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Supervising Undergraduate Research Projects Julian Oldmeadow University of York.

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1 Supervising Undergraduate Research Projects Julian Oldmeadow University of York

2 Overview… What is the Undergraduate Project? What is the role of the supervisor? Supervisors’ experiences Students’ experiences Where does it go wrong? Discussion exercise - “Putting a framework on students’ ideas”

3 Themes Focus on autonomous student-centered learning creates a tension between structure and direction on the one hand, and autonomy and independence on the other. Key theme: balancing these needs to provide “well-supported autonomy”

4 What is an UG project? Todd et al. (2004) identify the following characteristics: –Typically final (3rd) year –Major piece of work –Learner determines focus and direction –Work is carried out on individual basis (but small group projects increasingly common) –Work is supervised –Work involves stages, usually including a substantial research component –Prolonged engagement with a topic –Has both learning and assessment functions Other functions?

5 What is an UG project? A UG project is also… –Usually the biggest piece of work a student has tackled –Possibly the first major piece of written work –Almost certainly the first experience of the research process from start to finish –Substantial independence is expected

6 What is an UG project? Therefore, from a student’s perspective, it can be a very daunting prospect! Students often feel they are ‘working in the dark’ Silén (2003) talks about ‘chaos’ and ‘cosmos’ - a period of intellectual confusion (chaos) that precedes a qualitative jump in understanding (cosmos) Intellectual struggle can be emotionally unsettling, but is an inherent part of the experience of autonomy Adequate support is therefore critical

7 What is an UG project? The UG project is also a daunting prospect for supervisors too… Supervision is demanding and can be stressful “[Supervisors] often have a large number of projects to supervise as well as their normal teaching, administrative and research commitments, and many may not have any supervisory experience” New supervisors often have concerns about their ability to supervise, academic expertise, appropriate standards and institutional climates Very little training is usually provided

8 What are its functions? General aim is “to expand the student’s intellectual faculties and capability for learning and problem solving” (Cook, 1980) Specific aims: –Advance scientific and technical knowledge –Develop ability to formulate an answerable research question –Encourage engagement with literature and search tools –Develop capacity to organize and carry out research program –Develop writing and presentation skills –Develop ability to draw conclusions from information collected Supervisor role is oriented around these functions

9 What is the role of the supervisor? A range of descriptions/metaphors have been used… –Subject experts –Gatekeeper of academic standards –Resource person and advisor –Dissertation ‘midwife’ –Director, project manager, shaper –Scaffolder and supporter –Editor –Promoter of student self-efficacy –“Guide, philosopher, and friend”

10 What is the role of the supervisor? Two broad roles: Educational Guidance and Psychological Momentum (Cook, 1980) Educational guidance: –Decision making - topic selection, research question, methods –Planning - stages and deadlines –Scientific training - analysis and deduction –Technical training - statistical analyses, report writing Psychological momentum: –Maintenance of student motivation –Development of self confidence

11 What is the role of the supervisor? “The key issue for practice is developing a balance between freedom and structure, enabling student autonomy while also providing contact, support and training.” (Todd, et al., 2004). “…to provide sufficient support to cultivate autonomy while recognizing that many students may not feel fully prepared for this form of study.” (Hemmings, 2001)

12 Supervision Styles Active DirectIndirect Passive

13 Supervision Styles Active DirectIndirect Passive Welcome student contact Provides advice Ask for opinions, explanations, justifications Active facilitator Initiate contact Explicit schedules, contracts Tend to be directive Don’t arrange meetings Non-directive Wait for students to think things through & solve problems Generally disinterested Unresponsive to student needs Non-directive

14 Key points… UG project has a focus on student-centered learning The supervisor has both educational and psychological roles Becomes apparent that a key challenge is providing “well-supported autonomy” - how do we promote independence while providing adequate support? “Independence does not involve a hands-off approach. The challenge in the UG dissertation is to provide sufficient support to cultivate autonomy while recognizing that many students may not feel fully prepared for this form of study.” (Hemmings, 2001)

