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Teaching undergraduates research skills by doing and reflecting

Douwtje van der Meulen


This article explores what factors contributed to the success of the collection management course and in specific the role of the designed group exercise aimed at teaching undergraduate students basic skills in the scientific research method by doing and reflecting. It finds its explanations in the learning theories of constructivism and constructive alignment.

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1Within the European Higher Education Area all programmes and significant constituent elements of programmes are to be based on the concept of learning outcomes since 2010 (Kennedy 2006).  The intended learning outcomes should inform the learning activities and assessment format, and the focus of education is to be ‘student centred’.  These requirements are also found within the norms for programmes and courses at the University of Oslo (UiO). Both within the obligatory pedagogical courses for academic staff and at the University’s internet pages plenty of good ideas are given on student-engaging activities, but too little thought is given on how to go about designing a course that integrates teaching activities, assessment of student learning and learning outcomes as well as assuring high student activity and the encouragement of deep learning. So, when in 2009 I was given the opportunity to design a new course in collections management for second year undergraduates, I wondered about how exactly to achieve that.

2The aim of undergraduate courses is not only to develop discipline-specific competence, but also to prepare students for their future career and life in society. Therefore students need to also develop generic skills such as, for example, communication, problem-solving, the ability to integrate ideas and concepts, the capacity to work in teams and group environments and research skills. The final course design in collections management focussed on incorporating discipline-specific competence and generic skills with, as the main student activity, a group exercise aimed at teaching undergraduate students basic skills in scientific research method by doing and reflecting. This article explores what factors contributed to the success of the course and specifically the role of the designed group exercise, and finds its explanations in the learning theories of constructivism and constructive alignment.

Outline of the course

3Within the field of education there exist contradictory views on how best to teach generic skills. Some are of the opinion that this is best achieved in stand-alone courses while others hold the view that generic skills (also known as student attributes) are generally best taught in a relevant context and embedded in normal courses (Biggs and Tang 2007:65-68). It is the latter view that is adopted in the design of the course, as time does not permit developing independent courses, but more importantly generic skills are not generally acquired instantly but need to develop over time and be applied within the specific context of the conservation profession. Therefore the course offers discipline-specific competence through lectures and student-activity seminars accompanied by an extensive reading list, and incorporates an independent group exercise with the aim of addressing the generic skills of being able to undertake the basic steps of the scientific research method, the capacity to work in groups and to communicate orally.

4Research is an integral part of conservation and a skill that needs to be introduced to students as early as possible. The role of science in conservation is introduced to students at the entry-level course, and it seemed a logical follow up to introduce students at the second level to the steps of the scientific method.  However, there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed. For reasons of resources, the Bachelor program in Preservation of Cultural Heritage at the University of Oslo takes in 25 students every other year. As this particular course is also open to students outside the programme, a group of 25 to 32 students might attend. This is a long way from the ratio 1 lecturer to 8 students as mentioned in the ENCoRE document on practice (2014), and makes close individual guidance more problematic. This issue was approached by dividing the class into groups of no more than 6 students each.  

5Working in groups also reflects the reality of working in museums today, where conservators with responsibility for collections care will find themselves increasingly working as part of a team, for example the exhibitions or preventive conservation team. Having good group dynamics and communication between the different professionals in the museum is essential for the outcome of the project. Conservators have not always been good communicators, as shown by texts from the late 1980s to early 2000s (Keene 1996:112; Henderson 2001:103). Giving beginner conservators practice in teamwork and effective communication was therefore deemed to be a valuable learning outcome.

6Subsequently, an appropriate research method that could be undertaken by a group of students needed to be found. The activity also had to have relevance for the course topic and the conservation field, and take up no more than 18 contact hours.  The choice fell on the qualitative interview method. Interviews are increasingly used as a research method in the conservation profession, for example artists interviews, and effective communication skills are a requirement for obtaining a good result.  The assignment asked students to undertake a short (no more than one hour) interview of a conservator and another staff member of a museum institution, on a collections management task that these two had worked together on. As such, the TLA integrated course content and development of generic skills.

