Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Garnishes and mystery objects as metaphors for graduate research skills

Dr Kathy Ahern
School of Nursing and Health
Edith Cowan University


Although research methods courses teach skills such as how to critique papers and meet ethical guidelines, other skills are not easily taught in the classroom setting. For example, it is my observation that the critical nature, organisation and uniqueness of a literature review (Polit & Hungler, 1993) require skills that are not sufficiently developed in students who have completed research methodology units. Uniqueness, a property of successful research proposals identified by Myer (1988), is difficult to teach, especially within the confines of a classroom and course work assessment requirements.

The concept of taxonomies of cognition provide a rationale for the use of mystery objects in teaching research. Taxonomies place learning behaviour within a hierarchical framework, where each category or level is assumed to include behaviour more complex, abstract or internalised than the previous category. These categories are arranged along a continuum from simple to complex (Bloom, Hastings & Maduau, 1971).

In my experience, research methods courses have tended to focus on the acquisition of lower level objectives. This leaves students to consolidate the higher level cognitive skills while they are undertaking their research project. This is both stressful for the student , and is an inefficient use of student and supervisor time.

Taxonomies and opportunities

There are several taxonomies of learning that describe different levels of conceptual difficulty, but they generally address the same basic process. Bloom's taxonomy and the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982) are illustrative.

Bloom's cognitive taxonomy consists of six different levels. The most basic level is that of recall of facts and processes. The second level is of comprehension. The decision of which articles to include and exclude in a literature review is an example of work at the cognitive level of comprehension. The third level is that of application and the fourth level, analysis, is the process by which the relations between ideas can be expressed and made clear. This is the cognition involved in the writing of a literature review such that an argument is developed to make the case that the proposed research will address a gap in current knowledge. Bloom's fifth level of cognitive learning is the synthesis of knowledge. This includes the development of a plan of work that satisfied the requirement of the task. This is in effect, the development of the research proposal, and, in my experience, has generally been the highest level assessed in the evaluation of the student's research coursework. Bloom's highest level of cognitive learning is that of evaluation. At this level, judgements about the value of material and methods are made about the extent to which the material and methods satisfy criteria.

Another taxonomy, the SOLO taxonomy, is based on Schorder, Drive and Streufert's (1967) four levels of conceptual structure (Biggs & Collis, 1982). These levels are as follows:

Level 1.Learning is characterised by minimal conflict, rapid closure and categorical judgement.
Level 2.Learning at this level requires at least two judgements, which may lead to conflicting and inconsistent judgements.
Level 3.The student uses subordinate rules to relate inconsistencies and resolve conflict. For example, explaining conflicting research reports in a literature review would reflect this level.
Level 4.This highest level is where the student is theoretically orientated, able to generate his/her own rules to cover all cases, including hypothetical ones. This level is approximately equivalent to Bloom's level 6.

There is considerable similarity between the the cognitive taxonomies, and it is at the highest of these levels that the mystery object is directed. Without actually conducting research, students are not provided with the opportunity to evaluate their own performance in the development of a research proposal, because they are missing the opportunity for external and internal criteria of evaluation (Bloom), and to generate rules (SOLO). Internal criteria for evaluation of a research project comes about by the student realising the extent to which the hypothesis, for example, can be measured in practice. Another example, is in discovering and correcting a mis-match between the research hypotheses and the planned statistical analysis.

Teachers of research methods have tried to provide these opportunities in two main ways. One way is to provide opportunities for students to conduct research through simulation exercises (Johnson & Simpson, 1990). Another way is to attach the student to an existing research team, which The University of Brighton has done (Winn, 1995). However, both these approaches are limited. Simulation does not provide the student with unanticipated problems and serendipitous events; and being attached to a 'real' research project provides limited experience because higher order cognitive decisions generally are made by experienced researchers rather than students. In short, students are not exposed to being responsible for research design in anticipating design flaws and in determining the optimal analysis to answer the research question. Even the wording of the research tittle and hypotheses is an exercise in meeting criteria of logical thinking and clear written expression.

Another way

The mystery objects research was developed because of my philosophy that I am preparing students to be researchers rather than skilled students of research methods. This view has emerged after a number of years of supervising postgraduate research students who had strong theoretical knowledge, but who lacked the cognitive ability to integrate the elements of research. This was demonstrated in the students' relatively common difficulty in constructing operational definitions that operationalise the research variables. Students' operational definitions tended to be definitions in the conventional (common usage) sense. My analysis of the problem was that students were unable to anticipate that poorly operationalised terms would adversely affect their ability to carry out data collection and analysis. It occurred to me that completing 'real but fun' research would allow students to identify their knowledge and skill deficits, and correct them. The mystery aspect of this exercise was used as a motivator.

