There is a prevailing, erroneous impression that research skills at undergraduate programmes are cut out for those who see themselves doing a PhD or are interested in a career in academia. This should not be the case, because the research skills at this level not only motivate some to pursue academic careers but also foster technical and evidence-seeking skills which are vital for careers in industry and policy roles.
Research skills at this level not only motivate some to pursue academic careers but also foster technical and evidence-seeking skills which are vital for careers in industry and policy roles.
This wrong impression causes some students to shirk their responsibilities and commit little effort to pursuing quality research when it comes to final-year projects (a.k.a. dissertations, long essays or capstone projects). Some of the problems inherent to this mindset can be linked to relatively limited exposure to research training in undergraduate programmes, high non-research course loads and limited institutional resources to aid in the acquisition of research skills.
In this post, I discuss ways in which students are prepared for research in most programmes, the challenges with the prevailing approach, the problems associated with doing group projects or individual project work, and what students, supervisors and authorities can do to address these pitfalls and achieve success.
Do Research Method Courses Prepare Students for Academic Research?
Research method courses embedded in accredited undergraduate programmes are not adequate to prepare students for rigorous academic research. This is due to the limited availability of time for students to practise the theoretical and conceptual issues studied. It is easy to see that obtaining a good grade in a research methods course does not guarantee that the student can do quality research from start to finish.
Students who want the full experience and gain research skills are able to garner much from such courses when they are made practical, yet there are usually other gaps which must be remedied with more research training. More so, from my experience, some lecturers dedicate time to hands-on experiences for their students but the students sometimes cheat or refuse to participate outright.
Frequent Problems with Undergraduate Research Projects
Departments within universities have different requirements for undergraduate research projects; for example, whether students work alone or in groups of two to seven members. There are both pros and cons associated with any of these approaches. Here, I discuss some of the challenges students face in conducting research.
Lack of or inadequate research data: For researchers in the Global South, data is a scarce resource. Unlike in the Global North where national or subnational data sets are sometimes publicly available, collated and sold by data management companies, or available at disaggregated levels, there is a dearth of data in the Global South. Only in a few cases do some schools subscribe to data but this may usually be in business schools. In the social sciences, one may have access to single-period data, collected by means of a questionnaire, although multi-period or archival data might be a better approach. In the medical sciences, few schools have the necessary equipment to aid in experiments that can generate data pertaining to critical research questions.
Weak research design and inadequate knowledge of robust methods: It is easy to run some regression routines or make an argument as to how a situation may be linked to a social theory. But to establish a cause and effect, for instance, there is the need for proper research design and the use of state-of-the-art techniques. For instance, in a recent project I undertook, we aimed at examining the impact of TikTok use on student performance. The best way to collect student performance data is from their academic transcripts, which are reliable yet that information was not available. We ended up using students’ self-reported data, which can be subject to responder bias. Also, the fact that we aimed at examining causation meant that we needed a robust research design that included treatment and control groups. Because of limited data and time constraints, we were unable to proceed.
Difficulties in accessing literature behind paywalls (especially for smaller universities and those in the Global South): Academic papers are often located behind paywalls, and universities in the Global South subscribe to only a few databases. Using university Wi-Fi could give access to some of these articles but given limited access to university accommodation, many students prefer to work off-campus. Off-campus access is created in some cases, but only a handful of students use it whereas access problems are common.
Analytical tools are required but not taught: Undergraduate research programmes usually include some research methods training. Such courses, covering quantitative or qualitative research, introduce students to concepts like research hypotheses, referencing, conducting interviews, research designs, correlations, regression, analysis of variance (ANOVA), p-values and normal distribution curves or the central limit theorem. The truth is that these courses are taught in a rush at introductory levels where students do not appreciate the practicalities behind them. For students who entered university during the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is far worse. These concepts are meant to be applied later to their project work, using analytical tools like SPSS, Stata, R, Python or others. Yet, in some social science programmes, none of these research tools are demonstrated at any time during the course. Even when they are used, a lecturer may select one method for teaching, which may not even be taught in detail or students may need to use another method which they were not taught.
Inadequate research discussion, presentation seminars or workshops: In Master's and PhD programmes, there are many opportunities to get feedback on one's work from a wider population. By design, undergraduate programmes are not structured this way. However, there are possibilities for this to be implemented, either as mini-conferences, colloquia or seminars for undergraduate students. This has the potential to stimulate research interest, creativity and collaboration.
The interest of some group members to engage in academic dishonesty (by subcontracting, plagiarising or copying from other work): There are various reports of some students subcontracting their research work, or submitting a project done by others as their own. This touches on a lot of the social and psychological problems with group work but this also happens for individual projects.
Concluding remarks and action points
In the Global South, research skills are relevant for academia but also in the public and private sectors. As such, training students to acquire research skills will help their countries enormously. Here, I share specific action points that students, university administrators and research supervisors or lecturers can adopt.
- Students will have to dedicate their time to using online sources like YouTube to learn lessons on how to conduct data analysis to complement their research skills acquisition.
- Other avenues include joining conferences or research training courses like the AuthorAID MOOCs.
- Students should be given the opportunity to work with or volunteer in research activities led by faculty members who are working on a project either in areas of data cleaning, data analysis or literature research. This is done in most schools in the Global North; doing the same in the Global South will be useful.
Schools and departments can create annual research events where undergraduate students come together to pitch their research ideas, present work-in-progress or interact in ways that help them co-share ideas and receive feedback.
For University Administrators:
- Departments should tailor their research method courses to provide a clear explanation of the research concepts, accompanied by practical examples for students.
- Schools should create avenues for undergraduate students to join Master's and PhD seminars and select some practical ways through which these concepts are applied.
- Periodic seminars on data analysis will be a useful way by which schools can introduce students to multiple analytical tools like R, Stata, Python, SPSS and others.
- Schools and departments can create annual research events where undergraduate students come together to pitch their research ideas, present work-in-progress or interact in ways that help them co-share ideas and receive feedback.
For Research Supervisors:
- Research supervisors need to develop group-level performance management indicators that prevent social loafing — where students put less time and effort into doing group work. These can help promote academic integrity among students.
Rhoda Ladjer Akuaku is the Secretary of the AuthorAID Ghana Hub and a Fellow of the Aspire Institute, a programme founded at Harvard University. Her recent research focuses on the drivers of TikTok use and their effects on students' academic performance. She is also a sustainability associate with the Dataking Research Lab, where she researches social mobility, climate policy, biodiversity and other sustainable development issues. Rhoda is a recent graduate of the University of Ghana and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Education.