Thinking Through Learning and Research – 2

In the first post on thinking though learning and research I briefly outlined how we define the process of learning (through the work of Knud Illeris), as well as some of the contextual assumptions we make. In this post, I want to explore how these foundations translate into a conceptual model and from there to the curriculum model outlined at the end of the first post and which is augmented here.

Our first theoretical standpoint is that we are dealing with a complex adaptive system (as outlined in the first post) which leads to the acceptance that the processes involved are non-linear, interact in unpredictable ways and are therefore emergent in nature. We are also assuming that student learning rests on developing ever more complex and detailed schemata relating to research methods. These develop and coalesce around a small number of threshold concepts (which I first discussed here). The threshold concepts we believe a master’s level course should address are:

  • Criticality (in reading and writing)
  • Theory
  • Methodology
  • Analysis
  • Epistemology/Ontology/World View
  • Ethics

These are central to understanding, designing and competing small-scale research projects. They are therefore the basis for laying a strong foundation for those advancing to doctoral-level study.

A schema, or schemata, will emerge and coalesce around these concepts. These will then, hopefully act as an emerging framework for critical engagement with published research in the form of both empirical research and the research methods literature itself. In addition, the framework will be the basis for the practical application of these ideas and for the development and completion of small-scale research activities and projects which will eventually culminate in a master’s dissertation.

In considering the threshold concepts at the core of the course development, we decided at an early stage that we needed to give ourselves and students time to engage with both content and practical application. To do this we want to be able to introduce areas of research methods, for example methodology and its various forms, or ethics in a critical and in-depth way. In introducing each area we need to continually build links so that knowledge development is situated in both a wider schematic of research methods, whilst also being deeply rooted in relation to concepts. As a consequence, all research methods sessions will last for a minimum of one day (Figure 2).

By having longer, but less frequent sessions, time is given for introduction and discussion of new knowledge, the development of understanding of the links of that knowledge to concepts, as well as a consideration of practical application and use. This then suggests a set of inter-related processes (figure 1), such that

understanding elements of learning for a master's RM programme

The diagram in Figure 1 is an initial attempt to create a framework for research methods learning. It takes the growth of knowledge, the understanding of threshold concepts through liminal processes of thought, discussion, and reflection, and the application through the enhancing of practical skills as a holistic model of emerging research ability. All three elements are vital, and need to be intertwined to bring a critical understanding and practical ability in carrying out research. Each element is important for if there is any element missing there is less than a holistic approach. If students are given knowledge and told to apply this, then they may see application as a simple set of tick lists, a ‘mechanistic’ application as the knowledge instilled will tend to be technical in form where it is not underpinned by conceptual understanding. This also means that research quality will be compromised as when difficulties arise, or alternative approaches need to be developed in a particular context, the lack of deep, conceptual underpinning will lead to less flexibility and possibly to the use of inappropriate approaches.

Likewise, if concepts are explicitly discussed, but are not linked to a breadth and depth of knowledge, any link to application will be weak as a knowledge-base is important for practical application. Finally, the cross-over between concepts and knowledge is where I would place the recent surge of interest in ‘research literacy’. Here, engagement with the conceptual framework of research methods, together with a developing knowledge of approaches and examples, will lead to an emerging theoretical engagement and understanding. However, it will be devoid of practical skills in application and the ‘messiness’ of research as it is planned and executed. This is not a major weakness for those wanting to engage with the research of others, but will mean that some of the messiness inherent in research is not clearly or critically understood.

It is where all three elements of learning are focused on and developed that critical understanding and application will emerge. However, this has to be seen as an iterative process, one which extends beyond the end of any level of formal learning and training. It is the interplay of these elements which, over very long periods of research activity, lead to individuals who can be identified as ‘experts’ in research.

Taking the intertwined development of knowledge, concepts and application as the core of a research methods course, we have developed an approach which tries to engender these principles. As a result, the course has the following form (Figure 2).

RM course final

The course covers each of the main conceptual areas, beginning with a consideration of what we actually mean by research and moving forward to cover each area in turn, thus creating a ‘research methods’ narrative. These build on each other, and once an element has been covered it will be enfolded into later discussions. No session is less than a day long, and some are longer. For example, research design and tools is a 3 day session. This allows for revisiting of previous knowledge and conceptual bases, and the incorporation of research design as a further element of successful research planning. Having introduced these elements more formally, the length of the session will give time for discussion, planning, creation and problem-based and discovery learning. The result will be the development of a draft research design for a dissertation, as well as a research tool to be trialled as a pilot.

As well as the knowledge and conceptual bases being developed in the face-to-face and online materials, an application strand will start from early in the course. Initially this will take the form of pairs of students carrying out semi-structured interviews with established researchers to investigate their views concerning research, preferences of research approach, as well as some idea of research career history. Results will then be shared later in the course. Having completed this component, students will then need to carry out individual piloting of a research tool which they have created based on their work in the course. This will give them an opportunity to develop and critique research tools in a supported and structured environment. The data from both exercises will then act as the core for a two day session on analysis tools making use of the authentic data sets collected by the students themselves (supplemented where necessary to ensure engagement with both quantitative and qualitative analysis).

The development of application, knowledge and conceptual understanding throughout the course will culminate in the completion of a dissertation. By developing all strands together in a holistic approach, this will be the ‘acid-test’ of how well the students have developed a deepening, critical and positive potential in carrying out their own small-scale research.

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The final post of this strand will consider how we can capture a useful understanding of the various elements and processes in the course.

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