Research projects

Description

Research projects actively involve students in scientific enquiry. Depending upon the project and, in part, the year level, students are required to select and develop a research topic, design and conduct the research, then analyse, interpret and present their findings. As such, research projects play an important role in student learning. There is widespread agreement among university staff that graduates in the biological sciences should have a strongly developed sense of science as a process, rather than a collection of facts [see also: Learning outcomes in the biological sciences].

Many research projects are highly authentic. They are 'real' in terms of the methods employed, the research questions and the forms of presentation and reporting. As such, research projects are usually highly valued by students. Students respond well to activities that develop skills they believe are 'relevant', and that afford a level of independence, choice and creativity [Example: Postgrads 1].

While research projects are most typically associated with later year studies, including honours year projects, we were also told of many instances involving first and second year students. Many of the projects described to us involved fieldwork of some kind, or were associated with industry visits or placements. Groupwork was a common feature, as was peer assessment [see also: Groupwork; Peer and self-assessment].

For students planning a research career in the biological sciences, developing skills in rigorous experimental design, careful data collection and analysis is critical. The postgraduate students we interviewed stressed the importance of being able to design and adapt methodologies appropriate to their field of study and solve problems in their projects as they arose. Similarly, staff emphasised the value of teaching and assessment strategies that develop students' skills in identifying appropriate research questions and evaluating evidence. The central aim for many of these approaches is to create relevant learning experiences which reflect the research culture and approaches in the discipline [Examples: Fairweather 1; Hargreaves 2; Macaulay; Mamo; Mulder 1; Wassens 1]. 

Projects in third year may provide students with practical and research experience relevant to their honours project. The honours year project then gives students contact with and the opportunity to integrate with the research community.

Learning tasks and assessment that involve some element of research cover a wide range of activities, including essay writing and critical analysis of a scientific paper. For the purposes of this site, we have included under 'Research projects' only those tasks which involve some form of experiment, observation or data collection, and analysis. Many such research projects also involve literature-based research as an integral or preliminary stage of the research. We have not, however, included written assignments or presentations that involve literature-based research only. The assessment of these types of tasks are described under Written assignments and Presentations, as appropriate.

[see also: Teaching-research nexus]

Approaches

Research projects vary greatly, ranging from extended and high stakes projects such as in the honours year, to those that are short-term and largely formative in nature. All, however, can be considered to have four component stages.

1. Research design and development, which may involve:
  • preliminary literature review [Example: Postgrads 1];
  • experimental design, including hypothesis formulation [Examples: Mulder 1; Postgrads 1];
  • preparation of a project proposal [Examples: Kleindorfer; Mamo; Wassens 2]; and/or
  • negotiation with members of project team [Example: Mulder 1] or others (e.g. industry partners).
2. Data collection, which may involve:
3. Data analysis and interpretation, which may involve:
  • statistical analysis;
  • image analysis;
  • the use of specialist equipment (e.g. computing programs);
  • further literature review; and/or
  • peer review and discussion [Example: Wassens 2].
4. Reporting, which may involve:
  • further literature review;
  • written report preparation in journal article style [Example: Mulder 1] or in a style relevant to the profession (in the case of professional programs);
  • thesis preparation (as is the case for many honours year projects); and/or
  • oral and/or poster presentation [Example: Mulder 1; Postgrads 1] [see also: Presentations].

The type of activity involved in each stage, and the nature of assessment, will vary greatly between different projects. This variation is due in part to differences between fields of study. However, the particular learning objectives for the project have an equally important influence. For example, a project which is intended to introduce students to the complexities of project design may emphasise identification of key research questions and the preparation of a project proposal [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Kleindorfer; Mamo; Wassens 2]. In contrast, the assessment of other projects will focus on developing students' skills in data analysis and reporting [Examples: Mulder 1; Wassens 1].

Another key feature, mentioned frequently in discussions with staff, is the opportunities research projects present for students to actively engage with the research literature. For example, researching the background necessary to prepare a project proposal during the design stage [Example: Mamo] or during the preparation of a manuscript in the format required for a journal during the analysis and reporting stages.

A third source of variation in research projects and their assessment is the degree of structure and the type of support provided to students. In first year, for example, students may be introduced to research through a highly structured process involving a a series of interrelated yet separate tasks [Examples: Cooke 1; Cooke 3]. Feedback may focus on draft reports, rather than the final document [Example: Wassens 1] and students may rely heavily on teamwork, peer review, or both for support and feedback [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Kleindorfer; Mamo; Mulder 1]. Classes or resources may be provided to assist with particular aspects of the projects, such as the analysis stage or teamwork processes [Examples: Kleindorfer; Mulder 1]. 

