by Stacy Ruvio, Ph.D. & David Stewart, Ph.D.
ITI Faculty Fellows of Scholarship for Teaching & Learning
December 4, 2018

Undergraduates are New to Research and Require Much Faculty-Led Training

Undergraduate students of all majors commonly implement research as part of coursework or faculty-guided independent projects.  However, inexperienced students often do not know how to properly manage a research project.  They often require training on how to properly generate a hypothesis, design and carryout research methods, and analyze the resultant information.  As each discipline and each student are different, there is no one best way to train a student to do research.  Even when a student learns to do research properly, it can take years before that student becomes autonomous – the expertise of faculty is still needed along the way to help guide the research process.

What is the Research Skill Development (RSD) Framework?

The RSD Framework is a rubric tool to help students improve their research skills within their specific discipline, and to help faculty train and evaluate these students.  A main goal of the RSD Framework is to improve student autonomy in research.  Initially developed by John Willison and Kerry O’Regan at the University of Adelaide, they state that “…in order to engage in meaningful research, students would benefit from the explicit development of their research skills, as would the staff guiding that development.” [1]

The RSD Framework Rubric

The RSD Framework rubric can be found on the website Research Skill Development for Curriculum Design and Assessment from the University of Adelaide at [2]

This website is a phenomenal tool that contains:


  • Examples of RSD use


  • FAQ about RSD


  • More resources to help get you started with RSD Frameworks and other MELT (Models of Engaged Learning and Teaching)

The RSD Framework includes six key steps in the research process, referred to as the Facets of Research [2]:

  • Embark & Clarify – What is our purpose?

Students respond to or initiate direction.  Students clarify and consider ethical, cultural, social, and team issues.  Students generate and frame research questions.

  • Find & Generate – What do we need?

Students find information and generate data/ideas using appropriate methodology for their specific discipline.

  • Evaluate & Reflect – What do we trust?

Students determine the credibility of sources, information, data, and ideas.  Students make their own research processes visible.

  • Organize & Manage – How do we arrange?

Students organize information and data to reveal patterns/themes, managing teams and processes.

  • Analyze & Synthesize – What does it mean?

Students analyze information data/information critically and synthesize new knowledge to produce coherent individual/team understandings.

  • Communicate & Apply – How do we relate?

Students apply their understanding and discuss, listen, write, perform, and respond to feedback.  Students present their processes, knowledge, and implications of research to an audience.

The RSD Framework also includes Levels of Student Autonomy [2], which describe the skill-level for an individual student in each of the six Facets of Research.  The simpler version of the RSD Framework describes five levels of student autonomy, while a more advanced version describes seven levels.  More appropriate for undergraduate students, the five levels of student autonomy include:

  • Level 1 – Prescribed Research

Highly structured directions and modeling from faculty member prompts research.

  • Level 2 – Bounded Research

Boundaries set by and limited directions from faculty member channels research.

  • Level 3 – Scaffolded Research

Scaffolds placed by faculty member shapes independent research.

  • Level 4 – Open-ended Research

Students initiate research and this is guided by the faculty member.

  • Level 5 – Unbounded Research

Students determine guidelines for research that are in accord with discipline or context.

Levels 1-3 are faculty-initiated, while levels 4-5 are student-initiated.

As an example of how the Levels of Autonomy apply to the Facets of Research, we will look at the facet “Embark & Clarify” in detail.  In Level 1 Prescribed Research, students respond to questions that are directed by the faculty member.  They are told exactly what they are looking for, what to do; in other words, the process is prescribed to them.  In Level 2 Bounded Research, students respond to questions but now with limited options from the faculty member.  Students can choose from several provided structures to clarify questions.  In Level 3 Scaffolded Research, students can choose from a range of provided approaches with more independence.  Beyond levels 1-3, the research becomes student-initiated as now the student (instead of faculty) generates the research questions within structured guidelines (Level 4 Open-ended Research) or based on experience, expertise, and literature (Level 5 Unbounded Research).

Why Use the RSD Framework… and How?

The RSD Framework can be used to develop a pedagogic approach involving students as researchers.  It can be used in the classroom as a way of evaluating student coursework research, or in independent research projects.  The RSD Framework can be used to help improve student research autonomy.

Let’s say you have two Chemistry research students: one is brand new to scientific lab bench research, while the other has three semesters of experience doing a directed study research project with a faculty mentor.  Or maybe you teach a History course in which you want students to conduct a literature review: some of those students are freshmen, while others are more experienced seniors.  Each student is unique, and each research project is unique.  How can you train these students at the same time when they are at different Levels of Student Autonomy?  How can you evaluate their research skills?  How can you evaluate their progress?  This is where the RSD Framework rubric is useful – it allows a faculty member to evaluate student research skills on an individual basis.

At the beginning of a research project, a student can either independently or with faculty member consultation determine his or her Level of Student Autonomy (Levels 1-5) for each of the Facets of Research (e.g., Embark & Clarify).  An undergraduate freshman is likely to fall under Level 1 Prescribed Research for most, if not all, of the six Facets of Research.  An undergraduate senior who has done 2-3 years of research with a faculty member might fall under mostly Level 3 Scaffolded Research, with the most experienced and advanced students entering the student-initiated Levels 4 and 5.  The faculty member can guide the research as appropriate.  At the end of a research project, the rubric can be used to evaluate the student’s progress in improving research skills.

The RSD Framework has already been used worldwide at several colleges/universities in multiple disciplines including Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Dietetics, Education, English and Communication, History, Human Biology, Medicine, Pharmacy, Physics, Psychology, Statistics, and more.  Examples of how each of these disciplines have used the RSD Framework can be found on the RSD website.  Some of these were used in specific courses, while others were in independent research projects.

The RSD Framework rubric is adaptable.  You can re-write the rubric to be more applicable to your English course or for your Biology lab students.  No need to start from scratch – check out and consult with our Faculty Fellows on how the RSD Framework can best be used for your needs.


[1] Willison, J. & O’Regan, K., 2007.  Commonly known, commonly not known, totally unknown: a framework for students becoming researchers, Higher Education Research & Development, 26:4, 393-409. DOI: 10.1080/07294360701658609

[2] Willison, J. & O’Regan, K., 2006.  The Research Skill Development Framework. URL:

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