Students’ perceptions of their development as beginning researchers

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The numbers of higher education institutions (HEIs) in Cambodia have increased dramatically in the last few decades particularly private universities; however, the quality of education of some HEIs is still questionable. The statistics released by the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport (2009) showed the number of HEI's doubled to 77 HEIs (42% Public and 58% Private) composed of 111 campuses located in both Phnom Penh and provinces. They are classified into threes type: the Royal Academy, University, and Institute or, independent specialized school. Those HEIs are under nine parent ministries and offer a wide range of courses from associate to doctoral degrees.

Globally, the university is an organization that plays an important role in training, initiating and conducting research and providing consultation services to a vast range of government and private organizations. In Cambodia the last two roles appear to be very weak and neglected (Chet, 2009). The status of educational research in Cambodia is immature. Cambodian higher education has largely continued to use traditional teacher-led teaching styles which is the opposite to learning through inquiry (Pit & Ford, 2004). The learners are dependent on teaching staff due to a lack of training and opportunities to acquire skills that are essential for independent, critical inquiry compounded by the absence of role models amongst academic staff who are rarely active researchers. As Chandler (1984) aptly described it research at universities in Cambodia was "like a blind man left to himself who sets out on his way with no one to take his hand" (p. 275).

The poor development of research in Cambodia from both academic institutions as well as the government has lead to a low research standard. The HEIs do not attempt to spend their research budget and are unable to subsidize research activities in their institution. HEIs will not place research as a priority amongst the other areas. Moreover, government funding of the research activities is very limited (Chet, 2009). Under-support from the government negatively influences the research output of universities. This low level of government input may lead to discouragement to develop areas of research and research expertise amongst Cambodian scholars. Budgets are not the only factor to block research activities. The country's under-developed infrastructure such as copyright regulations, research facilities, laboratories of necessary size and scope and library and computing resources are significant hurdles to developing a culture of research and independent inquiry (Chet, 2009).

Cambodian Higher Education Institutions are more likely to be teaching institutions rather than research. Up to 90% of university teaching staff have never conducted any academic research (Chen, Sok &Sok, 2007). Mostly, higher education teaching staff earn income by their number of teaching hours, so they are very attracted to the paid by the hour rather than conducting the research to which payment is unlikely or at least long delayed (Namara, 2009). There is no maximum numbers of teaching hours for academic staff mandated by the institutions or the ACC resulting in many taking on large teaching loads as a means to generate a livable income.

The importance of research was mentioned at the Fifth-Socio-Cultural Research Congress in Phnom Penh. The discussion led to the government expressing a desire for the development of an open new culture of research which is the new culture of thinking, particularly at the higher levels of learning. Therefore, Higher Education Institutions need to change from being entirely teaching institutions to combining teaching and research. The research will bring the fast development leading to improvements in the quality of education. The interest from the government toward educational advancement bring the encouragement and appreciation on the research conduct to education experts and related ministries. As an illustration, The Ministry of Education and Sport established two research departments: Scientific Research Department and Pedagogical Research Department at the ministerial level (Chet, 2009). To expand this new notion at the university level, the regulation of establishment new university was issued. Upon the regulation, the universities are fully regained based on seven characteristics amongst those research activities offering was included (Chet, 2006).

As Pit and Ford (2004) have stated "… if higher education is like the head of the education system, then the research is its brain" (p.357).

Currently, thirty-four out of seventy-seven Cambodian HEIs have offered Master degree courses (MoEYS, Department of Higher Education, 2009). The target university of the study is known as the biggest and oldest Cambodian public higher education institute and has offered an increasing range of master courses and has registered more than 1000 students in its masters programs. The university, with cooperation and support from national and international organizations and relevant ministries, has established more than 14 masters degree courses since 2001. In its stated vision, each university department must expand its undergraduate major program to post-graduate. level therefore, more master programs will be created. In the years ahead. However, this institution is, in the eye of public, primarily a teaching institution rather then research even though the university with external assistance from the foreign donors and partners has conducted some research. However, the research activities in the various specialized program are still limited.