7To further improve oral communication skills and to practice dissemination of research results, each group is required to present the results of the interview to the whole class. The group receives immediate feedback from an appointed opponent group, and in addition the presentations are recorded on video and commented on by the course leader in a group tutorial. The final course assessment consists of an essay, where the student chooses its own topic guided by the course leader. One requirement for the final assignment is that the information gained during the interview is used in the essay.

Teaching theory: constructivism

8The teaching philosophy that I follow is based on a Chinese proverb “Tell me and I will forget, Show me and I will learn, Involve me and I will understand” attributed to either Confusius (551-479 BC) or Xun Kuang (312-230 BC).  This philosophy is found in the learning/teaching theory of constructivism. The main thought of constructivism is that people learn and construct new understandings by using what they already know and believe, and that teaching involves engaging students in active learning and building on existing knowledge and experience to help students achieve a more mature understanding (Bransford, Brown and Cocking 2000:11; Biggs and Tang 2007:21).

9There exist differing ideas about how to apply constructivism for teaching, but quite often it has been interpreted as learning-by-doing by pure discovery. In 2004 Mayer published an article in which he reviewed research on pure discovery teaching in the 1960s, 70s and 80s compared with guided discovery teaching (14-19). In the first case students are given a problem to solve without hardly any instruction and in the second the teacher provides systematic guidance focussed on the learning outcome. The conclusion is that in order for learning to take place it is important that students do come in contact with the to-be-learned material in order to construct appropriate knowledge to be used for making sense of new incoming information, something that easily can fail in unguided discovery. A requirement for students to integrate new incoming information with an appropriate knowledge base is to have enough freedom to become cognitively active in the process of sense-making. The challenge for the educator becomes how much and what kind of guidance to provide and how to specify desired outcomes of learning.

10An important element in the constructive theory is that effective learning leads to a change in looking at the world. This change first happens when the newly gained information is structured actively within the knowledge base already existing. Purely acquiring new information will not bring about this change. In order for such a conceptual change to take place, education needs to provide for that. The constructive learning theory favours social learning as developmental changes in cognition can be generated from group discussions and interactions.  By “social learning”, what is meant here is that students take almost full responsibility for working together, and help each other to understand and learn.  Furthermore, learning is improved by activating different sense modalities, such as hearing, touch, sight, speech, etc. (Biggs and Tang 2011: 63). In general, people learn a great deal more of what they use and do in real life than just hearing or reading about it.

11For the group exercise students are guided through the scientific research method by addressing one step at a time and undertaking one or more teaching/learning activities that are thought to be best suited to help students to master that specific step of the scientific research method. Here is made use of the technique of “just-in-time lecturing”, meaning that information is given when there is a need for it. For example, for the first step, “Setting a research question”, the students receive a lecture on what a research question is and how to formulate it, followed by an activity where the groups set a research question for their projects. A welcome side effect is that this assignment also activates students to read relevant literature early on in the course on both the scientific research method and topics within collections management. Table one shows the steps in the scientific method in column one and the teaching activities employed for each of the steps in column two. The systematic guidance also ensures that students progress with the set task, and in essence this procedure follows the guided discovery teaching method as suggested by Mayer.

Table 1 Teaching activities designed for each step of the scientific method

Table 1 Teaching activities designed for each step of the scientific method

Social learning

12The constructive learning/teaching theory prefers collaborative learning. There is a large body of research undertaken into the effects of student collaboration (Lai 2011:7). Some research indicates that group problem solving is superior to individual problem solving, whereas other research shows that working in groups can have drawbacks, as for example in cases where the lack of understanding of some students goes unnoticed, or for low ability students when the learning context is not favourable (Lai 2011:7, Koh et. all. 2007:96-98). There seems to be general agreement that most benefit is gained when there is heterogeneity in the group with respect to level of ability and knowledge base. In those cases the whole of group behaviour is more than the sum of its individual parts and low ability students tend to use higher cognitive approaches to learning than they normally would (Lai 2011:9, Webb et. al. 1998: 621, Koh et. all. 2007:97). The outcomes of the group work depend also on the quality of the interactions. Too much disagreement or lack of cooperation for example might hinder a positive outcome (Lai 2011:18).

