Embracing the role of undergraduate students as engaged researchers

The teaching of undergraduate research can suffer from being overly mechanical. Erica Cargill and James Cunningham call for deeper engagement

Erica Cargill is Associate Dean for Academic Development and Student Experience at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University

James Cunningham is Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University

As academics, we are pushed to engage with research activity which is “world-class, dynamic and responsive,” in line with Research Excellence Framework expectations. Yet we rarely expect such engaged research scholarship from our undergraduate students. Instead, we often rely on mechanistic skills-based approaches to final year research projects, looking to fulfil learning expectations rather than engaging researchers in their field.

In university corridors, we end up with two worlds. The boundary-pushing, paradigm-shifting research of faculty, and the skills-based, formulaic research expected of students.

Such distinctions detract from the value a final year research project can offer. Research methods teaching should instead be done through a scaffolded structure which engages students in the value of research work, encouraging curiosity and authenticity.

The potential and the problem of undergraduate research

As professions change, so too do the learning formats used to build the skills needed in them. In the past decade, we have become well aware that meta skills and critical thinking ability, such as those developed through a research project, must be integrated throughout professional learning. In Scotland, Skills Development Scotland provides comprehensive guidance to both educators and employers in embedding such skills in their programmes and recruitment strategies.

As part of this move, the classic undergraduate research project should no longer be seen as a purely academic piece of work. Instead, engagement with research activity can offer greater contextual meaning to a student’s undergraduate studies. It develops the student researcher as an authentic and relevant thinker of their field, even offering an element of prescience as they look to right the wrongs they encounter in their research work. The final year research project can bring to life the problems of the field, not only preparing the student for employment, but enabling them as a graduate to make positive societal and organisational change.

However, due to knowledge asymmetries between the typical undergraduate student and research-active faculty, we indulge in a tradition of passive skills-based education models. The technical demands of literature reviewing, methodological choice and rationale, along with the intricacies of various analytical processes, may be the stock and trade of research methods delivery, but they instil an anxiety in students as they fear “getting research wrong.” Ultimately this leads to disengagement from the goal of the research project.

For both students and faculty, this makes the final year research project more of a challenging burden than an engaged and exciting endeavour. From a faculty perspective, the common trope of research time being eroded by the demands of teaching echoes throughout the sector. Meanwhile students bemoan the mechanical skills expected of them as irrelevant and unnecessary in their future careers. Each perspective undervalues the benefits an undergraduate research project can bring.

Bringing undergraduate research to life

When designed appropriately, performance of a research project can be a high-impact student experience, inspiring a curiosity and practical application of learning which continues beyond the student’s degree journey. Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University has committed to embracing final year undergraduate students as engaged researchers.

The Thesis Conference came into being in the summer of 2018. This initiative involves the design of an immersive, block-based teaching event to scaffold the delivery of research methods in the final year of an undergraduate management programme. The aim is to excite students and staff in the thesis process, reducing apprehension on both sides and allowing for the exploration of research work as an exciting and engaged endeavour, rather than yet another disassociated academic skill.

At the core of the initiative is a two-day conference event early in the students’ final year. This professionalised conference (including formal registration on the part of the student) involves multiple sessions from experienced researchers on how they have navigated and made use of the various functions of academic research. This includes several interactive panel sessions involving research active faculty and potential supervisors of work. The delivery team assumes zero content knowledge. At this stage of their studies, students have come through various routes, and exposure to methodological theory cannot be assumed.

The event culminates in an energetic staff-student speed networking session. Faculty are positioned in an open space where students circulate to discuss their research ideas. Importantly, students are provided comprehensive details of each staff member’s research interests and experience, allowing them to target those they want to speak with. A closing social event encourages continued research conversation.

Throughout the remainder of the year, there are structured workshops. However, these are made optional, based on specific skills and at specific times. Thus, student work becomes more focused around the needs of the project, rather than the prescribed chapter and verse of a research methods curriculum.

In the school, we are proud of the Thesis Conference initiative, and it has become a highlight of the year. However, it is not our intention to present this initiative as best practice. Rather, we look to shift the assumptions of undergraduate thesis work as a teaching burden and instead embrace the potential, with appropriate structuring, for undergraduate students to become engaged researchers.

A call for more engagement

For a student, independent research culminates in a piece of work they are immensely proud of, allowing them to define their professional identity, and enhancing their relevance and impact on their field. By integrating undergraduate students with impact-oriented researchers, we allow for the co-creation of research projects. Making them more contemporary, better resourced by interested faculty, and met with more capable and enthusiastic students.

The unexpected benefit of this initiative has, however, moved beyond student outcomes. Research output of the school has been markedly improved by what is essentially a teaching initiative. Through the “thesis conference” structure, our final year student work has now developed to such an extent that it is represented in peer-reviewed articles of CABS-listed management journals, multiple international conferences, invited contributions to industry symposia, and invited academic book chapters.

Therefore, we want to challenge the notion that undergraduate research represents a burden to be minimised by academic staff. Instead, we frame our engaged student researchers as the necessary lifeblood to a management school’s research agenda. While students may start off methodologically ill-equipped, once the foundational elements are instilled, they are enabled to explore the contemporary nature of research work for themselves. They develop a meaningful curiosity around a research problem, rather than an abstracted skill set.

We encourage all universities to embrace the impact and currency that undergraduate students offer as engaged researchers in their own right.

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