15 Supervisor Experiences What are the experiences of supervisors? What are the key issues in practice? What do experienced supervisors see as their key roles and responsibilities? Not much research, but a few surveys available (e.g. Todd et al., 2004)

16 Supervisor Roles General awareness of being a ‘facilitator’, helping students make their plans achievable Awareness of balancing student autonomy with supervisor’s direction This balance may involve shifts at different times… –Level of involvement varies across the year –Need to be forceful and prescriptive in particular situations Overall need to be flexible and attuned to needs of individual student

17 Responsibilities Major task in identifying the research question, which students often struggle to do Ensure project is feasible in scope and ethics Identified a responsibility to evaluate student’s motives and ability, and direct them towards a fitting project Other responsibilities to advise on methods and assist with practicalities, help with time management and organisation, and provide feedback on write-up Note, supervisors rarely mentioned psychological roles or responsibilities

18 Dissertation write-up Level of assistance at the write-up stage was an issue for supervisors Both supervisors and students agreed the write-up is the student’s responsibility Supervisors agreed they should NOT be involved in writing content Sometimes hard to maintain such boundaries, particularly with weaker or non-native English speaking students Again, theme of flexibility and a tailored approach emerged

19 Key points from supervisor’s perspective Perceived their role as ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘director’ Identified the formulation of a research question as a major task Again, key issue is balancing student autonomy with direction Levels of autonomy and direction vary across time and across students Need for a flexible approach that provides direction where needed

20 Student Perceptions Todd, Banister & Clegg (2004) surveyed social science students in Sheffield A number of themes emerged from survey and interviews –Authenticity and personal ownership –Uncertainty and Challenge –Time –Support

21 Authenticity and personal ownership Significance of the project derived largely from the sense of independence and self-direction Sense of pride and personal achievement Strong sense of ownership and motivation to succeed Sense that the project is an authentic form of assessment due to it being personal

22 Uncertainty & Challenge A considerable challenge at many levels Difficulty formulating an appropriate research question –Too broad, vague, unanswerable, descriptive, over-ambitious Other difficulties involved locating information and literature, recruiting participants, and applying research methods training to their specific project “the production of a specific research question…constitutes one of the most challenging aspects of dissertation study for undergraduates” AND FOR SUPERVISORS!

23 Time Overwhelming perception that the dissertation required more effort than other modules of equivalent credit value Demands of project are detrimental to other work, that it “takes over” For some the load related to technical demands (e.g. collecting data), for others to personal enthusiasm related to autonomy and ownership So, time demands are high, but so is motivation

24 Support What do students expect in terms of support? –Guidance on management –Motivation and encouragement –Academic expertise, advice on relevant literature and concepts Key stages where support was most needed –Defining research question and parameters/scope of project –Choosing research method –Constructive criticism and feedback on written work “I had the resources and enthusiasm but was lacking direction. The supervisor had clarity of thinking…They took my ideas and put a framework on it.”

25 Supervision Styles Styles varied widely from Formal (fixed timetable, written records of meetings, formal contract) to Informal (initiate preliminary meeting, then leave it to the student) Most students appreciated some formality (e.g. setting date of next meeting, specific tasks, deadlines for milestones) Others appreciated ‘space’ and autonomy “The style of supervision I had worked for me. I had a choice in this--my supervisor asked me at the start how I’d like to be supervised”

26 Key points from students’ perceptions Students perceive projects as authentic and having high intrinsic value Students value the autonomy and independence projects offer, which is often highly motivating A big challenge is to produce a researchable question, and students appreciate some formal structuring from supervisor - putting a framework on students’ ideas Students also value highly the personal support aspects, some seeing this as the most important aspect of supervision

27 Where does it go wrong? What are the common problems to look out for? Need to be aware of issues that arise from combining learning and assessment in a single activity…

28 Where does it go wrong? Cook (1980) identifies a number of problem areas related to assessment: –Differences in attitude to supervision –Topic difficulty –Student dependence –Time allocation for supervisory duties

29 Key themes… Tension between structure and direction on the one hand, and autonomy and independence on the other. Balancing these needs to provide “well-supported autonomy” “The key issue for practice is developing a balance between freedom and structure, enabling student autonomy while also providing contact, support and training.” (Todd, et al., 2004).