13Earlier experiences with non-functioning groups led to the decision to start the group exercise with teaching/learning activities that address group dynamics, effective communication and conflict management. Besides brief lectures, students are given various exercises. These consist of discussing a brief video on poor group collaboration, telling each other about their own experiences with group work and a case-study describing scenarios of a functional and dysfunctional group where the students have to predict how these different groups will perform during their oral presentation, a situation that basically reflects their own.  In addition, they are given the task to write an agreement on how the group will be run, communicate with each other, solve problems and decide on the role that each student will have in the group, such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper etc. In case of conflict the rule is that the group tries to work it out among themselves first; here the agreement functions as a tool, and if they find no solution they can come to the course leader. In the three times the course has been run, one student withdrew as he was not able to contribute to the group, and only once mediation in a collaboration problem has been needed.

14Simply placing students in groups and making them aware of group dynamics is not enough for effective learning to take place. Biggs and Tang mention four factors that are essential: the intended learning outcomes need to be clear to both students and lecturer, the context should be beneficial for both teaching and learning, students need to be motivated and the lecturer’s attitude towards student learning must be positive (2011:10, 34-80). In the following sections the reason why each of these factors are important is looked at, and how they have been addressed in the designed group exercise.

Intended learning outcomes and approaches to learning

15Intended learning outcomes express to what level students are expected to understand or perform the material taught during the course. The verbs used in these statements relate to different cognitive levels of learning. Learning outcomes that ask for memorising, identifying and comprehension will activate lower cognitive levels, whereas applying, hypothesizing and reflecting relate to higher cognitive levels. In turn, these statements will inform the type of teaching activity that is undertaken to achieve the intended outcome and can as such influence the approach to learning (Biggs and Tang 2007:55-57).

16The educational literature distinguishes between surface approaches and deep approaches to learning. Examples of surface approaches are to memorise learning content when understanding is required or listing points instead of working out an argument. The result of surface approaches is focussing on isolated facts rather than the meaning and structure of what is taught. Understanding the big picture as well as knowing the relevant details is what characterises the deep approach. To encourage students to take a deep approach to learning, the teaching activity needs to give the student the possibility to focus at a high conceptual level (Biggs and Tang 2007:22-27).

17How have these issues been addressed in the group exercise? The aim of the exercise was to apply the basic steps in the scientific research method and the activity consists of executing all the steps by undertaking a small research project. Rather than just reading about it and repeating ideas back, the student has to actively work with the theory and use the higher cognitive levels of learning such as applying and reflecting. This student active approach forces the learner to ask questions and find answers. For example when having to state the research proposal, questions would arise of what was now a good research question. When was it too imprecise, vague, too broad or too narrow?  The student does not only learn the steps but also gets a more detailed understanding of what is required.

What is a positive teaching and learning context?

18Criteria that have proven to have an influence on a rich teaching/learning context are teaching activities that are relevant and valued by students, tasks that can be readily performed in the time given, activities that build on the knowledge that students already possess, receiving formative feedback and reflecting on learning (Biggs and Tang 2011: 58).

19Relevance refers here to discipline or professional relevance as opposed to learning outcome, and can be defined as “the perception that something is worth knowing” (Roberson 2013). According to Roberson relevance is determined by the utility factor i.e. understanding how the content is useful to one and to relatedness i.e. how “current learning is related to the students’ own knowledge and experience and future learning” (Roberson 2013). Making students see that content is relevant will, independently of how interesting it is, draw and keep students’ attention. As such, it relates directly to student engagement, motivation and self-regulated learning.

