New study from UW–Madison’s Brian Burt and Blayne Stone Jr. sheds light on how to better lead research groups

By Laurel White

A new study from researchers at the UW–Madison School of Education seeks to shed more light on how leaders of group research projects in higher education settings can create more rewarding experiences for the students who work for and with them on the projects.

Brian Burt, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and director and chief research scientist with Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB), co-authored the paper with several fellow researchers, including School of Education doctoral student Blayne Stone Jr. 

Brian Burt

The study, which was published in Teachers College Record, investigated student research group members’ perspectives on things like the value of in-person communication, recruitment aimed at creating more diverse research groups, the size of the group, and how new researchers entering or exiting the group is handled. 

Burt and his co-authors note that it’s rare for principal investigators (PIs) to receive training in how to successfully lead a collaborative research group. They argue such training could be incredibly beneficial, as PIs have the power to develop approaches that benefit the quality of a group’s work, as well as what student researchers learn from their experience.  

“Learning from students’ experiences with and perceptions of their PI in this study, we hope that current and future group PIs will consider how they compose practices for their groups and support student members through research,” the co-authors write. “Creating new approaches to group supervision may create healthier models for current and future researchers to implement in their own research practices.”

Blayne Stone

Recommendations for PIs outlined in the study include:

  • The size and composition of a collaborative research group shouldn’t be based on the maximum number of people a PI can fund — instead, decisions about group size should be made with an awareness of how many people can be involved while still maintaining a sense of sustainable community and positive practices. 
  • Resist the idea of the group being a “well-oiled machine” — maintain an awareness of how dynamics and needs change over time. 
  • A general sense of a PI being available and accessible may not be enough — an in-person presence during work hours can help keep the team accountable and motivated. 
  • PIs should be transparent about the group’s tasks and goals and offer clear directions — such clarity helps novice researchers understand how their work contributes to the project as a whole. 

Burt co-authored a companion article last year with findings that complement this study. That study explained how a research team was able to use a series of six interconnected cultural practices to develop a positive community that bolstered cohesion and productivity.

Burt is also scheduled later this month to give a distinguished lecture on how research experiences can support underrepresented students as the 2023 J. George Jones and Velma Rife Jones Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Utah.

A link to the full study in Teachers College Record is available here

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