In some courses, research projects are designed to help students establishing links with relevant industries and organisations such as CSIRO [Example: Kleindorfer]. Work or industry placements are also included in some courses, for this reason. Students may be required to carry out a research project as part of this experience, and may be able to contribute to larger and established research programs in the field [Examples: Benkendorff 1; Cooke 2]. 

Students do work experience... working on real projects e.g. develop a reserve management plan. They meet with community members and professionals. It gives them practical experience and sometimes leads to employment. [academic]

Feedback

Due to the extended and often collaborative nature of many research projects, two common themes emerge regarding feedback:

  • Students are able to seek assistance and feedback at various stages of the project, and this may be structured around formalised assessment tasks, such as the presentation of a project proposal or a draft report [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Kleindorfer; Taylor 4; Wassens 1]; and
     
  • Peer feedback makes a valuable contribution, and is often specifically incorporated into the task design in order to reflect the culture of research in the discipline [Examples: Mamo; Mulder 1] [see also: Peer and self-assessment].

In addition, staff or later-year students may be assigned to mentor or supervise particular research projects [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Kleindorfer]. The obvious case is that of the full year honours research project, where it is common for students to work on individual projects under the supervision of one or more staff members. While these projects are, in essence, individual, students with related projects or supervisor are able to provide peer support and feedback. For smaller projects in earlier years, supervision or mentoring may involved academic staff, postgraduate students or even later year undergraduate students.

Issues and strategies

The complexity of assessment of honours year projects and other major research tasks

The assessment of major research projects, especially honours or similar high stakes projects, presents a particular set of challenges. For example:

Determining assessment criteria when projects are diverse in method and scope

It is difficult to set a common set of specific assessment criteria for projects which are diverse in the depth and breadth of the research questions and in the methods employed. As a result, criteria are often very general and, as a consequence, may be interpreted differently by individual assessors. Differences in methodology, and the particular challenges faced in learning and applying particular methods, also creates differences in the 'level of difficulty' of projects - a factor which is usually taken into account in assessment, yet can be difficult to make explicit to students or to novice assessors.

To address this, some courses make use of rubrics which, while necessarily general in the criteria they include, are an attempt to describe the key areas for assessment, and to illustrate levels of attainment. For example, one of many criteria might be 'Critical Analysis' and a high grade described as 'Has a detailed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the results. Explains the importance of work in a broad context, comparing it with similar work. Identifies how the work could be extended'.

In addition, it is common to involve multiple assessors. This provides an opportunity for discussion and moderation of grading, as necessary. Importantly, this also provides a mechanism for mentoring staff new to this form of assessment or to a particular department or institution.

Ensuring assessors have the appropriate disciplinary expertise

Securing sufficient assessors with the appropriate expertise to effectively assess major projects can be difficult, particularly as multiple assessors are usually required and as the supervisor may be excluded. One approach can be to involve assessors from outside the institution. This can have benefits in terms of benchmarking when the external examiners are from other universities and familiar with expectations and standards for the project - for example, a major honours year thesis. However, involving external examiners who are unfamiliar with university assessment can present additional challenges. While they may have the specific disciplinary expertise to critique the work, additional measures are needed in order to describe the criteria and standards expected.

Setting and monitoring standards

The honours thesis is a high stakes assessment task. It is common for the thesis to be the major contributor to the overall honours grade - and the honours grade is a significant factor in determining whether or not a graduate will be offered a postgraduate scholarship or place. As a consequence, there can be considerable 'pressure' on grades. This may be 'upward pressure' -  where individual assessors or departments seek to maximise the chances for their graduates to continue with further study. Alternatively, it may be 'downward pressure' - with large numbers of highly able graduates, there may be a perceived need to 'spread' grades in a normative fashion.

In addition, some academics reported that the expectations of honours project outcomes are now significantly higher than they once were. For example, in some disciplines and institutions there is a growing expectation that the honours thesis will result in a peer-reviewed, published paper.

These various pressures are recognised, and therefore the monitoring of standards is given high priority by academic staff and institutions. Increasingly, institutions are involved in benchmarking against similar institutions, and a common reference point for benchmarking is the honours thesis.

[see also: Benchmarking; Setting and monitoring standards]

Logistics of managing and assessing research projects for large classes
 

In large classes, such as are typical of many first year units, resource constraints can make managing and assessing research projects difficult. There are, however, several strategies for involving students in research early in their course of study:

  • Use of group work, and therefore maximising opportunities for collaboration and peer feedback [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Kleindorfer; Mamo] [see also: Groupwork];
  • Including research projects in selected first year classes with smaller cohorts, rather than large core subjects such as first year Biology;
  • Involving later year students as mentors for projects and project groups; and
  • Including peer assessment [see also: Peer and self-assessment].

