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What is research?

Vidya Jonnalagadda

Vidya Jonnalagadda from the Bhavan’s Vivekanand College, Hyderabad uses the concept of Research-Based Pedagogical Tools (RBPT) to answer the empirical question. Vidya conducted a survey-based study of 117 educators (UG/PG college lecturers) to find answers to key questions and raise a few more. She has been a part of the RBPT workshop at NISER Odisha and Bhavan’s College Hyderabad. The participants of the workshops were geographically heterogeneous, representing the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh.

Identifying student activities as genuine research
Identifying student activities as genuine research  

The goal of RBPT is to use the practices of research as a teaching technique. I was interested to know as to what student activities were considered research by college teachers. Can the activities by students be broken up into research components and rated? Moreover, is it possible to do research without adequate reagents and high-end instruments? Teachers were presented with fictional scenarios of students taking up voluntary activities and asked if they regarded them as research. The recorded responses were anonymous and binary.

Following were the scenarios:

The percentage of responses to the scenarios were recorded as yes or no

Three scenarios involved sample composition analysis (blood, beverage and water samples). Interestingly, a higher majority of educators (90%) recognized the analysis of water samples to be a research activity compared to that of sugary drinks (84%) or blood groups (51%). Is the impression of doing research an outcome of the model being studied? Noteworthy, only the study of beverages was associated with a poster presentation; suggesting another question – is communication of one’s scientific study an essential component of research activity? Interestingly, the analysis of vermiculture with a potential entrepreneurial and environmental benefit was ranked lower to that of water and beverage samples. Does this mean that “applied” work is less “research” than “academic” work?

The next activity that I assessed was that of reading. While writing a review and giving a talk on research papers was ranked high (75% and 61% respectively), reading about a topic before class was not counted as research by 55% of the participants. In contrast, further reading on a topic after it was taught in the class was considered as research by 75% of the participants. It is curious that voluntary enquiry to subject matter is not perceived as research until primed by a teacher. Yet, state of the art reading associated with an oral/written presentation is perceived as research. Also, the medium of the post class enquiry mattered - reading syllabus-related topics were ranked high compared to attending a seminar or watching a video lecture delivered by an expert.

One dimension of my thought experiment was to learn the responses of teachers to the activities constituting research. Among the population tested, over 50% of teachers thought that at least 7 of the 10 activities constituted research; and 19 teachers among the 117 tested considered all the 10 activities to be research. Whether this behavior has to do something with the training of teachers is unknown as the survey was anonymous.

Since the teachers had around a minute to answer each question, I consider the answers to be instinctive. I here suggest a rubric, based on which student activities can be ranked. I hope that this leads to a consensus on the idea of research. I suggest the following five parameters to be a part of the rubric:

  • Involvement: Did the student do something actively (read, measure) or passively (listen, watch)?
  • Manual Skill: Did the activity require skill in a laboratory technique?
  • Reference Work: Did the student survey literature to locate a suitable reference material?
  • Comprehension: Did the student analyze the result of the activity to gain a deeper understanding of the topic?
  • Communication: Did the student generate new content in an oral, written or a graphic form?

When the “instinctive” responses were rated using this rubric, the activity that led to a holistic learning and effective communication was the one where the student set up and evaluated several conditions to arrive at the “best” condition (the vermiculture activity). Based on this rubric, reading a topic before a class rates higher than attending a talk or watching a video. I can conclude that, attending classroom lectures – even lectures describing research work or results – does not help the student develop any research ability. Moreover, activities that do not involve lab work: reading one or few papers, and giving an oral or written presentation score higher than a repetitive exercise of analyzing blood groups or water samples. When judged by this rubric, even in setups where lab space, reagents, and/or equipment is limited, a teacher can design and recognize library-based work as authentic research that provides a student the opportunity to develop transferrable skills and generate new, high quality content.

Rubric for qualifying student activities as research * - If the student has searched for the video lecture himself (not recommended by someone else).

Vidya stresses on using a standard criterion as a basis of judgement of research activity. She plans to use this rubric to further develop the idea of research. She says it might help a teacher appreciate genuine discovery and design projects not heavily dependent on laboratory facilities.