Applying the RSD revealed gaps

For the past two years I’ve been using a “research portfolio” project in my upper level plant science courses.  One primary goal of the project is to create learning opportunities that help students better align their career goals with class learning outcomes.  In this semester-long project, students are asked to use the portfolio to help refine the course to better meet their interests and career goals. They are expected to “dig” for information and become highly conversant on the crop(s) or ornamental plants they chose to investigate.

The first phase of the project asks students to state their career goals and describe how the course aligns with their career goals, and/or personal interests.  This seemingly simple task is actually quite painstaking for some students, but providing this opportunity for reflection often reveals some very interesting outcomes for the students.  This is particularly true of students who are required to take the course and may not initially see how the course aligns with their career or personal interests.  It’s usually fun to read the students’ response to this question, and more often than not, I’m pulled aside to hear at least handful of mini-epiphanies that have occurred from this process.  However, sometimes even after reflection students struggle to address this initial question and it’s these students who I think have the potential to benefit the most from the “self-study” aspect of the project.  It was difficult for me to determine how this aspect of the project aligns with the RSD framework because it’s not exactly “research” but I think any scholar needs to understand that immersing themselves in a topic, becoming highly conversant in it and having any depth of understanding, requires commitment to eventually allow themselves to be compelled by their natural curiosity to be driven to ask “what, why, how!?!?”  For this activity I aligned it to the RSD “Embark and Clarify” self-actuated research level 4.  Though this is just a brief activity, I do think it plants the seed for developing curiosity and motivation to persist in a research endeavor.

The second phase of the semester-long activity requires students to define their own learning goals in their particular topic of interest (the topic of their research portfolio).  This is followed by a series of self-study activities, including beginning a broad review of the literature, looking for gaps in knowledge, identifying a simple and achievable research question and refining and defining their research question, including specifically what methods they will use to conduct their work. Each aspect of this work is documented within their portfolio. It was much easier to align all of these aspects to the RSD (find and generate & evaluate and reflect at scaffolded research level 3).

Finally, students are asked to conduct their simple research activities, collect data, and disseminate via an oral report.  Their research portfolio is also included as part of oral exam material at the end of the semester.  These aspects of the project aligned with RSD Analyze, level 3 and Communicate, level 3.

What doing this alignment revealed to me is that I am not requiring or training students carefully in organizing and managing their data in the context of this research activity.  In separate classroom and laboratory projects students do various activities that train them in prescribed methods of data management and analysis, but they typically struggle with these activities and struggle further in communicating their confused data analyses.  The RSD alignment activity revealed to me that I’ve de-emphasized these aspects of research (organize and manage particularly!) in my students’ self-study based research.  In my opinion, this is a very important learning “gap” that I need to address thoughtfully and carefully in future iterations of this project. I’m looking forward to reading about the RSD alignments from other instructors so I can get ideas on how to better prepare my students for the “data organization and management” aspects of the research process, particularly when the projects are all individualized such as in this example.

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