Developing research identity through group activity: international students in an Australian setting

Year: 2013

Author: Soong, Lee (Hannah), Barnett, Jenny

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Certain international doctoral students begin their studies with very little research knowledge or sense of themselves as researchers, needing to develop this as a matter of urgency. One way of addressing this need is through facilitated group activity where there is an invitation to learn collaboratively and for one’s own purposes, rather than a requirement to learn individually and for assessment. Such group activity, designed to facilitate collaborative learning at the point of need, is the focus of this paper, which examines the experience of international doctoral students in fortnightly group interactions over much of their candidature in an Australian university.
The case study was conducted primarily through individual interviews with the students and the staff member convening the group (the second author). These were conducted by interviewers unknown to the group members (including the first author), and who encouraged personal narratives and reflections on experience in the group. Additional data sources included emails to the distribution list, power point slides for two presentations made by the group to showcase their activities, some materials used in the group from time to time, and some personal communications made to the convenor.  The students were largely, but not solely, international and from East Asia.  All were working within a research intensive environment in the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
The objectives of the group were defined and re-defined by its members over time, and the curriculum was built progressively from the momentum of the group, and pedagogy included collaborative problem solving, joint construction of meaning, individual presentations and constructive comment, and occasional targeted workshops led by a staff member. Data analysis revealed both the opportunities provided by such activity, and the challenges associated with being involved in a culturally diverse group within a western academic environment. The students found participation both culturally and linguistically demanding for them, yet they demonstrated a continued commitment to engage, and consistently affirmed the importance of the group activity in meeting their personal and professional goals in regard to developing a research identity. It is suggested in this paper that key factors in developing a research identity were the evolving sense of community, ongoing practice in a semi-public familiar domain, development of intercultural competencies, and tacit pedagogy for self-agency.
(377 words)