30 Key themes… Identifying an appropriate research question was considered a major challenge for both students and supervisors A key point at which the autonomy/structure conflict is played out A potentially useful metaphor of “putting a framework on students’ ideas”

31 Discussion “Putting a framework on students’ ideas”

32 Formulating a research question… What are the common problems with students’ research questions? –Want to establish clear ‘cause-effect’ relations within very complex issues - “Do media representations of women encourage sexism?” –Too broad or vague - “Are perceptions of people affected by their race?” –Unoriginal - “Does personality have an impact on choice of vocation?” –Descriptive - “What are the stereotypes of Hong Kong Chinese towards Mainland Chinese?”

33 Initial student ideas… “We are looking to develop a project on social perception and social attribution and possibly investigating its relationship with additional concepts such as self-handicapping, depressive- realism hypothesis and the 'belief in a just world'.”

34 Initial student ideas… “I am wanting to investigate the halo effect and race, looking to see if white males and females are thought to be more successful, intelligent and so on than people from other ethnic backgrounds.”

35 Initial student ideas… “I am currently in my second year and I am very interested in body dismorphia (specifically anorexia nervosa).”

36 Initial student ideas… “The effects of education on perception of mental health issues.”

37 Initial student ideas… “I have a brief idea for a study, for which I would require multicultural participants. They would be presented with visual stimuli consisting of pictures of members of the opposite sex, who you would vary widely in social status, age and race. They would then be asked to rank them in order of preference.”

38 Initial student ideas… “I'm particularly interested in the perception of gender, and what factors in a face cause it to be categorised as male or female. I'm aware of a great deal of research into this already, but am keen on extending it by considering what cues are dominant in the case of ambiguous faces, and more specifically to what extent context and expectation can affect categorisation. I've also wondered about how this would apply in the case of transgender people; whether their faces would be categorised on the physical structure (reflecting biological sex) or stylistic choices in appearance (reflecting gender).”

39 Exercise… In small groups, choose one of these student research ideas and discuss how you would advise the student –What are the problems with the question? –How would it need to change to develop into a researchable question? –What sort of ‘framework’ could you put on it to help move the student forward?

40 Sources of Support… Departmental guidelines on supervision and UG projects Mentor Literature Checklists…

41 Example Checklist Determine objectives for the dissertation Ascertain the proportion of total marks allocated for dissertation Identify key factors on which the dissertation is to be assessed Advise students as to the main objectives and requirements Guide student in the selection of topic Outline advantages of a systematic approach to planning and organisation Advise student on areas of special difficulty, e.g. data collection Proof-read draft and suggest textural and presentational amendments Remind student of deadlines Revise supervisory approach for the next year in light of experience

42 Further Reading Armstrong, M. & Shanaker, V. (1983). The supervision of undergraduate research: student perceptions of the supervisor role. Studies in Higher Education, 8, 177-183. Beer, R. H. (1995). Guidelines for the supervision of undergraduate research. Journal of Chemical Engineering, 72, 721-722. Cook, M. (1980). The role of the academic supervisor for undergraduate dissertations in science and science-related subjects. Studies in Higher Education, 5, 173-185. Keogh, M. (2006). Supervising undergraduate research using online and peer supervision. In M. Huba (Ed), International Virtual University Conference, Bratislava 14-15 December 2006, pp. 19-24. Technical University Bratislava: Bratislava. Todd, M., Bannister, P. & Clegg, S. (2004). Independent inquiry and the undergraduate dissertation: perceptions and experiences of final year social science students. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 29, 335-355. Todd, M., Smith, K. & Bannister, P. (unpublished manuscript). Supervising a social science undergraduate dissertation: Staff experiences and perceptions.


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