In retrospect, the mystery object research provided strong intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to carry out rigorous and original research. Intrinsic motivating aspects of this activity included incorporation of game-like features into activities, opportunity to create finished products and the inclusion of fantasy. Other motivational elements included the induction of suspense (what is this mystery object for; why have I been given a sachet of purple chystals?), making abstract content more personal, and the induction of cognitive conflict such as perplexity (Barry & King, 1997).

The mystery object assignment and its metaphor

At the beginning of semester, students are provided with a mystery object. They are told to use the following headings to develop, implement and write a report of a minor quantitative research project: title, significance of the study, operational definitions, research questions/hypotheses, instrument, research design, applicable statistical analysis, results (made up), conclusions, limitations, areas for further research.

These headings provide the criteria for demonstration of the skills required. For example, the background section does not require research articles to be reviewed. It does require, however, that the argument be developed to demonstrate a need for the research. Thus the skills that are being developed are the higher level cognitive skills of the taxonomies discussed above.

In my teaching demonstration for the Teaching and Learning Forum, I have used garnishes as a metaphor for the mystery object assignment. My objective was to provide participants with an experience which enabled them to experience the excitement and creativity of the mystery object research. Participants were given a brief lecture on the rules of garnish making (Freeman, 1987; Readers Digest, 1988) and were instructed to develop an original garnish for a proposed dish. The garnish would be assessed by the 'garnish committee' as to how well it met the criteria. For people with an interest in the rules of garnish making, the criteria are listed in Appendix A.


The garnish activity, used as a metaphor for the mystery research assignment provided participants with an experience similar to that of students in my Research Methods class. Both assignments, using a combination of simulation and action, provide the opportunity to consolidate the highest levels of learning identified in Bloom's and SOLO taxonomies. For postgraduate research students, the result is confident students with the ability to learn by trial and error using internal and external evaluation criteria. It is this ability that prepares them for the ups and downs of undertaking research.


Barry, K. & King, L. (1997). Beginning Teaching (2nd ed.). Katoomba NSW: Social Science Press.

Biggs, J. & Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning. New York: Academic Press.

Bloom, B., Hastings, J. & Madaus, G. (1971). Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning. Boston, McGraw Hill.

Freeman, K. (1987). Entertaining with Flair. Richmond: Greenhouse Publications.

Johnson, R. & Simpson, M. (1990). Bridging the problem solver communication gap: Toward an art of professional case design. Writing Instructor, 9(3), 109-20.

Meyer, K. (1988). How well do grantsmanship guides address the literature review? Journal of the Society of Research Administrators, 20(3), 29-33.

Polit, D. & Hungler, B. (1993). Essentials of Nursing Research. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.

Reader's Digest (1988). Cooking for Every Occasion. Surrey Hills, NSW: Reader's Digest Services.

Winn, S. (1995). Learning by doing: Teaching research methods through student participation in a commissioned research project. Studies in Higher Education, 20(2), 203.

Appendix A: Garnish assessment form

Assessment form


Garnish name __________________________________________
Proposed dish __________________________________________
Proposed occasion __________________________________________


Will this garnish make the proposed dish look more appetising and attractive?yes/no
Will the colours compliment the food?yes/no
Will the tastes compliment the food?yes/no
Will the garnish indicate the taste/temperature of the dish?yes/no
Will the garnish be appropriate to the proposed occasion?yes/no
Will the garnish be an adornment, rather than a camouflage, to the dish?yes/no
Is the garnish edible?yes/no
Is the garnish original?yes/no


Assessment:   pass/fail

Signed _________________________________________

Appendix B: Analysis of garnish metaphor

1.Did the garnish activity:
a)incorporate game-like features?yes/no
b)provide opportunity for you to create a finished product?yes/no
c)include fantasy or simulation elements?yes/no
d)induce suspense?yes/no
e)make abstract content more personal?yes/no
f)stimulate perplexity?yes/no
g)require higher level cognitive skills?

2.Does learning to do research have to be frustrating, tedious and anxiety producing?no/no

Please cite as: Ahern, K. (1999). Garnishes and mystery objects as metaphors for graduate research skills. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 12-17. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/ahern.html

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