Some initial thoughts on restructuring and reconceptualising research methods in education master’s courses

Over the past 8 months I’ve been involved in a lesson study project with two colleagues which has focused on understanding the experiences and learning of international master’s students on an MA in International Education. We’ve been specifically looking at issues relating to study skills which has led us to focus on sessions on assignment writing, academic presentations and dissertation planning.

Researching these three seminar sessions has led to a large amount of data, video footage, around 20 hours of meeting and interview recordings, capture of in-session student interaction and documentation including lesson plans, observation notes and student notes. We have only just started to look at this data in detail – a task which will take several months. However, our own meetings notes and discussion about future research into research methods pedagogy has led to some preliminary thinking about master’s level work.

One question which has started to emerge is centred on the nature of progression in research methods provision from undergraduate through master’s level work to doctoral study. What is distinctive about master’s level beyond any summary QAA criteria? To what extent is master’s level research provision really just a ‘thin’ version of doctoral study? Is such an approach sustainable and reasonable? These are questions for future posts as a new approach to our master’s research methods provision emerges. However, one issue has already started to resolve itself, the role of ‘study skills’.

Our lesson study research this year has led us to question the idea of ‘study skills’ on two counts. Firstly, study skills tend to be seen as relatively generic in nature covering, for example, critical reading and critical writing, ‘skills’ which are first made explicit in a ring-fenced set of sessions before being used within the work of the wider course, often in an unpredictable and organic form. Secondly, the nature of such provision can lead to study skills being seen as somewhat remote to the work of the remainder of the course. This is not to suggest that such skills are seen as irrelevant, but they are often located in a marginal position. As a result the format of a master’s course might end up looking somewhat like that below:

 

trad masters

The ‘main’ course is the subject content often in the form of core material followed by specialist modules and then a dissertation. A research methods module often sits parallel to this together with a somewhat remote study skills module.

However, it should be the case that master’s level ‘study skills’ is seen as central to post-graduate study as they include crucial issues. We have identified five basic areas:

  1. Critical reading
  2. Critical writing
  3. Speaking, i.e. presentational skills etc
  4. Listening, i.e. involvement in discussion and critical engagement with the presentations of others
  5. Immersion into a research community

These are all core skills required for interrogating and engaging with research. Therefore, we are beginning to think that study skills should be replaced by the concept of ‘research literacy’. Research literacy would still cover the 5 elements given above but would be positioned at the core of a master’s degree rather than as an add-on, and would work alongside the emergence of an understanding and application of research methods. Both of these strands then work together with the subject content which is obviously also central to developing an understanding of education. Therefore, rather than seeing a course which is composed of a series of allied but separate blocks, it becomes a mutually supportive set of strands, such as that shown below.

new masters

This means that early in a course critical reading and writing would be considered, and subject content work would make explicit links to this so that in all elements of the course students would begin to understand the ‘anatomy’ of educational research in terms of how it is carried out and also how it is reported. This then allows for a solid basis for beginning to learning the ‘language’ of research which in turn leads to the foundations for developing competence in grappling with research as a practical pursuit (research methods). By bringing these three strands together more consciously, we wish to test the degree to which there is a greater opportunity for the emergence of a more critical and holistic view of how to engage with research (research literacy), to develop opportunities to carry out well planned research (research methods) informed by a developing insight and understanding of subject content. What this might look like in practical terms will be the focus of future posts.

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