20The educational literature distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation “refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable” (Ryan and Deci 2000: 54). A task perceived to be relevant and challenging by students will help them to become more interested, and this in turn will reflect in increased input that results in high-quality learning and creativity. Feelings of competence can enhance intrinsic motivation but only if the student is given a sense of autonomy (Abrantes, 2007: 961-962, Ryan and Deci 2000:55). Extrinsic motivation “refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome” (Ryan and Deci 2000:54). Examples of such outcomes are approved qualifiers, good assessment grades or gaining approval of others or self, but can also be the fear of sanctions such as getting a low grade. The degree of active personal commitment caused by extrinsic motivators depends on the value that students put on them. They can hinder engagement if the student feels incompetent to undertake the task or expects that it will not give the desired outcome (Ryan and Deci 2000:74). Factors that influence the feeling of being competent are the size of the task, knowing what is expected and time pressure. Educational research mentions that too huge a task and too little guidance and time to complete the task can result in worrying, taking the focus of the student away from the intended learning outcome, and therefore hinder learning (Biggs and Tang 2007:23-24).  As the quality of learning has proven to be generally low when motivated by extrinsic factors it is advised not to link learning activities to a form of assessment (Biggs and Tang 2007:36).

21To ensure that students know what to expect, the aim, structure and requirements are explained at the start of the course. Although the task seems overwhelming at first, during course evaluations students mention that they do not experience the workload as too much. Reasons given are that interviewees and projects are already organised by the course leader, the step-by-step progression, and the feeling that they get so much out of this course that they are willing to put some more effort in. As motivating factors the students mention, among others, researching real cases and getting in contact with the professional conservation world, collecting data not available in textbooks and feeling that they actively contribute to the course. Also having the freedom to determine the research question and type of information collected as well as feeling treated as adults responsible for their own learning. Students feel that the content of the course is highly relevant for the profession they hope to get into or in some cases are already working in. Initially, the oral presentation was not linked to any assessment to lower the pressure on the students. However, students reported in their course evaluations that they like it to be counted as a qualifier. This request was put in place for the following course, and now students commented that the qualifier is unlike any others they had done and enjoyed it very much. The qualifier does not seem to work as an extrinsic motivator that hinders learning, but as a reward for all the effort the students put in.

22Another important aspect of providing a positive learning/teaching context is constructive feedback during learning, also known as formative feedback and an opportunity to reflect.  (Juwah, 2004:3). Feedback can enhance learning greatly if it is understandable to the student, appropriate to the task, given regularly and focussed on actions that the student can control as well as can act on (Juwah, 2004:4).  In short, feedback supports learning best when received whilst doing a task (Hattie 2013:32). In current educational research there is an emphasis on the central and active role of students in the feedback process (Juwah, et. al. 2004:4-5). When working in groups, students will discuss and comment on each other’s ideas and understanding. As well as gaining feedback, collaborative learning provides students with opportunities to reflect on their own learning by consistently comparing their understanding with their peers.  

23It is widely recognised that reflecting on what is learned offers the possibility for theory to be linked with practice so that meaning and knowledge can be constructed (Biggs and Tang 2011: 61; Ryan and Ryan 2013:5; Wong 2016:1). To a certain degree the depth of reflection taking place depends on the students’ study skills, degree of self-management and self-assessment, but strategies for deep reflection can also be taught. There is much literature on strategies that can develop deep reflective learning, such as reflective journaling and reflective interviews. However, Ryan and Ryan in their research on reflective learning conclude that deep reflective skills are best developed through a systematic and organised programme-wide approach. This conclusion is based, amongst others, on educational research that distinguishes at least four different hierarchical levels of reflection. These levels develop along a depth continuum, from rudimentary reflection to well-developed deep reflection (Ryan and Ryan 2013:4). Further, students will, dependent on their progress in their studies, have differing developmental states. A first year student will have enough on reflecting on concepts and ideas whereas mid-way students can start to concentrate on contributions of peers and use theory and frameworks to relate to practices. Final year students can cope with relating theory, knowledge, professional standards and experiences to professional practice and construct meaningful relationships (Ryan and Ryan 2013:12; Henderson 2011: 104).

