(Re)designing a research methods module for an education master’s

Over the past five years the MA that I have taught on has grown and gone from strength to strength. However, whilst most modules have become increasingly enriched, one module stands out as being a constant issue – research methods. In a full-time campus-based course research methods has a number of potential problems to overcome. It can sometimes feel that it is somewhat segregated from the rest of the course, and is often the first time our students (many of whom are international) have completed a module solely focusing on research methods. We’ve tried a number of different approaches, mainly focused on alternative ways of developing an in-course research project. However, I think there are wider issues in developing research methods within an education master’s degree centring on:

  • Differences between undergraduate experiences, particularly due to the different disciplines students have pursued and the epistemological traditions of different national backgrounds
  • How master’s degree provision maps onto doctoral studies. I think that master’s research methods courses are often ‘doctoral-lite’ with lots of breadth but less depth.
  • How emerging understanding is captured in practical application
  • How a core of knowledge, understanding and skills can be developed which are well embedded in groups which have a huge diversity of prior learning and cultural diversity with respect to research in general

This can lead to the development of a ‘Cook’s Tour’ approach where there is a list of content to get through which sketches out the vast majority of the research methods ‘oeuvre’ but which also leaves little time for real engagement and understanding. So how might a course be reconsidered and on what lines? This depends on what we want students to get from the experience of a research methods course. Do we just want them to have lots of knowledge, in which case the Cook’s Tour might be satisfactory, if of limited applied use, or do we want something different? I am going to argue for three main aims in a research methods course at master’s level:

  1. A clear and critical understanding of the ‘core’ of research methods at a conceptual level
  2. An emerging understanding and application of these concepts at a practical/applied level
  3. A good foundation on which to build at doctoral level whilst also providing a practical foundation for application beyond the academy for those who don’t further their studies.

This has led me to reconsider the development of a course using the idea of threshold concepts, explained as:

‘A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally). (Meyer and Land, 2003: 1)

We are attempting to support individuals in becoming informed researchers, in transforming the way they think and act in relation to concepts such as evidence, argument and method. This cannot occur, I would argue, by simply presenting information, it can only occur through deep conceptual engagement. It is the difference between learning about research and becoming a researcher. One caveat is that I would argue that any one year course will not enable an individual to become an expert researcher, it will, at best, allow them to ‘cross the threshold’ into the world of research. Beyond this is a huge journey to grow and gain critical experience and understanding of the complexities by carrying out research over a long period of time. Becoming an expert researcher is a difficult, sometimes painful, and slow process.

In deciding the core threshold concepts on which to base a course, Kiley and Wisker (2010) offer a starting point. They set out a series of threshold concepts they believe are core to ‘learning to be a researcher’ (the title of their paper) through doctoral studies. They set out the following key concepts:

  • Argument
  • Theory
  • Frameworks
  • Knowledge creation
  • Analysis
  • Paradigms

These generally track onto a list which I had created before reading this paper after attending a Higher Education Academy social sciences conference which focused in part on research methods pedagogy.

concepts table final

With these core threshold concepts as the backbone of the course, the knowledge which is covered becomes the explication of those concepts. However, the concepts and the knowledge which overlays them need to be made concrete and need to be applied, and therefore research tools also need to be covered so as to allow the practical enactment of the emerging understanding which students gain. In a sense, the application of their learning is central to deducing for them and us the degree to which they have managed to grapple with the ‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins, 1999) of research methods.

In an earlier post (https://hereflections.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/thinking-about-course-innovation-and-evaluation-i/) I made it clear that I see curriculum, assessment and pedagogy as inseparable. And over coming posts I will consider the implications of this model for both assessment and pedagogy, but in terms of the curriculum element, the above argument leads me to a conceptualisation of a research methods curriculum as:

curriculu conceptulisation

Consequently, the basic curriculum map for the redesigned course is that given below:

RM outline

There are no longer any two hour seminars, one of the main features of the current course. Instead we have decided to have mainly whole, or multiple days at points across the year. This is to allow time to engage in different ways and at length. It also allows for more time for student engagement with texts and activities beyond the seminar room. Some core work will also be developed online as ways of revisiting and strengthening core threshold concepts such as epistemology and methodologies. Part of the research tools work in January will be used to develop a small-scale research project which students will need to pilot. What is central to the thinking here however, is that the ‘breadth’ of the course has been diminished to make way for depth and space to consider, tackle and play with troublesome knowledge and the core foundations of research methods. It is designed to create liminal spaces of difficulty and challenge to allow students to play and grapple with ideas as a way of helping them understand the nature of the thresholds they are attempting to cross and aid them in doing so. However, it is essential that approaches are found to link the various elements together explicitly to give a holistic picture, we need to guard against the insight from Eraut (2008, quoted in Land and Meyer, 2010: 75),

‘People always think that if you go into enough detail about something you’ll nail it. But you never can, and you lose sense of the whole context in which that something makes sense. You lose the big picture.’

It is important that in grappling with threshold concepts, we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. This is where ‘assessment’ becomes important, and I am keen to develop an ‘assessment as learning’ model (see Dann, 2002) which attempts to

‘follow the movie of the personal journey rather than look at snapshots of it.’ (Land & Meyer, 2010: 65)

But more of that in the next post.


Dann, R. (2002) Promoting Assessment as Learning: Improving the Learning Process. Abingdon: Routledge.

Eraut, M. (2008) Research into Professional Learning: Its implications for the professional development for teachers in Higher Education. Unpublished seminar paper. HEDG Annual Conference, Madingley Hall, Cambridge, UK.

Kiley, M. and Wisker, G. (2010) ‘Learning to be a researcher: The concepts and crossings.’ In Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, J.H.F. Meyer, R. Land and C. Baillie (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 399-414.

Land, R. and Meyer, J.H.F. (2010) ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (5): Dynamics of Assessment.’ In Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, J.H.F. Meyer, R. Land and C. Baillie (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 61-79.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, Occasional Report 4, May 2003. Accessed at: http://www.colorado.edu/ftep/documents/ETLreport4-1.pdf [last access: 25/5/2014]

Perkins, D. 1999. The many faces of constructivism. Educational Leadership, 57(3), 6–11.




One thought on “(Re)designing a research methods module for an education master’s

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s