Experience of a brand new researcher

This is a sharing from my point of view as a part-time distance learner 5 months into my PhD in educational research. Pardon me that I might just be like talking in baby language here.

Seeing daily teaching with new eyes

As it goes with distance learning, everything is condensed into an internet presence and at the mercy of good wifi connection. At the beginning, I was worrying that I might miss a lot in terms of learning research methodologies and interaction with other researchers. These probably are the downsides. However, since my research topic is closely linked with activities in my full time teaching post, I came to realise that there is a great advantage to working alongside my field of study. It made me become more observant, reflective and curious. At least in my own case, the reciprocal relationship between research and teaching is developing slowly into a dialogue, as long as I do not see collecting data just as collecting data but as an integral part of my teaching.

This echos with what K. P. Cross (1996) presented in his keynote paper, Improving teaching and learning through classroom assessment and classroom research, in which he pointed to the benefits of “monitoring learning as it is taking place day-by-day” through classroom assessment. The purpose of this kind of assessment is to provide feedback to both teachers and students so that the teacher knows how to improve his or her teaching while the students know how to improve their learning. Both happen at the same time as a truly dynamic interaction. I especially appreciate his insightful metaphor of teaching and learning archery in a dark room where “both the target and feedback on hitting it are invisible” to the learner. Improvement in learning is impossible even with the best state-of-the-art equipment.

Developing new habits

In the beginning, I was suggested to look into the literature for related materials. As a matter of fact, it was too easy to get lost in the forest of books and research papers. My supervisors kindly reminded me to stay close to the reality of what I meant to study and not to prematurely label the reality with lots of assumptions that came out from my readings, as I might simply be speaking empty words without truly knowing what they meant. My supervisors just know my situation inside out to my amazement. This reminds me how I ought to reflect upon my own thinking habits.

In order to gear myself up, besides what are offered at LanU, I subscribed onto a few free coursera online courses on literature review and research methods. They recommended Chris Hart’s Doing a Literature Review from which I learned of the spirit as well as ways of going about it. I realised it takes much discipline for organisation and documentation. Besides these, there is a bunch of digital tools and tool books to go through such as Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, different online English corpus and the practice of free writing. All these are to train my new reading and writing habits.

Running a new design project

I studied and work in the design discipline. I am most familiar to running design projects. The design process covers research, ideation, visualisation, evaluation, reiteration, production and documentation. Creativity is needed for every single design project at different stages and to various extents. I found such a close parallel between doing a PhD and working on a design project. Both require making new meaningful connections and seeing things in a new light. For design it will be a connection between the so-called problem and solution. For PhD it is with data and theories.

Counting down

The day for the confirmation presentation was always lurking in my mind from day one. I learned the other week that it was meant to mirror the viva as closely as possible so as to give a flavour of that. I know the day will soon come and I hope I can face it with sufficient confidence as well as evidence for my research. As well as to doing many tasks, it helps a lot to plan backward and keep checking the progress in relation to the final expected outcome. I would remind myself that I should work with small chunks of work, and accumulate and distil them into more solid experience. I can relax a bit at times to recharge but never procrastinate.

Lastly, this piece of writing may put some of you into a nostalgic mood since you are such experienced researchers. However I believe it may also be an encouragement to some who are brand new like me as well. Let’s keep going!

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