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Research Skill Development Explanation

Research Skill Development (RSD) is about making explicit and coherent in regular university coursework the incremental attainment of research skills in a specific discipline.

  • Definition of Research

    The meaning of ‘research’ in this context is: students actively finding information new to themselves. Underlying this notion is the ‘degree of knowness’ of knowledge: whether research involves developing knowledge that is commonly known to humanity, commonly unknown or totally unknown. We see that even inquiry into the commonly known is all part of the process of research skill development. Indeed, to overlook the development of skills in earlier years of education (such as First Year university) is to miss the potential development of skills required of ‘ blue-sky’ researchers or by industry and employment.

  • RSD Facets of Research

    In the RSD, there are six facets of the research process, identified from the literature and modified according to Bloom’s taxonomy and our experiences of using the framework in the disciplines. These are that students:

    • embark on inquiry and so determine a need for knowledge/understanding
    • find/generate needed information/data using appropriate methodology
    • critically evaluate information/data and the process to find/generate this information/data.
    • organise information collected/generated
    • synthesise and analyse and apply new knowledge, and
    • communicate knowledge and the processes used to generate it, with an awareness of ethical, social and cultural issues.
  • Degree of Student Autonomy

    Inquiries can be classified as ‘closed’ (lecturer specified) or ‘open’ (student specified) in relation to: the question, hypothesis or aim of the task; the procedure followed or equipment used; and the answer, resolution or need for further inquiry which is arrived at (Hackling & Fairbrother, 1996). Each facet in the RSD is elaborated into a continuum of student autonomy, depicted in 5 levels, so the five columns in the table represent the degree of student autonomy, with Level I corresponding to a low degree of autonomy, describing students working at a level of a closed inquiry, requiring structure and guidance, and Level V corresponding to a high degree of autonomy--the student functioning at the level of open inquiry.

  • Disciplines Presently Utilising the RSD

    The RSD was initially utilised in 6 diverse disciplines and levels of education at the University of Adelaide.

    • Human Biology, First Year
    • Electronic Engineering, Masters by Coursework and honours
    • Nursing, First Year
    • Petroleum Engineering, First Year
    • Agriculture, Masters by Coursework
    • Introduction to University course, undergraduate and postgraduate.

    In 2009 it was used in additional courses:

    • Animal Science, First Year
    • English
    • Global Media
    • Dentistry
    • Oral Health
    • Higher Education
    • Secondary Education
    • Veterinary Science.

    It was also implemented and evaluated in 4 other universities:

    • Psychology at Macquarie University
    • Business Ethics at Monash University
    • Business Law at University of Melbourne
    • Introduction to Tertiary Learning at University of South Australia
    • Introduction to Tourism at Monash University
    • Human Resource Management at Monash University.

    These universities, led by the University of Adelaide, are presently engaged in a project to develop, implement and evaluate RSD-based assessments in their various contexts, funded by a Carrick Institute of Higher Education competitive grant.

    The RSD has also had a small amount of application at the level of HDR, especially PhD student self-assessment, and for conversations between supervisors and students. The RSD was developed with all sectors of education in mind. There will be, by September 2008, a number of examples for Primary Schools and Secondary Schools on this site.

    For the published article on RSD, 'Commonly known, commonly not known, totally unknown: A framework for students becoming researchers' see: 
    Higher Education Research & Development, Volume 26 Issue 4 2007.

    (Note: University of Adelaide students and staff have full access to this article through the library website. Others may not have full access.)

  • Variety of RSD Approaches

    The RSD is a conceptual framework, not a prescriptive approach. It is like a car without tyres: to drive it, you need to put on tyres that are appropriate for the conditions. Therefore, in every coursework context, academics have adapted the RSD by generating marking criteria guided by the six facets and phrased for their own discipline and purpose.

    That means that while RSD-based rubrics have the same structure, each is unique to the context in which it is used. RSD rubrics have been used to assess literature researchlaboratory researchfield research, and numeracy-rich contexts.

    Five distinct approaches have emerged in the use of the RSD so far:

    1. Rubrics to assess the profile of skills for each student, as demonstrated by Human Biology rubrics. This is the most common approach, and is used by most disciplines.
    2. A lock-step approach, whereby students are kept 'in formation' and progressively and corporately develop one level of skills at a time. This is shown by the Nursing RSD rubrics.
    3. Incorporation of SOLO taxonomy to define grading within a specific level set, as used by Dentistry.
    4. Use of RSD to evaluate the skills and levels required by existing assessments.
    5. Use of the RSD framework by Masters by Research and PhD students and/or their supervisors/advisors to locate their present skill set and plot future directions and development needs. Preliminary work suggests that this may be most useful for international students, and for students whose PhD is in a different discipline that their undergraduate/Masters studies.

    In addition, the RSD7 is being used to project PhD students' research towards their goals.