The research capacity building in higher education is the next step in the development of Cambodia's tertiary education sector. Therefore, the proposed study is to conduct exploratory research on the development of researcher skills amongst a group of masters students enrolled in one of Cambodian largest and oldest HEI's. To do this, the proposed study will examine the perceptions of final year masters students and identify factors that impact on their development as beginning researchers.

It is worth noticing that in the university's stated vision and mission, the promotion of research is prioritized after teaching. This change of attitude have been done by cultivate the young potential researchers in the post-graduate level. Each of the university masters courses have included research subject as well as research report or thesis component. Masters students are taught research methodologies, after which they are supervised as they learn to develop, conduct and report on a small research project. To date no research has been conducted on master's students and their development as beginning researchers.

It is intended that the research findings will contribute to the work now in evidence focusing on improvement of higher education teaching and research in Cambodia.

Research Problem

A number of researchers have identified the current situation and research environment in Cambodian educational context; they have demonstrated the poor development and limitation of research activity. However, few researchers have studied deeply the root causes of the problem. Consequently, the problem still left unsolved while many of the causes are not identified. Unless the real causes are systematically studied, there will not be any solutions.

The study will be conducted with developing researchers who have been engaged in a research project as part of their master's studies and who will potentially become future researchers in their specialization. It will explore the experiences of novice researchers who have been involved in learning about and applying research strategies as central to their program of study.

One expected outcome of this study will be to discover valuable information which will partly respond to the current research issues in the institution or in Cambodia as the whole. The finding is hoped to be the useful informtion for the individual institution as it works to accelerate its research improvement goals.

1.1.2. Definition

Key words: novice or beginning researcher

Since no literature has given the direct definition of the word "Researcher", it is useful to understand its root word.

According to the Academic's Dictionary of Education (Bellingham, 2004), research is defined as:

A process of systematic inquiry, investigation and analysis of data in order to

increase knowledge, test hypotheses, and arrive at a conclusion. Systematic

study and investigation in some field of knowledge, undertaken to establish

facts or principles (p. 270).

The word "researcher" can be defined as "… the person who does a systematic inquiry, investigation and analysis of data in order to increase knowledge, test hypotheses, and arrive at a conclusion. Systematic study and investigation in some field of knowledge, undertaken to establish facts or principles."

Novice means a person who is new and has little experience in a skill, job or situation (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 2005). Therefore, a "Novice researcher" is defined as "the person who is new and has little experience or skill in conducting a systematic inquiry, investigation and analysis of data in order to increase knowledge, test hypotheses, and arrive at a conclusion."

1. 2. Objective

The proposed study aims to explore students' perception of their development as novice researchers and to identify factors that have assisted or blocked their development as beginning researchers.

1.3. Research Questions

The following questions will focus the research:

What are the perceptions of final year masters students' of themselves as beginning researchers?

What factors do post-graduate students identify that assisted or blocked their development as beginning researchers?

1. 4. Significance

Academic research and research reports completed by funding bodies all identify the problems Cambodia's tertiary education sector face. Few have attempted to focus on postgraduate programs. In particular there has been an absence of research on students and their learning at postgraduate level.

Moreover, little research has been done on the potential research improvement in Cambodia. The proposed study will explore the master students' perceptions as well as identify factors that assisted or blocked them in their development as beginning researchers. Understanding the experiences of research learners will be an important key in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the current course-work plus research-focused masters. Such research could lead to renewed efforts to build and improve the research capacity through the development of education and human resources in the postgraduate level.

Through gathering the proposed data, process of doing the research of the students which is from the start of training, orientation to the research and development of their initial research will be identified. Therefore, this study will provide important information to master's course teaching staff as well as the wider university. It may assist in curriculum design for future research methods courses and may also provide valuable feedback on the structures adopted by masters programs to support and supervise students during their research project development phase.

