Showcase Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

Identifying and assessing ‘wicked’ competences in undergraduate research experiences (#205)

Susan Howitt 1 , Anna Wilson 2 , Denise Higgins 1
  1. Australian National University, Canberra
  2. University of Stirling, Stirling

Abstract Content (up to 300 words recommended)

The transition from novice to expert researcher requires more than discipline-based knowledge and technical expertise; developing such professional expertise requires moving beyond a view of research as a process of structured problem-solving to one of problem-setting, where there is interplay between results obtained, the question and experimental design.  These are the characteristics of ‘wicked’ problems and learning to deal with them is a desired outcome of undergraduate research experiences. However, the assessment of research experiences is often a final report, which focuses on the products of research. This may result in student attention being focused on experimental outcomes, rather than seeing the practice of research, including the inevitable problems and troubleshooting, as part of their learning. The TREASURE (Teaching Research: Evaluation and Assessment Strategies for Undergraduate Research Experiences) project funded by the OLT introduced structured reflective logbooks to scaffold student learning and re-focus attention on the nature and practice of research.  Students responded regularly to a set of prompt questions in a private blog as a small stakes assessment item.  More than 330 students (from three institutions and across science, social sciences and arts) kept blogs, providing a rich resource of responses for analysis.  Student responses have been analysed qualitatively to identify emergent themes and to look for qualities and ways of thinking that academics identified as characterising good researchers, with our initial focus on the sciences. The blogs show that most students develop a more mature understanding of research, with many exhibiting creative and critical thinking, becoming independent problem-solvers and developing a sense of themselves as scientists. We see students combining the above qualities to address the complex problems and uncertainties of research.  The blogs, therefore, illustrate the development of ‘wicked’ competences in a way that traditional assessment of research projects does not.

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)

Uncertainty and complexity are characteristics of research, which typically addresses ill-structured problems.  When students experience research, they should learn not only about their chosen discipline but also gain skills and ways of thinking that enable them to deal with the unknown.  The latter has not traditionally been a focus of assessment of student research projects but is important to investigate so that we can better understand how students approach research. The lack of assessment of such ways of thinking could lead to students undervaluing their development in these areas.  For example, students might see the problems that arise during research merely in terms delaying getting results rather than as an opportunity to develop essential problem-solving skills.  The reflective blogs may help students see that their learning is separate from their project results and direct both student and supervisor attention to such ‘invisible learning’. The blogs provide a window into student thought, allowing us to track the development of a better understanding of the nature of research in an authentic context and identify barriers to learning about research.  This could lead to better scaffolding and assessment of research experiences.