24In the third column of table two, student activities for each step to the scientific method are listed. This shows that doing, reflecting and feedback are continuous returning activities and different senses, hearing, seeing etc. are used as the course goes on. The presentation allows students to be acquainted with the scientific reporting format IMRaD (Introduction, method, results and discussion). Each member of the group needs to present a part of the project, circa 3-5 minutes. At this point in the course, I as course leader become the student and the students the experts. This is also the moment that giving constructive feedback is practiced. Whilst one group presents, another student group is appointed to be adjudicators and give feedback in the form of at least one positive critique and one point that can be improved upon. The presentation is recorded on video and sections of it discussed in a group tutorial. Students receive feedback from the lecturer on both presenting and execution of the task. As can be expected most students are nervous to see themselves perform, but nearly all find that they performed better than expected and see the value of the exercise.

Constructive alignment

25The teaching/learning strategy called constructive alignment has been applied in the design of the course. Constructive alignment is a teaching strategy that aims to encourage students to use higher cognitive levels of learning than they usually might, by integrating and aligning all components of a course. The strategy, developed by John Biggs, is based on the constructivist theory of learning and therefore focusses on teaching and learning activities that activate the learner. The starting point is defining the outcomes students are intended to learn. Important here is that not only is the topic that the student should learn described, but also the activity that the student should undertake in the form of an action verb such as explain, apply, analyse etc. Thereafter teaching/learning activities are designed that get the students to undertake the task defined in the intended learning outcome.  Finally an appropriate assessment format is found in order to judge if the student has achieved the intended learning outcome. Learning is thus constructed by the activities that students need to carry out, rather than what lecturers do (Biggs and Tang 2011: 95-110).  

26The assessment task needs to cover the intended learning outcomes for both theory in collections management and the generic skills. Therefore an essay is chosen as assessment using the IMRaD-format (“Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion”) and where students decide themselves on the research question and have to use information gained during the interview process. In this manner the assessment is connected with the teaching/learning activity and the intended learning outcome. The good grades obtained by the students show that the method works. Those few students receiving lower grades do generally have problems with academic writing.


27Carefully aligning learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities and assessment catches, as it were, students in a web of learning. Likewise, it can be said that the student starts in the middle of the web and gradually constructs new knowledge by means of doing and reflecting as the course goes on. The assessment in the end consolidates the newly learned information. Another advantage of careful alignment is that not only discipline-specific content is built up logically but also the development of generic skills. Besides learning the skills in an appropriate context, embedding generic skills in normal courses also has the advantage that they can help to make a course more relevant and motivating for students.  

28In addition, the lecturer needs to be aware of the influence that his/her attitude towards student teaching has on the way students learn. What the lecturer does or says can lead to either surface or deep approaches of learning. If deep learning is the aim, the learning outcomes stipulated need to be constructed as such and the teaching activities should be designed to support the use of higher cognitive levels in learning, so that students achieve the stipulated levels of understanding.

29According to Hattie the greatest effect on student learning is achieved when lecturers become learners of their own teaching and students become their own lecturers (2009:271). This analysis has certainly given me insight into my own teaching, and I hope it might be an inspiration for others. At the same time that which works for one teacher in one context might not necessarily work for another. Therefore, each lecturer needs to find his/her own solutions.

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List of illustrations

Title Table 1 Teaching activities designed for each step of the scientific method
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Electronic reference

Douwtje van der Meulen, “Teaching undergraduates research skills by doing and reflecting”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, connection on 22 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Douwtje van der Meulen

Douwtje van der Meulen studied archaeology at the University of Groningen, archaeological conservation at University College London and Museology at University of Leicester. Since 1997 she has been working for the Department of Conservation at the University of Oslo and teaches since 2003 both at Bachelor and Masters level in Preventive Conservation and Objects conservation.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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