Undergraduate honours research supervision can be a satisfying experience. I consider the honours project as an apprenticeship into research and academia, even though most students do not continue down that path. While it’s true that each student is different, there are certain qualities that I’m looking for as the end goal for all students. I identify the gaps in each student so that I can develop these particular aspects throughout the year. These are deep expertise, articulate, social responsibility, integrity, and taking ownership.
There are several indicators of the development of deep expertise, which I base on the different levels of learning. First, there are the skills that you gain by working off a set method. Next is the ability to modify the method, based on your experience and your understanding of a goal. Finally is the ability to develop their method.
What I’m looking for, at the highest level, is that the student is familiar with the previous work, they contribute to the knowledge base, and they recognise novelty. In other words, by the end of the project, I can consider them to be a research colleague, where we can have discussions about the direction of the work.
It’s not just about being generally articulate, but it’s about being able to communicate in terms of their topic. For example, having the right vocabulary for the subject is one way for the student to communicate with the supervisor. Another way is to understand the concepts, so the student can describe the concept using everyday words.
What I’m looking for is that the student can articulate their reasons for having a particular position; for example, they can make a convincing, logical argument for a new methodology. Another skill that I’m looking for is the ability to formulate a specific question about what they don’t understand, which contributes to their broader understanding of the topic.
For their final presentation, I schedule regular practise presentation sessions so they can practise their explanations pitched towards a third-year engineering student. The complex ideas in the project should be understandable to another honours student who has taken similar subjects but has studied a different honours topic.
I would like to see the student contextualise their work with a broader social goal. For the year they are so focused on minute technical aspects, that they can forget the significance of their work. It can also be a way to help with their resilience when things get tough.
There’s an anonymous quote that resonates with me, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” I want to be able to trust the work that the student is producing, and trust has to be earned on both sides. Part of enabling this is to develop a safe space to explore ideas and to make mistakes. By creating a safe space, the student does not feel afraid to admit that they made a mistake, or when they don’t understand something.
Another part of integrity is following the research code of conduct, including acknowledging previous work and when others have helped in their work.
Taking ownership is another way that I consider independence. For me, it’s easier to identify when a student takes ownership of an issue and help them develop this, rather than trying to help them develop independence. The way I develop taking ownership also has levels, same as developing deep expertise. One dimension is that they ask me questions about their work after reading about it, rather than be passively taught the whole thing. Another dimension is to give them a clear set of steps to follow for their work initially, so they can gain competence before developing their method for analysis.
By training the student in the art of research by identifying the qualities that enable research, I can take each student and develop them into competent researchers at the undergraduate level. And who knows, maybe a few of them want to do a PhD with you after they graduate!