By Samiksha Neroorkar
In the past year, I worked as a teaching assistant for an introductory research methodology course for Masters students at my institute. As part of the coursework, students had to write a literature review paper followed by a research proposal. The students were daunted by the task set for them. They came up with several questions on how to go about looking for sources, how to write a review, what are research objectives, research questions and so on. Finally, all the students managed to put together their research proposals and it was time to assess them. The professor I was working with, Dr. Ashwini, sat with me to check the first few research proposals to ensure I was grading as per her expectations. Seeing my strict adherence to the scoring scheme and my stern approach to the students’ submissions, she stopped me and said kindly, “Don’t forget your first research assignment my dear. Grade accordingly.” Her words struck a chord with me and I paused to think back to my days as a student in the Master of Education course – the time when I went from being primarily a consumer of knowledge to being a creator of knowledge.
As a student in school and in my undergraduate programme, my research writing was limited to class assignments and project reports. But my first opportunity of large scale knowledge creation came when I had to write a mini literature review paper for my Survey of Science Education class during my Master’s program. I had had very little exposure to academic research until then. I did what best I could and confidently submitted the assignment.
My first feedback session with the professor of that class went on for an hour. He patiently explained to me that what I had written was actually a set of disjointed article summaries rather than a coherent literature review. Further, the font size, spacing, citations – everything needed correction. I was disappointed in myself and spent a few days sulking in the library. Even though my professor pointed me towards helpful links for academic writing, I remember being lost and confused for some time before I understood how to go about writing a satisfactory paper. It was a very tough time for me. In due course, like any other researcher, I learnt how literature reviews are written, the difference between a theoretical paper and an empirical one, how to conduct qualitative and quantitative research, how to draft research proposals and so many other aspects of the creation of knowledge. But the memory of my first ever introduction to this process got lost somewhere. Thanks to Dr. Ashwini it was jogged again. Immediately, I set the bar a little lower for the papers I was checking.
Through my journey in higher education thus far, I have realized that inducting novices into the practice of research is indeed a very crucial process. Here I share a few observations and recommendations regarding this process of induction.
Generally, the first writing task in any beginner course on research methodology or research writing is a literature review assignment. Research proposals and empirical research assignments come after. As Isaac Newton rightly said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Explicitly teaching students how to go about the process of searching scholarly literature is the first step in getting them to create knowledge effectively. Students often have difficulty with exercises that come naturally to expert researchers like using appropriate keywords or knowing which web search engines to use.
Further, providing small writing tasks and simultaneous feedback on the same is necessary. Having students draft only the broad research question, then the objectives and sub-questions in parts or having them do a mini literature review with just two to three academic papers and then a full-fledged literature review with more number of papers are examples of this. This way, students can gradually learn the techniques of academic writing and how it is different from general writing. Also, the instructor can get an idea of the student’s progress and the areas which need strengthening. Introducing the concept of peer reviewing in beginner classes itself is a good way for students to learn from each other and understand how research reviews work. Students can possibly be engaged in low-stakes writing exercises that are not graded so that they can develop their academic writing skills without being stressed out about the marks they will score. Writing an abstract in one minute, a five point summary of a paper, or paraphrasing a class discussion are some examples of low stakes writing exercises that can be done in class.
Finally, empathy and patience on the part of the instructor and the teaching assistants has a strong positive impact on the student’s attitude towards the process of research. And once the student is receptive and eager to learn more, well, half the battle is won.
Transitioning from consumers to creators of knowledge is something each student has to do in higher education. Professors, teaching assistants and peers can work together with students to facilitate a smooth transition. This will help develop excellent researchers capable of making significant contributions to the body of knowledge and advancing our understanding of the world around us.
Photograph by Deepak Kumar Pandit:
Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai New Campus.
About the Author
Samiksha Neroorkar is a PhD research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India: my study examines the employability of vocational education and training (VET) students in Mumbai. I am presently writing my dissertation