  • More Detailed Text Explanation of RSD

    Rationale for the Research Skill Development Framework

    Adapted from: Willison, J, & O’Regan, K (in press). Commonly known, commonly not known, totally unknown: a framework for students becoming researchers. Higher Education Research and Development 26 (4).

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

  • Undergraduate Education and University Research

    Undergraduate education has historically been seen in conflict with academics’ research agendas (Lane, 1996; Sample, 1972). Boyer’s revolutionary reconceptualisation of scholarship, motivated by a concern to ‘break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate’ (Boyer 1990, p. xii) has suggested possibilities other than that seemingly entrenched ‘truth’ of research and teaching as necessarily competing endeavours. In this view, teaching and research are not perceived as being in opposition, but rather, as being inextricably linked with each other (Brew, 2006). This perspective underpins the proposal by the National Science Foundation to the US Congress, that ‘integrating research and education’ be adopted as ‘a “core strategy” … for education nationally’ (Bauer & Bennett, 2003, p.211).

    Within this paradigm, students are perceived as researchers who ‘observe and participate in the process of both discovery and communication of knowledge’ (The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in a Research University, 1998, p.18). Universities are ‘scholarly communities’ (Huber, 2003) and the purpose of undergraduate education is to induct students into that community. Lave and Wenger (1991) speak of learning as being ‘configured through the process of [the learner] becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice’ (p. 29), with learning corresponding to ‘increasing participation in communities of practice’ (p. 47). The ‘beginner’ develops ‘an increasing understanding of how, when and what about old-timers collaborate, collude and collide’ (p. 95); they learn to become members of a research community (Coppola, 2001; Brew, 2003a). So, research skill development can be seen as an underlying principle of all education, and not one restricted to ‘researchers’ engaging in activities which compete with their teaching demands.

  • A Framework for Research Skill Development

    The emerging question is, why is undergraduate research not being made explicit more frequently? Undergraduate research is possible; it is presently being conducted in some disciplines; yet many of the problems raised earlier remain as barriers to its wider implementation. One of these problems, at least, is potentially addressable: the conceptual difficulties faced in facilitating student research skills. This could be addressed by a framework that helps academics conceptualise how they could explicitly facilitate student research skill development.

    Research is motivated by a need to know about, or a curiosity about, how things are, and what things do or may do. This initially requires no trained skills, just a capacity to wonder, as was stated by Einstein, who claimed that his redeeming feature, in terms of research, was not cleverness or giftedness, but that he was ‘only very, very curious.’ Whilst we may question his self-assessment in relation to cleverness and giftedness, what he says does underscore the pre-eminent characteristic of research: namely, to wonder why. To research, we embark on a voyage of discovery launched by curiosity or need. Children have this capacity to wonder early in life. However, to be maintained, this desire to embark on inquiry needs to be nurtured. The education of students should lead them to ask research questions of increasing sophistication, specificity, depth and breadth, that set them on a journey towards making the unknown known. Conceptualising and facilitating this journey is a task for all educators, and especially lecturers of undergraduates.

    At most levels of education, students research knowledge that is unknown to themselves, but commonly known to others. This research typically takes the form of assignments which are prescribed by others. As a student’s education progresses, their research moves into a discipline discourse with concepts, language and conventions unknown to those outside that discipline. Research, at this level, is into the commonly not known. As students become well acquainted with the canon of a discipline and its research techniques, they may be ready, probably at postgraduate level, to research gaps into or even extend the field, into areas previously unknown to humankind. Whether researching into the commonly known, the commonly unknown or the totally unknown, the process may equally be labelled researching or learning; ‘research is learning’ (Brew, 1988 cited in Brew & Boud, 1995, p.267). Assignment tasks frequently require students to be actually involved in a process of research, though this is seldom made explicit and may not even be recognised as such by teacher or student. All associated activities which could be broadly identified as ‘research’ can be located on the research continuum, placing, say, a First Year library or internet research assignment along the same continuum as PhD research. The associated set of skills are often the same, but what varies from First Year to PhD is the degree of rigor, the level of specialisation and complexity of the discourse, the scope, depth and methodological framework applied to the inquiry process, and the extent of ‘unknownness’ of the topic under research. The fundamental facets of inquiry are, however, identical, with common processes being acted out across all research endeavours.

