Nature of research vs. schoolwork

My recent experience on designing quizzes made me realize why and in what ways research feels different from schoolwork. Most people would agree that they differ. Quizzes are extreme versions of schoolwork, and that’s exactly why this experience helped me think.

My experience convinced me that quiz questions have to restrict student creativity. To be practical, quiz questions are designed to be solvable in a short time. To be easy to grade, the questions had better have exactly one solution, or at least, have clear rules about answers being right or wrong. To detect student capabilities rather than noise, the questions had better be well-defined and be directly related to the quiz materials.*

Homework or exercises are similar, although less extreme. Students still know that exercises are mostly solvable and are related to the taught materials. It is true that exercises can last longer, can have many different implementations, can be less defined, can be made to inspire, can ask for creativity and discussion, and can be enjoyable.

Solving problems in the real world is different. If we think of life as an exploration, then solving quizzes and homework need only speed, while doing research needs both speed and directions. If a problem already has a solution, it is not a “problem” any more. At the start of a research project, the problem is supposed to be badly defined. Only after trials and errors can the problem become clearer. Often it is the solutions, instead of the initial goals, that define the problem.

During research, the problem-solving process is more open-ended and feels less secure than with schoolwork. The ability to look for a good starting point is also important. Both aspects are emotionally harder than solving schoolwork, since research projects take longer to get feedback and their quality is harder to judge. Research abilities are also harder to train, since “new” research problems are not repeatable and thus the thought process is not quite reproducible.

Now I can explain why, four years ago when I was an undergrad intern, I had a weird hopeless feeling when “solving” a seemingly easy research problem. Back then, I was reading The Ph.D. Grind and found it interesting that Ph.D. students felt hopeless, too. The reason was probably freedom.


* Unfortunately, despite the effort to make quizzes fair, there is still intrinsic noise in quizzes — some personalities affect the grades, regardless of quiz material. To be good at taking quizzes, students need to be careful when studying materials to make sure they understand why things happen, pay special attention to what the instructors emphasize, read questions carefully to capture all requirements, stay calm and proceed naturally even when they forget something, allocate time well to maximize outcome under time pressure, etc. It is true that these personalities are okay to enforce due to their long-term benefits, but they are not absolutely necessary.

Added the last paragraph.
Thoughts on what to do when not knowing a direction: 写程序有感. Try using Google Translate and reading backwards.
Moved the footnote.
Fixed typos.