Rather than presenting a problem, careful design of a research project can provide both students and researchers with special opportunities, as a large class can provide opportunities for the efficient collection of large amounts of data [Examples: Postgrads 2; Taylor 4].

[see also: Coping with resource constraints; Engaging large classes through assessment]

Determining which stage or stages of a research project are to be assessed

As described earlier, research projects can be considered to involve four stages: design, data collection, data analysis, and reporting. Which of these are assessed, and how, will be determined by the aims of the project. For example, if learning about project design is critical, it is logical to assess this directly [Example: Mamo]. During the honours year, for example, it is common for students to present a proposal and preliminary literature review early in the year, and to receive extensive feedback and often a grade for this stage of the project. For other projects, the assessment might largely focus on the written report, yet the assessment criteria may cover both data collection and analysis.

In addition to a final written report or thesis, research projects often include preliminary reports (oral, written or both) [Example: Mamo] and a final oral presentation. This is particularly true of major projects such as honours projects, and of group projects. The assessment of an oral presentation provides an opportunity for students to address specific questions posed by the audience, including the examiners, and their ability to address these questions is often a criteria for assessment. [see also: Presentations].

Generic skills

Research projects provide students with opportunities to develop a range of generic skills such as:

  • Critical thinking - Students are typically required to create hypotheses, relate these to the relevant theories, and to think critically about what they are doing and discovering with respect to the scientific method. Demonstrations of critical thinking can be assessed through the written report, and also through oral presentations - particularly where there are opportunities for questions from the audience and examiners.
     
  • Communication - Written and oral communication skills are central to the reporting stage of research projects. These, therefore, are usually assessed directly. In addition, research projects provide students with an opportunity to develop interpersonal communication skills, particularly when groupwork, industry placement, or peer assessment is involved.
     
  • Team work - Group-based research projects rely upon effective team work for their success [Example: Kleindorfer]. In some cases this is assessed, and often through peer and self-assessment [see also: Groupwork; Peer and self-assessment].
     
  • Independent learning - Major research projects such as honours projects are critical in the development of students' skills in independent learning. The sustained nature of the project, the need to recognise and respond to unpredicted developments, and the requirement to set the findings into a broader field of knowledge are particularly demanding aspects of such projects. It is often said that the research findings themselves are almost irrelevant - rather, that it is the process of 'doing science' and taking responsibility for seeing the project to completion that is at the heart of the learning.

In addition, research projects can develop students' skills in project management, experimental design, data analysis and interpretation, and information literacy. While each of these will be specific to the disciplinary context, they are also readily transferable to many other areas of research.

Authentic assessment

As described earlier, research projects are typically highly authentic. They provide an excellent illustration of the teaching-research nexus - the links between teaching, learning and research [see also: Teaching-research nexus]. The authentic nature of research projects can be seen in a variety of ways:

  • Authentic research questions - It is usual for projects to address issues at the cutting edge of knowledge in the field. These questions may be applied in nature, and relevant to a particular problem, or they may relate to the leading edge of research in a particular area of fundamental, or 'pure', research. Honours projects usually address specific questions related to the key research area of the supervisor, research group or department. Even first year projects, however, may have direct links and relevance to current research in the biological sciences [Examples: Taylor 4; Wilson 2].
     
  • Authentic methods - Even for quite modest research projects, the methods used in data collection and analysis are often those used in current research [Example: Taylor 4]. For example, students might collect and preserve plant materials using standard field techniques. Data analysis may involve the use of software and datasystems of importance in the field, such as BLAST searching genetic databases for matching DNA sequences. Recent technologies are providing increasing opportunities for students to access facilities and current information in ways that would not have previously been possible. 
     
  • Authentic experiences - Groupwork and peer assessment, in various forms, are features of many research projects. This is often intended to reflect research practice in the discipline and in industry [Examples: Kleindorfer; Mulder 1]. Particularly in applied biological sciences degrees, undergraduate students are encouraged to carry out projects based on industry questions, and thereby gain an understanding of the context for their research [Example: Kleindorfer].
     
  • Authentic forms of presentation - The forms of written presentation specified for research projects also align with norms in the discipline. For example, it is common for students to be required to present their findings in the form of a journal article or industry-relevant report style. Other forms, such as the thesis, are more specialised yet here too there is the requirement to follow the appropriate scientific conventions in communicating information and ideas. For later year students, there may be the opportunity to present their work at external conferences, internal seminars, or to a general audience - all authentic forms of presentation in the biological sciences.


To reference material from this site, please use:

Harris, K-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C. & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Available at: www.bioassess.edu.au