    This notion of the commonality of research processes underpins the two models we drew upon to identify facets of research, namely the ANZIL (2004) Standards and Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, et al. 1956). We have argued elsewhere for the relevance of the ANZIL Standards (Willison & O’Regan, 2005). These Standards comprehensively describe ‘the skills or competencies that together make for effective and appropriate use of information’ (CILIP 2005), this use being an essential and major part of the research process. Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed initially to ‘help one gain a perspective on the emphasis given to certain behaviours by a particular set of educational plans… so that it becomes easier to plan learning experiences and prepare evaluation devices’ (Bloom et. al., 1956, p.2). Although the Taxonomy was first published fifty years ago, it has been consistently applied to teaching and learning contexts since that time (see, for example, Ormell, 1974; Furst, 1981; Anderson, Sosniak & Bloom, 1994; Krathwohl, 2002) and so provides another widely applicable framework we considered relevant to research-as-learning. Drawing together elements from these two models led us to specify six facets of the research process, namely, that students: embark on inquiry and so determine a need for knowledge/understanding; find/generate needed information/data using appropriate methodology; critically evaluate information/data and the process to find/generate them; organise information collected/generated; synthesise and analyse new knowledge; communicate knowledge and understanding and the processes used to generate them. As well as these facets, there are variables which span across the whole research process. One of these is the degree of knownness, discussed previously; another is the degree of student autonomy in the research activity. Autonomy is widely acknowledged as an important aim in education (Boud, 1988; Bruce, 1995; Butler, 1999; Fazey & Fazey, 2001). Autonomy in the research context ranges from student engagement with closed inquiries directed towards a pre-determined outcome, involving a high level of structure and guidance, using prescribed methods and processes, through to open inquiries involving high levels of autonomy and self-determination in terms of what is investigated and how that is done. Inquiries can be classified as ‘closed’ (lecturer specified) or ‘open’ (student specified) in relation to: the question, hypothesis or aim of the task; the procedure followed or equipment used; and the answer, resolution or need for further inquiry which is arrived at (Hackling & Fairbrother, 1996).

    Drawing together the facets of research with the degree of student autonomy, we devised a conceptual framework, based on an earlier formulation (Willison & O’Regan, 2005), from which to hang conceptions of student research skill and its development. The Research Skill Development framework (see pages) table, the rows of which correspond to the six major student research facets; the double-ended vertical arrow suggesting that the movement through the different facets of research is not linear, but frequently recursive. For example, students researching may find, whilst synthesising (Facet E) information and data, that they need to reframe their research question (Facet A). Nevertheless, there is a general progression from Facet A, leading ultimately to Facet F. The five columns in the table represent the degree of student autonomy, with Level I, corresponding to a low degree of autonomy, describing students working at a level of a closed inquiry, requiring structure and guidance, and Level V corresponding to a high degree of autonomy, with the student functioning at the level of open inquiry.

    The labelling of the facets and levels with successive letters and numbers is not meant to imply that a student progresses linearly through them in an orderly, pre-determined way. Postgraduate research students may be functioning initially at Level II. Nor will a student necessarily, at any one time, be functioning at the same level for all the specified facets. The progression for each student is recursive and context-, task- and discipline-specific. An individual student may engage in research behaviour which corresponds to their own individual pathway through the table, moving to higher or lower levels in each facet depending on the variables of context, task and discipline. For example, a student may, at some time in some context, be functioning for Facet A at Level II, for Facet C at Level V and for Facet D at Level III, and at another time, in another context, their position may be represented by a different cluster of cells.

    Students may go though many Level I to Level V cycles when researching the commonly known in undergraduate studies (or earlier). As they progress towards researching the commonly unknown, they may move through those same cycles several more times, finally arriving at the cutting edge of research into the totally unknown. Yet here again they may need guidance, maybe at PhD level or postdoctoral studies, starting at level I or II, until the autonomy of Level V is realisable, and at which point the student is applying the ‘standards’ of rigour and impact (Glassick et al., 1997) required to generate knowledge new to humankind.

    The RSD framework is designed primarily as a conceptual tool for diagnosis and planning, promoting understanding and interpretation of both potential and realised student research skill development.

  • RSD Article
  • Video of RSD Seminar to the School of Population health and Clinical Practice

    'Health Numeracy Through Research Skill Development'

    Frank Donnelly, Clinical Nursing 
    John Willison, Education

    Please be patient as video will take a minute to start.

    click to watch video of RSD Seminar to the School of Population health and Clinical Practice

  • Interview on RSD at University of Southern Queensland

    The interview Link to external website questions, asked by Lindy Kimmins, were:

    1. You are the leader of a Carrick project associated with a Research Skills Development Framework which has been implemented at the University of Adelaide and has been trialled at five other universities. Before we go into the details of the project, can you tell us what you mean by research skills?
    2. So, what is the Research Skills Framework, and how is it different from other frameworks that we've heard about, such as graduate qualities ones?
    3. In terms of the Carrick project, what courses or disciplines have you worked with so far, and what successes and problems have you encountered?
    4. As you know, the University of Southern Queensland has a significant number of distance education students. Has the framework been used with them at all?
    5. And so, for academics in their courses, how can the framework work for them?
    6. The bottom line, of course, is the students. How do they benefit from the framework?

    Listen to the interview Link to external website.

  • Video of RSD Seminar at University of Southern Queensland
Research Skill Development

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