‘Degrees of autonomy?’ and ZPD

In the presentation to a whole school that I mentioned in the last blog (20 April), one academic asked about the Research Skill Development framework (www.rsd.edu.au) in terms of ‘degrees of autonomy’. Specifically, he asked about the theoretical basis of ‘autonomy’, seeing it as potentially highly value-laden.

The educational notion of ‘model, scaffold, withdraw’, is a simple continuum of student autonomy which emerged from Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The RSD describes autonomy in five levels, rather than three, because this better reflects the range of academic practice of facilitating student research skills. The five levels of autonomy in the RSD are:

Prescribed Research (Level 1) : Highly structured directions and modelling from educator prompt student research. This is where the modelling comes in- demonstrating disciplinary ways of understanding, asking and seeking. Large lectures, for example, are fantastic places to model the types of questions valued in a discipline. Highly structured activities, including ‘cook-book laboratories’ and other step-by-step procedures are ways of students engaging within the scope described by ‘Prescribed Research’; in these activities there is explicit development of the six facets of the RSD.

Bounded Research (Level 2): Boundaries set by and limited directions from educator channel student research. Boundaries, such as the banks of a river, place constraints, yet there is room for manoeuvring within these limits. Likewise, students have more scope in Bounded Research than in the Prescribed Research, yet there is still structure and guidance. Students will make choices of directions, approaches and outcomes from a limited provided range, but that choice raises the level of student responsibility for and ownership of the research process. It also limits student floundering when this is deemed by educators to be unhelpful to student learning.

Scaffolded Research (Level 3): Scaffolds placed by educator shape student independent research. Scaffolding on buildings can be used for renovations and new buildings of a variety of types. Likewise, the scaffolds placed for Level 3 provide structure, yet require a high degree of independence to work within that structure. Like in the ‘model, scaffold, withdraw’ framework mentioned above, scaffolded research is the middle ground of the RSD continuum of autonomy. Yet the jump from ‘model’ to ‘scaffold’ is frequently too large for students to accommodate (it is beyond their current zone of development), and so Bounded Research is added below Scaffolded Research in the RSD.

Self-actuated Research (Level 4): Students initiate the research and this is guided by the educator. The change of scope from Level 3 to Level 4 is qualitatively different: students themselves instigate, choose processes, determine appropriate data or information and use appropriate communication modes. However, the jump to fully open-ended research is a huge one, and so Level 4 requires guidance from educators in terms of instructions and, often, marking criteria provided in advance.

Open Research (Level 5 ): Students research within self-determined guidelines that are in accord with discipline or context. This is akin to ‘withdraw’, however, ‘degree of autonomy’ focuses more clearly on student learning than educator activity. Students determine all aspects of the Open Research, however this is not open-slather or slap-dash. Open Research is partaken in a disciplinary or cross-disciplinary context, and so the rigours of the context apply.

Unlike many educational continua, the five-degrees-of-autonomy continuum is not linear, but rather cyclic.  This means that First Year students are often given initially prescribe or bounded research activities, and over the course of a semester or year, given increasing autonomy towards scaffolded and sometimes self-actuated research. If some students work successfully on Level 4 research assignments at the end of First Year (see , this does not mean that they have attained ‘Level 4’ of the RSD; it means they applied the degree of rigour required by First Year to research processes, and that their research skills have developed in a specific context. As these students move to Second Year, where the conceptual demand both broadens and deepens, and the rigour required by the educators increases, students may be better served by prescribed or bounded research early in the year. And so a spiralling through the years of increasing autonomy, and moves back to higher degree of structure has proven to be effective in some contexts. In other contexts, a more linear approach has been effective. Explore the degrees of autonomy on the interactive RSD http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/interactive/ .

The need for Prescribed Research activities may apply as well to First Year students as to Third Year students or PhD students. There are times when PhD students early in their candidature may benefit from a high degree of guidance, especially if studying in a discipline different to their previous studies, or in a different language. There are also times when First Year students may profit from higher degrees of autonomy. The degree of rigour expected will be commensurate with the level of study. Considering ‘degrees of autonomy’ raises teaching questions, the answers to which must be determined by the educator, whether as a lecturer of a large class or supervisor of one student.

The extended version of the RSD- the Researcher Skill Development framework (RSD7: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/rsd7/), extends the original framework by two further levels of autonomy into a realm that is unequivocally capital R research, that develops new knowledge. Levels 1 to 5 may see the development of knowledge new to the studnt, but not necessarily new to others. However Level 6 is Adopted Research, where others- researchers or communities- use your approach, practices or knowledge. Level 7 is Enlarging Research, which expands, consolidates or refocuses the discipline.

Having seven degrees of autonomy places First Year students on the same continuum as university professors, so all are on the same page. And after all, that is the nature of ‘universitas  scholarium et majesterium’: one rule for scholars and masters.

Higher Education Research Group of Adelaide (HERGA) Conference: 25-27 September

HERGA is an annual conference attended by 120+ academics and professional staff who are keen to hear about others’ well-evaluated teaching and learning practice.

This year the theme is ‘Bricks to bytes?’ and the call is out for submissions for individual papers and panel sessions. If you have been using the RSD in teaching, learning and assessment, you may consider presenting your approach and its evaluation. Abstracts are up to 500 words for presentation, or 750 words for a panel session.


This year for HERGA, the RSD team will be running on the 25th September two RSD workshops; in the morning there will be an introduction to RSD for facilitating student learning, and in the afternoon a focus on RSD for assessment.

Hope to see you there.





Fresher to Professor: help improve the RSD7

The extened version of the RSD is called the Researcher Skill Development framework – or RSD7 for short- and adds 2 further degrees of autonomy, to unambiguously place Professors on the same researching continuum as First Year students. The RSD7 has been around since 2008, however along with the 5-level version it is undergoing a revamp using feeback from the past five years.

