From ‘student’ to ‘researcher’

Sophie Meakin on the benefits of her university’s ‘research partners’ project.

When I applied to university, I thought that I would be attending lectures, engaging in self-directed reading now and again, and completing assignments the night before the due date. What I did not expect was to be designing and undertaking my own research study before I had even completed my undergraduate degree.

It was a suggestion I made in an essay on student motivation that sparked the idea in my lecturer’s mind, leading me to a ‘Students as Research Partners’ (SRP) Project. Similar to the undergraduate research assistantship scheme offered by the British Psychologist Society, Newman University's SRP scheme allows students to work alongside academic members of staff on novel research projects. Both the student and staff member have the opportunity to be equally involved in the development of the research idea, and putting together the application for internal funding. Students work on real projects with real data as professional partners – immersed in academic life in a way they might not otherwise experience during their time at university (Ahmad et al., 2017). Both staff and student benefit from the insights into each other’s world: the student gaining valuable insights into the professional life of their chosen field, the staff member getting a better awareness of the needs, trials and tribulations of the student.

Identifying potential

My first SRP meeting was filled with feelings of nervousness and excitement. Though initially intrigued by the project idea, and those being put forward by other potential research students, I was also apprehensive. Would I have time to conduct my own research alongside my academic studies? What if I failed? I would be the student, my research partner a staff member; surely I would be inferior during the research process?

It quickly became apparent that this would not be the case. We were expected to work as equals, something that I had not experienced before the project. It was daunting, but I was excited to be given an opportunity to grow as an academic, with the means to create a solid grounding for further research and study.

My project was based on an assignment I conducted in the second year of my undergraduate degree, which was assessing the nature of students’ motivation. I had noticed a gap in the literature connecting what students said about their motivations with their actual behaviours. A comment I made grabbed the attention of my lecturer, who felt it had the potential to be developed into something more. I was asked if I would be interested in developing this brief commentary into a broader research project.

Upon successful application for internal funding at Newman University, we conducted a full research project – literature review, study design, ethical procedures, data collection, analysis and writing a research paper. We studied the relationship between students’ self-efficacy, motivation and self-directed study. Self-efficacy can be defined as the ‘confidence in one's own ability to carry out a behaviour’ or ‘beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments’ (Bandura, 1997, as cited in Jex & Britt, 2014, p.310; Armitage & Conner, 1999).

Following data collection, we found a significant difference between students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. No significant relationship was found between self-efficacy and motivation. Not only this, but students were found to be engaged in activities pertinent to their immediate goals, and not to focus on long-term extrinsic goals (for example, working towards completing the next assignment rather than preparing for end-of-year examinations). This was apparent even though the students stated the degree classifications they wanted to receive as goals at the beginning of the study, rather than short-term goals such as completing assignments. Students’ study behaviours may be refocused to concentrate on mid-to-long term outputs, in order to help students to achieve their extrinsic goals states.

Real science

Conducting real life research was exciting, as this time I wasn’t just doing it for the sake of a grade. This was real science, to contribute to the broader academic community, to produce rather than to simply absorb knowledge. I was now an active participant in the creation of knowledge rather than a passive student (Freire, 1970; Healey & Jenkins, 2009; Peters & Mathias, 2018).

At times it felt like I was completing an extra university module, yet unlike any assignment I had ever completed. I was required to conduct the research myself and not just handed the data to analyse. It felt purposeful and exciting. If all of my university assignments had involved this much proactivity, I think I would have put more time and effort into my studies. For me, the more input I have in a research project, the more I feel the need to tend to it.

Any feedback I was given regarding my work meant more to me than a grade ever could. I also found that I was reflecting on the research process, something I never experienced when completing an assignment. Lairio and colleagues (2013) say that student identity develops through the learning experience and is reliant on the individual choices made; the interaction with opportunity and reflective activity. Conducting my own research has allowed me to develop my student identity through the interactions and challenges it presented, in an optimistic and constructive manner. Completing it brought belief into my student identity… I’m moving towards the identity of ‘researcher’ (Thorogood et al., 2018). There’s a real thrill to working with real data – a practice known to have many benefits for students’ interest and engagement with learning (Gould, 2010; Libman, 2010; Singer & Willett, 1990). My work has informed teaching practice, as it has been incorporated into teaching and seminars. Conference presentations have been incorporated verbatim into the lectures given to students, and aspects of the data collection performed were also adapted into students’ seminar activity.

I hope it is inspiring for other students to see what their peers can achieve with a bit of extra effort. My research is also benefiting current and future students as they have the opportunity to work with the data from my study.

Growing confidence

Psychology styles itself as a research active and research-focused discipline. Professionals working in the field are expected to adopt the scientist-practitioner model (Chwalisz, 2003; Stricker, 2003). McGill and Beaty (2001) note that it is not just a question of students engaging with theory accumulation, but also learning how to become a practitioner. So why shouldn’t students adopt this stance too? The work that you do as part of your university modules can sometimes make you feel constrained in terms of how you pursue a piece of work. I started to move away from these constraints, towards more independence in terms of making crucial decisions with limited guidance. I still ran every decision past my research partner, but I was becoming more confident in my own choices. I can now say with confidence that I feel like a professional researcher rather than just a student.

I am now a firm believer that students shouldn’t have to wait to conduct real research. There are so many benefits. My writing has improved, increasing my confidence with what was to come in my third year of university and then extending to my Master’s degree and PhD. I have had my work accepted for conferences, validating my sense of its quality and increasing the visibility of students to the broader academic community. I hope to publish the study in a journal in due course.

Continuing the journey

I hope to inspire other students and staff to take an idea that fascinates them and turn it into a reality. Employability is peppered throughout various teaching activities in other courses (Cranmer, 2006; Morley, 2001; Reddy et al., 2013), and with the SRP I essentially created my own employment experience opportunity. My dream is to become a clinical psychologist, which is proving to be a long and difficult road. Research has found that many successful applicants to clinical training courses have previously worked as assistant psychologists or research assistants (Clare, 1995), so moving from the identity of ‘student’ to ‘researcher’ early on can only be of benefit. I am hopeful that my own research exploits will give me an edge.

I still have days where I wonder how I have got this far in my academic journey. But being acknowledged for my work has given me validation that I am able to do anything that I put my mind to (as long as I put the extra hours in!). I am thankful that my lecturer saw something worth following up in my work… I doubt I would have seen it myself.

My closing advice? Take every opportunity to be active in your learning, as it will pay off in the long term.

-   Read more about the Newman Student-Staff Partnership


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