Furthermore, a number of researches have demonstrated that tiny numbers of academic staff have involved in the research activities, but under-research has studied on its route causes. Also, the possible solution have not clearly identified yet. Based on the research report at one government university showed the positive opinion and willing to research conduct among academic staff, however, most of them lack of opportunity and recourses. They expressed their willingness of research, wished to have the opportunity, and sought the assistance to their prospective research. They mentioned some barriers to their research development, however, those information is not enough and unclear to identify the research problems. Therefore, the information gathering from the masters' students can also reflect on the academic staff difficulties developing their research as it is believed that their conditions are comparable. Moreover, based on their qualification, some of masters' students will be able to become university lecturers in their specialized areas; the information from them will be very valuable. It is hoped that the proposed study on the research problem will provide invaluable information which suggest solution to build up and raise the research standard in Cambodian higher education.

It is hoped that the outcome will partly help contribute to research development in the institution or in Cambodia as the whole. This will lead to identify how much more work that should be done to strengthen the research training which will be drawn from the learners. Students will identify on how sufficient the research course have prepared them and in what areas that should be improved. Furthermore, this study will also explore students' perceptions on the value of the research. It will foresee of how likely and or not they will possibly become the researchers in their specialized subjects. They are the young potential researchers, therefore, is it crucial to find out how much they are keen on and understand about the research.

2. METHODS

This chapter describes the sampling methods adopted as well as data collection methods and methods of conducting analysis. Also explored will be ethical issues that may arise in the conduct of this research and the steps taken to address them.

To achieve the aims in term of an exploratory research, qualitative and quantitative methods will be employed for different purposes. The qualitative one will be used to gain an in-depth understanding of students' perception of their initial research development. The demographic data of participants, which provides basic quantitative data, will provide a profile of the post-graduate student population under study and some rating scale statements about the students' opinion.

2.1. Sampling:

The study will be conducted during the first half of 2010. The potential research participants will be the students who have registered for master courses in the academic year 2007-2009 and 2008-2010 in master programs will be recruited for the study.

Approval to conduct the research will be gained from university management and assistance and cooperation with relevant heads of departments and directors of the programs to facilitate the study will be gained prior to data collection. This approach has been adopted because it will hopefully allow for a greater participation of students than if the researcher had to approach individual students or classes. It also creates a distance between the researcher and the participants thereby reducing ethical issues of peer-influence.

Due to the time frame of research conduct, not all master program students will be recruited. The students in both cohorts will be selected based on the timeline of each program and the proposed research study data collection periods. The final year students in the first cohort of the academic year 2007-2009 who have just completed the course or about to finish the thesis or course work within a few month in 2010 will be recruited. In the second group, in the academic year 2008-2010, students will be invited to participate from the programs in which the data collection timeline (December - June) can be accommodated.

The students who have completed their master's course and are already off campus prior to the research conduct will be invited to participate in the study by a third party. The researcher will seek assistance from the individual master's programs administration staff or relevant person in each of program to invite them. They will send an invitation email to the students and introduce them to the research and give them the researcher contact details; the authority letter allowing to conduct the research will be attached. Agreement to participate will be gained, when interested students send an email directly to the researcher to inform about their willingness to participate. Having approached the target groups, the researcher will determine the appropriate time and place to administer the questionnaire.

All final year masters students, who are on campus, will be invited to participate in the study by the relevant head of departments, directors of the programs or their lecturers. For those attending coursework during their final term an invitation to participate will be made by their lecturer or head of department or program co-ordinator during a scheduled class period. The researcher-designed questionnaire will be distributed to the students during a scheduled class period and it will include an explanation of the research project and an invitation to participate.

Thesis only students will not have course work classes to attend. The researcher will approach individual departments to enquire the most effective method of recruiting these students. Some departments for example, have regular research seminars for their thesis students; these may be suitable occasions to invite their participation. Specific approaches will be developed for individual departments.