You can find the current version at http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/RSD_RSD7_2013.pdf . Feel free to use ‘comments’ to suggest improvements- whether in text, formatting or appearance. Any opinions about the RSD7 are welcome- whether good, bad or ugly. The idea is to have an optimised version by 18 May, as we aim to submit around then an article outlining the framework and its deep use in one school over an extended period.

RSD, the frozen conversation

Yesterday I presented findings of interviews with 14 honours students, 7 PhD students and 10 academics in a school that began using the RSD (Research Skill Development framework) with First Year students in 2005, and have been using it with Honours students (4th Year) in the last two years. The title of the presentation was ‘RSD, the frozen conversation’. This is because the most striking feature in the analysis of the interview data across the three different groups was that the RSD (www.rsd.edu.au) and the various marking matrices (rubrics) that have been reframed by that framework (www.rsd.edu.au/examples) were text-dense and often hard to penetrate. Expecting students or academics to make sense of them could at times be likened to hitting them over the head with a block of ice. The students who really benefited from them at a deep level were those that had had substantial conversations with their supervisor about what these criteria meant, which were opportunities to defrost the rubrics.

The Head of School stood up at the end and noted that it was the same for him; he was given a rubric to assess oral presentations just before an event, and had great difficulty using it. He noted that a half-hour conversation before hand was exactly what he needed to make sense of the whole assessment process.

I observed that, given the increase in use of the RSD in second and third year in the school, students will come to their honours year with the conversation being defrosted on the way. As the use of the RSD spirals through the years of their programs, there will be more explicit development of skills, with students -and academics- increasingly aware of how to make the conversation about assessment fluid and alive.

11, 12 Dig and Delve: RSD for Early Childhood

What nursery rhyme has a line that nicely foreshadows research? It is ‘One two buckle my shoe’; when the poem gets up to 11, 12 it says ‘dig and delve’.

To dig and delve is to probe deeply, and not to stop until there is a satisfactory resolve. It struck me that the lines of this nursery rhyme, with a few modifications, have some parallels with the 6 facets of the RSD (see these at http://www.rsd.edu.au):

‘1, 2 what do I do?’  This connects to students embark and clarify (facet a), where questions, aims or ideas- from the educator or from the children- launch the enterprise, and the process requires much subsequent clarification of purpose.

‘3, 4 open the door’. Finding information or generating data (facet b) only occurs when students or educators decide which door- to the playground, the garden, to the neighbour or to the internet.

‘5, 6 pick up sticks’. Students must discriminate between the information they want- such as sticks, and other superfluous data- such as stones, snails or weeds. This parallels evaluate and reflect (facet c).

‘7, 8 lay them straight’. Students organise information and data and manage their time and teams (facet d).

‘9, 10 see the trend’. Students analyse well organised information/data and synthesise new understanding. (facet e).

’11, 12 dig and delve’. Students keep probing by going through cycles of these processes until they have something worth communicating and applying’ (facet f).

The RSD was always devised with primary to PhD in mind, as that mirrored Kerry O’Regan and my educational experiences. Now by creating a version of the RSD for early childhood educators that is song and picture based, there is an opportunity to explicitly develop this cognitive skill set across formal education, beginning with early childhood and continuing to PhD.

Do you think the 6 facets of the RSD can be developed with 3 to 6 year olds? If so, what could be the advantages and the barriers?

John W

RSD: seasoning for Clinical Reasoning

On Monday, I am working with 160 First Year medical students for two hours, five weeks into their Case Based Learning (a variation of PBL) curriculum. The theme is making more explicit the processes around clinical reasoning, and focusing on underlying mechanisms.

I was a little surprised when I ran a session for these same students in Week 2 of their six-year degree, and introduced facets of clinical reasoning using a scenario; the surprise for me was how effectively the six facets of the RSD (Research Skill Development framework: see www.rsd.edu.au) framed the reasoning needed in a clinical context. So, on Monday, I am introducing them to the CRD- Clinical Reasoning Development framework, which is the RSD retitled, and with descriptions of their current medical scenario lined up with each of the six facets. This case seems to fit neatly with ‘Level 2: Bounded Reasoning, where boundaries set by and limited directions from educator channel student reasoning.’ I will also show the students how the first case they completed several weeks ago lines up with ‘Level 1: Prescribed Reasoning, where highly structured directions and modelling from educators prompt student reasoning’.

The advantages of this approach to making resoning processes explicit seem to be substantial:

  1. Students struggling with Case Based Learning can benefit from an explicit but non-linear conceptualisation of clinical reasoning.
  2. It maps out where students were working conceptually early on in the course (Level 1), where they are currently working (Level 2), and especially  where they will be required to work in the immediate future (Level 3).
  3. As these levels (five in total) of the RSD describe ‘degrees of autonony’, the students develop a sense of the need to be working increasingly autonomously in clinical contexts. This is vital if they are to be effective doctors making decisions on wards, in practices and in other environments.
  4. The medical curriculum has requirements to incorporate more research components, and if the same six facets are used for Clinical Reasoning Development and Research Skill Development, then there is a natural segue between these overlapping, but nuanced cognitive skill sets. This means that students see explicitly that developing the skills pertaining to clinical reasoning also develops the skills associated with researching in medical contexts. This connection is frequently not clear or  intuitive: having ‘sister frameworks’ of CRD and RSD make the connection obvious.

So, on Monday I will again sprinkle the six facets of the RSD  as cognitive seasoning to further medical students clinical reasoning.

What have you done to develop clinical reasoning with students who are struggling with the process?