What makes students want to research?

When given the opportunity, some students love to research while others find it tedious or intimidating. Many more lie between these extremes. Why are there so many different emotional (affective) responses to engaging in research processes?

In the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework, the first facet of research is:

Students embark on research and clarify a need for understanding

Students have to enter into research, and how they  begin is a function of 2 things: each student and the phenomena in question. Social dimensions will also play a great role in some contexts, but less in others. Whether the phenomena is a quark or a work by Shakespeare, student prior knowledge, experiences and interest in the phenomena will all play a part in the embarking.

Two years ago we began searching for one-word descriptors of affect that match each of the 6 facets of the RSD. The idea was not to attempt to measure or quantify affect, but rather make explicit the existance and importance of it. The descriptor that relates to embarking on research is:

Decidedly curious


This was epitomised by Albert Eistein’s statement about one of his defining characteristics:

I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.

That students would be curious, where they would say that learning experiences ‘inspired something in me that wanted to find out’, as one First Year Medical Science student put it . There are numerous other drivers to embark on research, such as funding, kudos, survival, role-requirement, and so on. But as an educational intention, it would be a fantastic outcome if students left our courses a little more curious about the discipline than when they started. That, as well as acquiring more knowledge, we had piqued their curiosity to learn even more. In addition we had equipped them with skills to begin to satiate this curiosity.

In a workshop on affective descriptors, a provocative word suggested by a member of the audience was ‘intrepid’. It is an instructive word to consider because whilst it is a word that impels into discovery, the characteristic described is more in the person alone; an intrepid explorer will tend to be intrepid wherever she is exploring. However, I may be curious about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but not about quarks. Curiosity is more about a relationship between people and a phenomenon being research.

In formal education, may students be enabled to research in a way that provides them as much or little structure and guidance as necessary. May it be that out of these carefully crafted research experiences their curiosity is nurtured. And among many affective factors driving them to embark, may curiosity be chief.

John W