Limitations of this sampling method include a possibility that instructions given by a third party will lack clarity to potential participants. Another possible limitation is a lack of encouragement by the academic staff person to the students to participate, with the subsequent impact on the return-rate of completed questionnaires.

2.2. Data collection methods

To gain rich data, mixed methods will be used. Both qualitative and quantitative methods will be employed for this study. Initially the data will be collected through use of a questionnaire. Then a sub set of self-nominated participants will be invited to participate in focus group discussion.

2.2.1. Questionnaire

A research designed questionnaire will be used for data collection and will be the means to inform the participants about the research aims (see Appendix A).

The questionnaire will be first written in English then translated into Khmer. To ensure the quality of translation and check for accuracy, back translation into English will be done afterward. Then it will be pre tested within the small group of students who will be drawn from the target participants. Feedback and suggestions will be used to refine the instrument before distribution to participants.

The instrument will start by introducing the researcher's purpose for the study including a short text about the research aims, its significance and inviting them to participate anonymously. Also explained will be the voluntary nature of the questionnaire.

The questions will be divided into different sections. First, respondents will provide information about their demographic background (gender, age, position, marital status, and so on). Then, the question to identify whether they are thesis or non thesis students will be asked. Although, such a question will be asked, there is no division of parts for the both groups. A single-designed content questionnaire will be administered to both thesis and non-thesis students. Although, the students have different options, they have registered the same course and learnt the same subjects, especially they have encountered their initial research experiences. The responses will be distinguish and compare their perceptions and all the factors they have encounter amongst the two groups. The themes of the questions will be based on the research questions which focus on student's perceptions of their initial research development and the factors that assisted or blocked their development as beginning researchers.

Likert scales will be employed in the section designed to determine the degree of individual attitude toward research (Fraenkel, Wallen, 2006). The individual will be asked to rate their agreement with a statement by selecting the number from a 5 (strongly agree) to express positive attitude to a 1 (strong disagree).

The majority of the questions are checked boxes, rating scales and a few short answer questions. The questionnaire will be translated into Khmer to assist those whose English competency is limited.

The survey questionnaire will be conducted in class during students' regular learning time. It is estimated to take about 10-15 minutes for students to complete the questionnaire. Therefore, permission to conduct 10-15 minutes in class survey from the person in charge is essential. All students will be informed that they are free to decline answering the questionnaire or leave it blank. Having completed the instrument, the students will be asked to drop the questionnaire in the researcher's box in their classroom before leaving the room.

The research will be available to answer any questions by phone or in person.

If some students are not required to study in class or are absent, the researcher will contact them directly by email or phone to invite them to participate in the study. This can be done by checking the attendance sheets or student lists where they are available and then request their contact details from each program's academic assistants. With the student's agreement, the questionnaire will sent by mail and ask them to return by the exact deadline.

However, it is not expected that the posted or emailed questionnaires will all be returned. Some students may feel reluctant to fill the questionnaire and not return it.

2.2.2. Focus group discussion

The follow up focus group discussion will be conducted shortly after use of the questionnaire. Those who are interested in participating in a focus group discussion will be asked to provide their names and contact details at the end of their questionnaire.

A potential list of 12 students from different disciplines and demographic background will be drawn as sub group of participants for interview. They will be contacted through their provided contact details by phone or email to determine a suitable time and place for interview. The participants will be divided into two groups, one group of six students who are thesis writing, and the other six students who are non-thesis. Usually, the two options of thesis and none thesis students can reflect their abilities and performances rather the other circumstances, the research option students are anecdotally viewed as better students than those who do not. Therefore, the sense of inequality between the two groups may occur if they will be combined for a group discussion.

It is envisaged that by separating the groups on the basis of thesis or non-thesis students may feel more comfortable to discuss being from the same group. They can share the same experiences which they have encountered and discuss their experiences of conducting their research or not choosing to do it. Also, the perceptions of research will be also the key issue for group discussion.

