Date Published: March 13, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Debra Leigh Marais, Jessica Kotlowitz, Bart Willems, Nicola W. Barsdorf, Susan van Schalkwyk, Conor Gilligan.
Enhancing evidence-based practice and improving locally driven research begins with fostering the research skills of undergraduate students in the medical and health sciences. Research as a core component of undergraduate curricula can be facilitated or constrained by various programmatic and institutional factors, including that of choice. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) provides a framework for understanding the influence of choice on student motivation to engage in research.
This study aimed to document the enablers and constraints of undergraduate research at a South African Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) and to explore how the presence or absence of choice influenced students’ engagement with research in this context.
An exploratory descriptive design was adopted. Undergraduate students who had conducted research and undergraduate programme staff were recruited through purposive sampling. Semi-structured interviews were transcribed and thematically analysed. Findings were interpreted using SDT, focusing on how choice at various levels affects motivation and influences research experiences.
Many of the programmatic and institutional enablers and constraints–such as time and supervisory availability–were consistent with those previously identified in the literature, regardless of whether research was compulsory or elective. Choice itself seemed to operate as both an enabler and a constraint, highlighting the complexity of choice as an influence on student motivation. SDT provided insight into how programmatic and institutional factors–and in particular choice–supported or suppressed students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, thereby influencing their motivation to engage in research.
While programmatic and institutional factors may enable or constrain undergraduate research, individual-level factors such as the influence of choice on students’ motivation play a critical role. The implication for curriculum development is that research engagement might be enhanced if levels of choice are structured into the curriculum such that students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met.
Enhancing evidence-based practice and improving locally driven research begins with fostering the research skills of undergraduate students in the medical and health sciences [1–4]. Exposure to research from an early stage in students’ careers is more likely to lead to postgraduate study [5,6] and involvement in research during their careers [6–12], thereby fostering a cadre of researchers and research-literate clinicians able to critically evaluate research findings for application in clinical practice [13–15]. There is, however, much variation with respect to the extent to which research is incorporated as a mandatory or elective component of undergraduate programmes and this remains a matter of some debate [10,16–19].
The findings presented here relate to key factors that emerged as enablers and constraints of undergraduate research in the FMHS. Because choice emerged as one of these key factors, the focus moves to consideration of how choice itself was perceived as an enabling or constraining factor at different levels within the different programmes.
Previous research has shown that undergraduate research has several benefits for students [24,81–83]. Encouraging research at undergraduate level has the added advantage of developing a cadre of much needed clinician scientists as well as research-literate clinicians [6,8–12,84–86]. Findings of this study with respect to enablers and constraints of undergraduate research were found to be consistent with literature, regardless of whether research was a compulsory or elective component of the relevant programmes. The issue of choice, however, offers new insights concerning how choices around research participation, topics, and groups can enhance motivation though meeting students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
There are limitations to this study. The focus on a South African higher education context and the small sample size may limit the transferability of the findings. However, using SDT as a theoretical lens has the potential more for analytical than for statistical transferability, allowing for general conclusions from a limited number of particular experiences to provide theoretical insights into other similar contexts . There was under-representation from the Human Nutrition (no staff participants) and Physiotherapy (no student participants) divisions, which limits the conclusions that can be drawn regarding undergraduate research in these contexts. Similarly, this study did not include the perspectives of MB,ChB students who chose not to conduct research; including these perspectives in future studies would add a valuable dimension to understanding the intersection of choice, motivation, and research experiences. We recognise that students’ personal and sociocultural backgrounds, as well as their previous research and learning experiences and choice of degree programme, may affect their perceptions of undergraduate research. However, we believe that this is as much the case within programmes as across programmes and as such is not likely to account for observed variation across these two types of programmes. We further recognise that students’ perceptions around what research is might have influenced their responses and we did not explicitly explore this in the current study (see  for an exploration of this).
The value of fostering undergraduate research skills is widely accepted. However, including research in medical and health sciences curricula poses several challenges. The element of student choice provides a useful dimension through which to view programmatic and institutional enablers and constraints of undergraduate research, using a Self-Determination Theory lens. This study has shown that the debate around choice and student motivation for engaging in research is still an unresolved one, particularly as the study highlighted that choice can function as both an enabler and a constraint on motivation. However, the study does provide insights for curriculum developers wishing to include a research component at undergraduate level. Specifically, while curriculum development tends to aim for a standardised, one-size-fits-all, this study highlights the importance of attending to individual-level factors when designing programmes with compulsory or elective research.