Research learning: complexity and autonomy in the creative doctorate

By Professor Allyson Holbrook

 In the massified, diversifying and increasingly time-straitened space that has become doctoral education in Australia, it is easy to lose perspective about the level and type of learning that the degree represents. Institutions seek a smooth and efficient passage of candidature underlined by a tendency to perceive learning issues as deficits or risks to be mitigated, when in fact candidate development presents a range of complex learning challenges – particularly, one might argue, in the creative doctorate, where many modes of thinking and practice exist. These challenges arise from the innate uncertainties and pressures involved in pushing the boundaries of both a discipline and self-knowledge. If the doctoral task were more structured – tamed – the learning would indeed be smoother, but not as transformative.

There has been a shift in focus in recent years away from the "product" – the thesis – towards the development of the individual, but as a result the boundaries between higher degrees and developmental level have become less defined.

A crucial question we have to ask at this point in doctoral history is: what stage of development are we looking for and are we succeeding? There has been a shift in focus in recent years away from the “product” – the thesis – towards the development of the individual, but as a result the boundaries between higher degrees and developmental level have become less defined.

While the term “development” is often used in connection with doctoral candidates, it is rarely coupled with the word “learner”. Talking about the learner seems to be taboo, possibly because this suggests supervisors are “teachers” rather than “advisors”. Quirks like this, unchallenged assumptions, misconceptions and gaps in knowledge about learning, bedevil conversations about performance.  

Take, for example, the concept of candidate “autonomy” – a term that tends to mask learning needs. Supervisors often expect to be dealing with someone with quite advanced capabilities in solving their own learning problems, but the literature suggests quite the opposite, with some 40-50% of candidates finding they are not making headway and a further 20-30% having become disengaged (see Cantwell et al., 2017). If the types of challenge they face are absolutely new to them, then their understanding about how they learned successfully in the past is no longer as helpful. They need a new repertoire and meaningful feedback informed by a fundamental knowledge of metacognitive processes. Given enough time they may solve the problems through trial and error, but time has become a significant pressure in contemporary doctoral candidature. In short, autonomy has to be seen in developmental not absolute terms.

The ability to create new knowledge and make a contribution to the field – including that of creative or professional practice – requires the capacity to recognise problems and think about ambiguous conditions and alternative solutions. This assumes postformal thought. Various researchers have identified orders of complexity in reasoning. The more ill-structured the problem, the greater the need to work at a higher level of complexity.

The ability to create new knowledge and make a contribution to the field – including that of creative or professional practice – requires the capacity to recognise problems and think about ambiguous conditions and alternative solutions. This assumes postformal thought.

According to Commons and Ross (2008), there are five orders in the postformal domain. A very small percent of adults reaches the second of these, and notable among them are research academics. Activity here involves the ability to work with and manipulate abstract systems. Models of hierarchical complexity and models of judgement and epistemological development offer fertile ground for assisting learners and supervisors to talk in more guided ways about development, but are rarely referenced in research training.

Herein lies a conundrum. The more advanced the thinking, the more opaque the trail. Once someone has reached a certain level of thinking and reasoning, everything from then on is interpreted by that individual (in this case the supervisor) from that frame of reference. This can become a source of frustration to both parties in supervision – what one sees as perfectly clear reasoning, the other perceives as utterly unfathomable. This is tricky for the supervisor; however, they can try and understand and be alert to the potential problem before framing advice or suggesting strategies, and certainly before jumping to conclusions about the student’s capacity to develop, especially given chilling new figures about candidate anxiety and negative well-being (see Levecque et al., 2017). Managing affect in connection with learning is critical for progress to occur, regardless of whether a researcher is new or established. Hence, this is another argument for supervisors to become better acquainted with the metacognitive side of researcher development.

On a final note, academics strive to translate their complex research into lay terms for the public, but not their own developmental transitions. For the reasons suggested above, this is possibly quite difficult; but if they could, it would amount to reflexive gold in learning and innovation terms, especially in connection with new fields and disciplines.

 

References 

Cantwell, R., Bourke, S., Scevak, J., Holbrook, A. and Budd, J. (2017). Doctoral candidates as learners: A study of individual differences in responses to learning and its management. Studies in Higher Education, 42(1), 47-64.

Commons, M and Ross S. (2008) What Postformal Thought Is, and Why It Matters. World Futures, 64:5-7, 321-329.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868-879.


Professor Allyson Holbrook is currently Assistant Dean Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle. She is Director of SORTI – Centre for the Study of Research Training and Impact – and recipient of six ARC Discovery Projects on doctoral learning and assessment. She is Research Co-ordinator for AARE and for five years was a member the ARC College of Experts.