Research Students Learning Circle by lindayy

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Research Students Learning Circle

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									Research Students Learning Circle
    Paper presented at the Graduates for the World: A Vice-Chancellors teaching and learning showcase of scholarly
reflection and inquiry, University of Sydney, 5-6 November, 2003.

I Hughes1, M. Atkinson1, A Campbell1, M. Dameni2, F. Everingham1, S. Lovering3, Z Rapaich,4,
V. Ryan1, T Saetherskar1, L. Yuan5.
1.
    School of Behavioural & Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney; 2.
Vocational Training Center Isabelle De Boismenu, Bamenda, Cameroon, 3.School of Occupation and Leisure
Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney; 4. Faculty of Engineering, University of Sydney.
5..
    Sichuan University, Chengdu, China.

ABSTRACT

The University of Sydney leads Australia in education for research degrees. The University expects students to learn
processes and methods for research, but academic groups do not always model active learning and inquiry. Too
often, research supervision frustrates creativity and open inquiry, and too many students find themselves lost and
bewildered, not knowing how to engage in active research and discovery. A group of academics and research
students on Cumberland Campus are using action learning to support postgraduate research students from various
disciplines to conduct quality research and to complete on time.

We meet once each month as a facilitated peer support system and engage in cooperative inquiry into the process of
learning to be a researcher. In August 2003 membership included the facilitator, seven postgraduate research
students, a visiting scholar and two invited researchers. The project round-table discussion is the heart of the research
learning circle. We use four questions to structure reflection on each project:
1. What did I plan to do? What was supposed to happen?
2. What actually happened?
3. What can I or we learn from this experience?
4. What do I plan or intend to do?
The last question becomes the first question of the next month.

Each participant presents their project in turn, and all offer reflection and suggestions to help the presenter to address
an issue, solve a problem and move forward. Off-campus participants send a monthly report by e-mail, which is
discussed by those present. A summary of discussion is returned by email after the meeting. Arrangements for
individual consultation between research students and their supervisors are not changed by participation in the
learning set. Our diversity of culture and academic discipline ensures a rich tapestry of responses.

We retain individual responsibility for the content and method of research, and the progress of the project. The
research learning circle compliments and supports the traditional research supervisory relationship by structuring the
process of learning, providing peer support, facilitating problem-solving, and building a community of scholars.

The roundtable discussion will be a demonstration of the learning circle process.


Introduction
   The University of Sydney takes pride as Australia’s leader in research and education for research degrees (The
University of Sydney, 2003). The University develops knowledge, and expects students to learn a variety of
processes and methods of doing this. But departments and academic groups do not always model and demonstrate
how to become a learning system (Senge et al., 2000). Too often, research supervision frustrates creativity and open
inquiry, and too many students find themselves lost and bewildered, not knowing how to engage in active inquiry
and discovery. We are using action learning to create a learning community (Levin & Greenwood, 2001) on
Cumberland Campus, to support postgraduate research students from various disciplines to conduct quality research
and to complete on time.
Methods
    Students enrolled in Master of Applied Science, Doctor of Health Science or Doctor of Philosophy programs
meet as a learning circle once each month. This meeting is a facilitated peer support system and a cooperative
inquiry(Heron, 1996) into the process of learning to be a researcher. In August 2003 membership included the
facilitator, seven postgraduate research students, a visiting scholar and two invited researchers. Three of these
members participate through the Internet, from Canberra, Saudi Arabia and Cameroon.
    We conduct a monthly three-hour face-to-face meeting. Each participant reports on progress, reflects on learning
and makes an action plan. We use an e-mail list for notices, to support off-campus participants and for ongoing
supportive discussion. Some of use a recording form for brief notes at each meeting, and an e-mail archive provides a
record of the cooperative inquiry process. Arrangements for individual consultation between research students and
their supervisors are not changed by participation in the learning set.

Process
    The research learning circle places emphasis on the process of learning to be a researcher. Each individual
participant retains responsibility for the content and method of research, as well as the progress of the research
project. In the research learning circle, we compliment and support the research supervisory relationship by
structuring the process of learning, providing peer support, facilitating problem-solving, and building a community
of scholars.
    We begin each meeting with a brief period of socializing, and a short exercise to clear our minds to focus on the
learning set process. The project round-table discussion is the heart of the research learning circle. Each of us has
about ten minutes to reflect on progress and ask for input or help on our project. We each use four questions to
structure reflection on our project:
    5. What did I plan to do? What was supposed to happen?
    6. What actually happened?
    7. What and why were the differences?
    We focus on the presenter’s project, and offer reflection and suggestions to help the presenter to address an issue,
solve a problem and move forward. A facilitator encourages all ideas and suggestions, in a kind of brainstorming.
Our diversity of culture and academic discipline ensures a rich tapestry of responses. The person presenting the
project reflects on the suggestions and may accept or reject after reflection. The next questions answered by the
presenter are:
    8. What can I or we learn from this experience?
    9. What do I plan or intend to do?
    This last question becomes the first question for the next month’s meeting.

    The round-table format is informal and supportive, with a loose agenda. While one participant may need more
than ten minutes to work through a problem, another may be brief. Coffee, tea and snacks are continuously available,
and laughter is frequent. There is a strong expectation that every member will attend and contribute to every meeting.
The facilitator does not act as a research supervisor or teacher, but as a bridge between all the participants. He
ensures that each participant is aware of the agenda, encourages new or shy students to contribute and records
proceedings for the benefit of off campus participants. Like any other participant, the facilitator may share
experience or knowledge to support the participant presenting at the time.
    After the project round-table, we spend about forty-five minutes on ‘agenda items’. These may include a trial
seminar presentation by a participant; a seminar on the process of research (how to write a literature review or use
research software, for example) or managing the business of the learning set, such as arranging an end of year dinner
meeting. As the close of the meeting each of us offer a brief reflection on the usefulness (or otherwise) of the
meeting for ourselves.
    Those of us who are off campus answer to the first three by email before the meeting time. During the round-
table, the learning circle uses the same process to offer suggestions, sends a summary of these by email after the
meeting. We are looking at ways to improve the process for off-campus students using interactive web technology.

Discussion
   The learning set process may be of interest to research students and their supervisors. A participatory
demonstration will be offered during the conference.

References
Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage.
Levin, M., & Greenwood, D. (2001). Pragmatic action research and the struggle to transform universities into
        learning communities. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook for Action Research: Participative
        Inquiry and Practice. London: Sage.
Senge, P., NCambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools That Learn.
        London: Nicholas Brealey.
The University of Sydney. (2003). Research. Retrieved 7 July, 2003, from
        http://www.usyd.edu.au/about/research/index.shtml

								
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