Moreover, the specific questions will be prepared before the interview to assist researcher to lead the peer discussion (see Appendix B). The questions will be based on the research topic and questions which focus on students' perception and their own experiences about the research. Potential focus group discussion participants will receive by email an Information sheet and Consent form (see Appendix C) which they will be asked to bring before the discussion begins. The interview will be tape recorded and transcribed for data analysis. No names will be written in the transcriptions to ensure the confidentiality and anonynanimity.

Confidentiality cannot be guaranteed amongst the group members because of the nature of a group discussion. Also, the option based division group discussion has several disadvantages. Firstly, the students may not gain advantages of sharing and taking the different experiences from the different option students. The division will lead to the perception that students are placed separately based on their score and performance. Although, such a case is not uncomment or new occurrence, the stereotype will continuously occur among the students. The concern is that, therefore, demotivation to participate in the interview among none research students probably high. Finally, the researcher is inexperienced in leading focus groups discussions; therefore, there is the potential for problems to arise eg. an individual dominating the discussion preventing quieter students from participating,

2.3. Data Analysis

Data analysis will be commenced as soon as data collection procedure completed.

The data (questionnaire and interview) on the demographic background and rating scale statements will be analyzed by computer software program SPSS (ie. Cross tabulations, Cross tabs). The perception based qualitative data will be shifted into quantitative form. The statements will be turned into number which will be analyzed quantitatively by computer software. In descriptive statistics form, description and discussion will be attached to interpret the two sources of data.

Opinion based responses which will be drawn from the short-answer questions and interview will be analyzed qualitatively. Focus group interviews will be first transcribed. The responses will be grouped based on themes and patterns that emerge. In so doing, the systematic framework will be employed, the theme will be highlighted, sub titled and coded (Gay, Mills & Airasian, 2009).

Then data from the two sources will be translated back into English and themes and patterns of responses will be clustered and labeled.

2.4. Ethical considerations

This study will seek the approval from the university to management staff and heads of departments and directors of the programs prior to data collection.

The short text explaining about the research aims and significances and inviting them to participate anonymously will be attached and sent together with the questionnaire. At the beginning of the questionnaire, there will be an explanation about the purpose of the research. This point the participants will be introduced to the research topic, then will be provide the brief and concise description of the research objects. The significance will also be included in this paragraph. This explanation paragraph will explain the nature of the research and the involvement being requested from potential participants. Therefore, the research participants may perceive the broader picture of this research, then they can make decision whether or not to involve in this study.

The next paragraph of the questionnaire will present the invitation to participate anonymously in the study. It is believed that all the potential research participants are very knowledgeable and have experiences and knowledge about the research themselves. They must understand clearly about the research process and the role of researcher and research participants. Therefore it is really big concern in this point. This section will stress clearly that to take part in this study is completely volunteer. Those who wish to withdraw from the study may return the questionnaire back to their lecturer or leave it blank and put in the box next to the classroom door. Further, the issues of anonymous and confidentiality are highly stressed. It is clearly stated that all the participants identity will not identify during the data analyze and in final report.

Further, since the questionnaire will be distributed to the course-work participants by their lecturers during the last 10-15 minutes of their regular class. This section will strongly stated that to take part in this study is totally a voluntary. For those who are not interested in this study, feel free to withdraw from the study without any affecting their performance and study.

Further, interview participants will be invited to the setting based on their preference. Upon agreement, the questions and an Informed Consent form (see Appendix D) will sent to them and they will asked to bring it completed with them prior to discussion. Within the informed consent, the participants will be informed about the researcher's purpose and research aims. Also, the potential interviewees will clearly understand that to take part in the discussion is voluntary, confidentiality and anonymous are highly ensured, except within the group members. The interviews will be transcribed, and their identity will not appear in any form without prior approval.

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