Practice Your Research Skills Early and Often

by Merle Massie, Coordinator, Undergraduate Research Initiative

We tend to think of university as a place to soak up knowledge, to learn stuff, to end up with a ‘brain full of smartness,’ as one twelve-year old boy once explained.

Yet the new University of Saskatchewan Learning Charter promises, and expects, more.

While content knowledge is important, the Charter sets out skills and practices that students, faculty and staff are expected to pursue.Three of those skills and practices are specific to research. USask wants students, faculty and staff to:

  • be able to locate, understand, evaluate and use information effectively, ethically, legally and with cultural appropriateness
  • develop and apply appropriate skills of research, inquiry and knowledge creation and translation
  • Communicate clearly, substantively and persuasively in different academic, professional and cultural contexts; nihtâ-âcimowin/nihta achimoohk (being a good storyteller).

An excellent place for students to start their skill journey is FYRE:
First Year Research Experience.

In 2018-2019, there were over 2700 student enrollments in FYRE classes. A FYRE class is a regular first-year 100 level course in every way except one: it deliberately uses research as a way to teach and learn.Students take on a research project (sometimes individually, sometimes in groups). The project must follow the research cycle: build a research question; investigate the question using the tools of the discipline; and share that knowledge with peers beyond the professor.

From the educator’s perspective, FYRE responds to another key point in the Learning Charter: strive for excellence in teaching. Using FYRE, the professor provides “opportunity for students to be inspired and engaged with and in the process of authentic inquiry, wherever possible, in their learning.”

A few thoughts on building FYRE into your first year course:

  • Consider course outcomes, beyond content. What skills does your discipline require? These could be discerning good sources, building and executing a survey, working in a lab or archive, analyzing data, synthesizing research to date, and so forth.
  • Build skill development into your course, scaffolding student learning. Give them room to develop skills, try, fail, and succeed.
  • Build a course component that could be a FYRE project. Students must move through all three parts of the research cycle: Question∼Investigate∼ Share.
  • Register your course with Merle Massie, Undergraduate Research Coordinator (email merle.massie@usask.ca) and choose a paid research coach.
  • Build a project timeline, with student feedback from a research coach and deadlines.
  • Design a way for students to share their findings beyond the professor.

FYRE allows educators to bring research into the classroom, to use it as a teaching tool, and to be up-front that FYRE is about learning and practicing research skills.

Research can be messy, confusing, frustrating and hard. It can also, at the same time, pull a student in and give them a whole new way to look at what it takes to build and add new knowledge, and to share that knowledge with others. Your learning, and theirs, will catch FYRE.

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