Research Methods (Introduction)

Research Methods (Introduction)

Research Methods (Introduction)

Before commentary

We have the experience of delivering research methods modules at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and have thought carefully about the major design constraints.

(1)Covering the huge amount of material that is now available, or rather choosing convenient themes from among this huge amount.

(2)Retaining student interest for the duration of the module, which is often compulsory. It is reasonable to expect students to be interested in methods they might actually be using, but they will be discussing methods that they will not be using. The issues of method choice, and how the choice of methods constructs the objects to be studied, have been recognized as important, even by the government, but these are very abstract matters for undergraduates. Nor does the government's belief that research methods are somehow likely to increase employability seem to have cut any particular ice with students, although it does appeal to course managers.

(3)Developing an interest and expertise in methods is a time consuming task and students seem particularly likely to look for short cuts, which might be methods texts they have used before or dubious websites, both of which might be at the wrong level

Process commentary

Our existing methods modules are team taught, and not all colleagues share our views about the relevance of electronic teaching (nor indeed our view that research methods modules should cover a range of methods and not just preferred ones). Full collaboration for the purposes of the C-SAP project has not been achieved: Gilhespy and Harris (with a colleague, Ian Roberts) have constructed their own preferred version of actual courses.

It seems necessary to provide enough materials to sustain interest during the module, but also after the module has been taken and officially completed. It is often the case that students regain a mild interest in methods when they are doing dissertations, for example. It is also optimal if students can return themselves to the issues raised by a methods course when they are doing other modules. For example, when discussing government policy in sport or education, much can be learned by looking at the research which supports the policy, or by thinking about ways in which the policy might be evaluated. More specifically, academic articles read in the normal course of events will often have a methods section, and this section can be important in moving to the findings. In many ways, this requires cooperation and collaboration with colleagues who may not be teaching on a methods course, but can be persuaded still to be teaching methods as a component of their own course. Overall, the issue of methods exceeds the limits of a ‘bolt on’ module – it follows that access to teaching materials should also be open to revisit.

An obvious solution is to provide material in an electronic format, which can be accessed as needs arise. The usual possibilities include devising RLOs of various kinds, electronic texts of various kinds, and links to other electronic material of various kinds. At the same time, methods often come alive best when discussing particular projects with individual students, not discussing interviewing in general, but discussing the ways in which particular people might be interviewed in a way which maximises validity in a particular case. This kind of personal detail might be best achieved face to face.

We began our thinking with the issues that occupied the immediate interests of students. We devised assignments that will produce the kind of practice we think is useful for this particular methods module.

(1)Their first assignment involves strong encouragement to read published research and to focus on the methods in particular. This one involves a multi choice test based on their knowledge of two specified articles, using different methodological techniques. They have to answer 20 questions on both articles, and the questions focus on methodological issues and dilemmas. This is often a way of forcing an encounter with published research at a suitable level, and it does so much more effectively than setting an essay title.

(2)The second assignment involves critical review in more depth of one article chosen from a list of six. Again the template for the assignment focuses on methodological issues, including defining a research problem, choosing a method, identifying and overcoming threats to validity, and managing data. The critical review articles enable students to choose topics that are found on their other modules, to encourage the kind of broader understanding of methods we mentioned above.

(3)The final assignment involves students working together on a research proposal, to gain hands on experience, formulating and operationalising the craft of research, and carrying out pilot research. They have to write up the project. We offer them small group teaching focused on their specific interests in order to help them do that. We provide a template which guides their writing.

One additional advantage of these assignment techniques is that they are virtually plagiarism proofed, since the articles for the test and review can be changed every year, obviously. We have discussed ourselves whether or not these assignments are somehow less worthy educationally than the classic essay and examination, and we are not convinced that they are. Multi choice tests and critical review seem to practice essential skills that can too often be just simulated in essays.

We offer presentations and lectures, but when we load presentations on to our VLE, we try to make them self sufficient to some extent at least so they can be reused or revisited. Thus we include notes on notes pages, live links to other materials, and even audio commentary (although the actual kit for PowerPoint is often of poorer quality than providing a separate podcast). We have constructed some RLOs using both Xerte and Producer, including some basic exercises for students to do to remind them to look out for problems in practice. Finally, we have been assembling a research methods database, located on a personal website, which contains links to useful electronic teaching materials found on the web. These include materials produced by other universities, including RLOs.

This methods database is perhaps the broadest collection of materials. We have been trying to develop it in order to encourage syllabus independence. Some courses will favour particular approaches—Education and Community Work seem to value action research, for example, while Sports Science favours the use of standard questionnaires, attitude scales and nationally referenced measures. Specialists often wish to use their modules to develop deeper understanding of these chosen methods. Nevertheless, all those areas use other methods as well, and it is relatively easy to encounter a published work that breaks out of the orthodoxies –autoethnography in Sports Science, for example. Colleagues running those modules will want students to be open minded, as well as focusing on developing specialism. For those reasons, access to a methods database does permit any student to find out something about any other method that he or she might come across or want to use. Rather than letting students search for themselves entirely freely, we have tried to choose materials that we personally think are of adequate quality.

After commentary (Draft)

Earlier and more conventional versions of the undergraduate methods module have been very unpopular with students and have had little impact on later work like dissertations. With this version, students seem happier to use the electronic materials to work at their own pace and to their own timetables. They still attend lectures and presentations: possibly as a growing tendency for our students to assume that enduring lectures is what proper students do (as Bourdieu et al noticed with Lille University students in 1984). Given that the electronic material carries a useful proportion of the instructional content, lectures can also be rather more relaxed, motivational and engaging. Increased good will seems to have extended so far this year to cooperation with the ‘practical’ activities in the seminars too.

Assignments are still seen as unusually ‘hard’ on this module: a cynic might translate this as ‘less easily open to plagiarism’. It is intriguing to encounter students in their second year who have never actually read an academic article about anything, despite attaining reasonable grades in some cases, and who need help to stave off anxiety and insecurity in doing so. One of our ‘study skills’ RLOs – on how to read an academic article – is frequently downloaded and seems helpful. Some students have even reported that being forced to read an article has actually helped them overcome some study skills difficulties for the future (but time will tell if there is any effect on dissertations next year).

Supporting material

Student perceptions might be useful. Staff discussion of electronic teaching would be insightful – but almost impossible to obtain