science student put it . There are numerous other drivers to embark on research, such as funding, kudos, survival, role-requirement, and so on. But as an educational intention, it would be a fantastic outcome if students left our courses a little more curious about the discipline than when they started. That, as well as acquiring more knowledge, we had piqued their curiosity to learn even more. In addition we had equipped them with skills to begin to satiate this curiosity.

In a workshop on affective descriptors, a provocative word suggested by a member of the audience was ‘intrepid’. It is an instructive word to consider because whilst it is a word that impels into discovery, the characteristic described is more in the person alone; an intrepid explorer will tend to be intrepid wherever she is exploring. However, I may be curious about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but not about quarks. Curiosity is more about a relationship between people and a phenomenon being research.

In formal education, may students be enabled to research in a way that provides them as much or little structure and guidance as necessary. May it be that out of these carefully crafted research experiences their curiosity is nurtured. And among many affective factors driving them to embark, may curiosity be chief.

John W