A problem-solving pedagogy of research supervision

The term research supervision as pedagogy has challenged thinkers in the research by degree education field, in that while the term makes generic sense, practitioners often ask what specifically it means in terms of research supervision practice. In attempting to add value to this phrase, I have turned to well established literature on pedagogy and applied it to the context of research supervision. One framework which has informed this agenda is the Productive Pedagogy framework (Education Queensland, 2000) and over the last few years I have explored the application of several of these pedagogies in research supervision (Hill, 2007, 2008, 2010).

Problem-based curriculum is one of the pedagogies names in the Productive Pedagogy framework. It is identified by lessons in which students are presented with a specific real, practical, or hypothetical problems (or sets of problems) to solve. Such a curriculum, as the name suggests, presents learning through solving problems. In a sense, since we have been babies wondering what that thing (our hand) is that keeps crossing our vision, we have been using a problem-solving approach to learning. When we use the term problem-based pedagogy we are suggesting a similar process only changing the focus from the learner to the teacher, and suggesting that one method of teaching is presenting the learner with problems and expecting them to solve them.

Adopting a problem-solving pedagogy of research supervision involves making explicit the problems encountered in the process of undertaking a research degree, and emphasizing the solutions to these problems as a principal outcome in terms of researcher knowledge. It encourages the research student to see research as a problematic process and the act of a researcher as solving real research problems along the course of any given research project.

Such a view is not always articulated in literature about research. In fact, in the writing up of the research process in journal articles and in dissertations, many researchers inadvertently give the impression that the process was problem free and that it flowed exactly as had been expected and predicted in the original research proposal.

What are the benefits of presenting the research process as problematic?

When we present the research process as problematic, we provide research students with a construct of their practice that emphasizes that they are solving problems. This is a useful approach when, following graduation, students are asked by potential employers to discuss their problem solving skills. Students who have seen the research process as problematic, and their role as researchers as problem solvers, are more likely to embrace the graduate research capability of a problem solver.

In a more immediate way, when we present the research process as problematic to a research student, then they are more prepared for things not working out as they had expected or anticipated, and hence more resilient to rolling with the variance of research practice. They are more likely to solve the problems rather than panic and consider all is lost. For me in my own research practice this is the reality, that despite ample planning, things do not always progress as one would have intended and research is about making the process work while at no time undermining the rigour.

What are the strategies of advocating such an approach in the context of research supervision?

  1. Use the term ‘problem’ as you discuss a student’s research with them so that they are aware that they are solving research problems. This may be taken as a given by some, but unless these elements of research are specifically labeled, students are unlikely to remember the capabilities they have acquired through the research process.
  2. Be cautious in solving a problem for them and encourage them to think about how a particular methodological or data collection problem might be solved. Sometimes this requires then to be innovative rather than following a published investigative methodology to the letter.
  3. Encourage students to write about the problems encountered in applying their investigative methodology and how those problems were solved, so that they present their research process as problematic and one in which one of the outcome skills is problem solving. Similarly, an examiner of their dissertation can see the evidence for problem solving in their writing.
  4. Encourage students to see a solution to a research problem as part of their contribution to knowledge. When they talk about the contribution that their investigation has made to knowledge, it is not only the outcome of the study but the ways in which the study presented research problems and solved them with methodological strategies that also makes a contribution.
  5. Towards the end of their candidature, when you are helping them to recognize what they have gained through undertaking a research degree, include problem solving amongst the list of graduate research capabilities so that they are alert to these terms when they are being interviewed by prospective employers.

Hill, G. (2007) Making the assessment criteria explicit through writing feedback: A pedagogical approach to developing academic writing. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning 3(1), pp 59-66.

Hill, G. (2008) Supervising Practice Based Research. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development. 5(4), pp 78-87.

Hill, G. (2010, September) Making use of pedagogic models as reflective catalysts for investigating pedagogic practice. iPED Conference, Coventry, U.K. (available at http://eprints.qut.edu.au/34166/1/c34166.pdf  )
And conference proceedings http://curve.coventry.ac.uk/open/items/b719e069-ed88-d701-1348-bd4a3450f2d2/1/iPED2010Proc(2).pdf

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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