The Necessity and Challenges of Teaching Undergraduates Research and Inquiry Skills
As a tier one research university, the University of Texas at Austin supports and encourages innovative research work from tenured faculty and undergraduate students alike. UT has specific programs and funds dedicated to helping undergraduates get involved in faculty research and develop their own independent research projects. The Independent Inquiry Flag (II Flag) at UT Austin works with professors to engage all students in the process of inquiry through an independent project that meaningfully contributes to their discipline.
Each discipline can integrate the II Flag in the way that best gives students in the field the inquiry skills they need for their futures. The courses’ culmination projects take many forms, from art exhibits or performances, to research papers or business plans. In every discipline, though, students engage in the full inquiry process, from developing a research question or topic to communicating their results to others. For the faculty leading II Flag courses, the experience of teaching these courses can be rewarding, even as it presents unique challenges as compared with their other teaching.
Last spring, Government faculty members Patricia Maclachlan and Xiaobo Lu piloted an upper-level course on Institutions and Comparative Political-Economic Development with an II Flag. Professor Maclachlan explained that they started the course because they “wanted to have a class that gives ambitious students an opportunity to put their best foot forward.” The Government department is looking to strengthen its majors’ research skills, and they saw this as an opportunity to offer a research experience to advanced students. Teaching the course with the II Flag helped them challenge those students and give them practical skills for their futures. Although only some of the students in the class were interested in graduate school, the instructors also saw this class as a stepping stone for research in the students’ future professional careers. For some students, this course allowed them to deepen their inquiry skills; for other students, this was their first opportunity to engage in independent inquiry.
In the course, Professors Maclachlan and Lu adapted the II Flag’s steps of inquiry to their discipline to help guide students’ research. They placed special attention on the first step, identifying the research topic, to help the students build the foundation of their research on solid arguments. Professors Maclachlan and Lu used at three-part approach to help the students develop argumentation for their research projects. First, they grounded the students in key theories from political-economic development. Then, they used in-class exercises to show the students how to use these theories as a framework for their arguments and research questions. Lastly, they set up one-on-one meetings with the students to help them further narrow their arguments and questions. Throughout this process, they were careful to give their students the freedom to branch out and explore their own research interests in the topic.
Throughout the inquiry and research process, Professors Maclachlan and Lu also challenged the students to engage with their peers’ work. In this step, the students had to critique a peer’s work as well as be reflective on the limitations of their own work. After reading their peer’s work, each student wrote up their feedback and prepared to discuss it in class with their peer partners. Similar to presenting at an academic conference, the students presented their research-in-progress to the class and received feedback from the group. Instead of a one-way written critique, this assignment required the students to discuss each other’s work and exchange ideas together. This peer review process gave the students experience giving and receiving feedback on their work so that they could strengthen their final paper, as well as practice presenting their work in a realistic, professional setting.
However, similar to most research projects, the teaching process was not as straightforward as Professors Maclachlan and Lu originally thought it would be. Early on in the semester, they realized that their students were at different places in their levels of research skills. Some of the students in the class had taken research methods classes before, but this was the first time many of the students had ever been exposed to the research process. This meant that many of the students were not prepared for the level of research or writing that the instructors had expected in the course. In a course with a large independent research project, teaching students with different levels of research skills and self-motivation proved to be one of the biggest challenges.
To address this, they focused on introducing and deepening the students’ understanding of key aspects of research: creating research questions and hypotheses, developing bibliographies, crafting a research design, and writing proposals. Although it was not an introductory class to research methods, they set aside time in each class to bridge gaps in the students’ research skills. They also gave them an introduction to key methodological skills, such as data analysis. Professor Maclachlan pointed out that, in spite of the students’ different starting places, “every student had room to expand skills in developing arguments and supporting them with evidence.” Learning and honing those skills was fundamental for the course and for their future careers.
Armed with the experience of teaching the course last spring, Profs. Machlachlan and Lu plan on teaching the course again in Spring 2019. However, they plan to make a few adjustments. Prior to starting the course, both professors have been intentional about communicating their expectations with the enrolled students and encouraging them to challenge themselves in the course.
They are also reaching out to the students to establish their level of experience with research skills and independent inquiry. The most important take-away they learned from teaching this class the first time was the importance of knowing their students’ research backgrounds. “Don’t assume any prior [research] knowledge, and survey the class at the beginning of the semester,” says Professor Maclachlan. She advises asking the students what research skill set they have and how familiar they are with the library’s resources. Then, instructors can tailor the course to the meet those gaps and further the students’ individual research.
Across the disciplines, the inquiry process necessarily varies and presents its own set of challenges. Likewise, courses with an II Flag will present different challenges and opportunities for each discipline. Professors Maclachlan and Lu’s course gave students the opportunity to take on an independent research project and deepen their understandings of the research process. No matter the student’s starting point or level of research skills, each student gained a deeper understanding of the inquiry process that they can apply to their work in the future.
If you would like to know more about the Flags program at UT Austin, you can find this information here.
By Abby Attia, Graduate Assistant for CSEF