In 2015/16, I interviewed 10 undergraduates and 7 graduate students, asking them very broad questions about their research process – how they got started, what they did when they got stuck – as well as some specific things about our website and subject guides. I did follow-up interviews with 7 of the undergraduates and 6 of the grad students on an even more amorphous topic: as they were engaged in a research project, what were the moments that made them really excited? What brought them delight in their research? Other projects then intervened, but I’ve finally got around to analyzing what students told me about delightful research moments.
As an aside, let me say how wonderful it was to listen to students reflect on what brought them joy. So much nicer than subjecting them to a frustrating usability test! It was a glorious way to spend my time.
Overall, a few themes emerged:
- Having a sense of progress
- Many of the students talked about either making steady progress or having breakthroughs. Finding the right article, or search terms that then broke the topic open for them. Brainstorming with someone to solidify or advance their ideas. Realizing that they had something to write about; that they were actually going to be able to complete the assignment or project.
- Working with, or getting feedback from, other people
- Brainstorming was a common theme, as was having someone read a draft and provide feedback. Receiving and acting on feedback would either help shape their ideas or hone the expression of those ideas.
- Connection came in many forms: having a personal connection to a topic, connecting a topic to real people, feeling a connection with a professor or TA while working on the project, wanting their research to connect with the wider world or seeing how that could happen.
It was in this last point – connection – that I started seeing differences between undergraduates and graduate students, and I find these points of difference more interesting than the overall themes.
Undergraduates spoke more about feeling a connection to their topic; either the importance of choosing a topic of interest to them or the difference it made when their topic was one they were really interested in.
“Knowing that I was interested in that made it… it’s almost like regardless of how difficult it’s going to be, it’s not going to be a pain in my butt. Because I’m actually going to enjoy doing it even if it’s difficult.” (4th year student)
Graduate students spoke more about how their research would connect with the wider world.
“It is kind of also exciting to say, like, OK I think there’s a good chance that if I do this right and put it out, it will cause a discussion.” (grad student)
“I have to take these moments where I come back to where I started and think about who are the actual people involved in this and who, you know, how are these decisions actually affecting lives? And I think those are the moments where I’m like “Ah, yes, this is important. This matters to people.”” (grad student)
In talking about their research projects, undergrads used the word “interest” more while grad students used the word “important” more. And no, I didn’t make a word cloud (ick) but rather looked at word frequency as a way to check on my impressions.
A few themes seemed to be specific to undergraduate students. Although certainly no one used this word, the idea of “mastery” came up with several undergrads. They spoke about internalizing their topics, about getting better at organizing their time and their thoughts, improving their search strategies, getting better at writing, asking more for feedback.
“When it comes to doing an action you have to have a certain level of familiarity with the action, then eventually you say, like, this is what I do now… and feel proud of that. And then that helps you even perform better when you do that action the next time and it makes you that much more efficient and motivated.” (4th year student)
Getting good grades was a theme for undergraduates, always followed up with how getting a good grade made them want to continue to get good grades, so it made them want to work harder. Good grades also increased confidence, and many noted that this increased confidence led to better work habits, which then kept those good grades coming.
“Until that time I never got A in my, any subject. I used to get B, C. So that was so thrilling. And I was so, because I experienced after that, that when you get A, your confidence level just boosts.” (3rd year student)
“That moment I started to like that research because I came to figure out that it’s possible, like, I can do it as long as I work hard.” (4th year student)
Many of the undergraduates talked about how they found joy when writing began to come easily to them. Three students specifically talked about “flow” as they were writing and others described it in other words (and no, no one name-checked Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Flow came in different ways and meant different things to them. One student said she could tell that she was interested in a topic if the words were still flowing after writing two pages. Another said the words were “flowing freely” during a presentation because he was so familiar with the literature. Others said that because they had a topic of interest, the writing flowed out.
“The more I read, the more interested I got on it. It allowed me to type more [laughs], like… words flowed freely.” (3rd year student)
Flow was clearly a good sign; a sign of interest, a sign of mastery, an indicator of delight.
So what does this mean for libraries? Well, I’m not sure yet; I want to mull it over a bit longer. If you have thoughts, please share them!