Reflecting on a new Research Methods course – Some initial musings

Since September, we have been running the research methods course the planning for which was outlined in this blog earlier in the year. The ideas which I set out below are first impressions – we haven’t started to analyse the large dataset we’ve already accrued over this first term. That will be a long, if enjoyable, job!!

Working on an MA in International Education is both rewarding and also extremely thought-provoking. The groups with whom we engage are very diverse in just about every way possible; the stereotypical view that ‘academics’ don’t know anything about teaching seems somewhat wide of the mark when working with international groups. They are wonderful, and developing ideas with such groups are some of the most positive, difficult and enjoyable teaching experiences I have ever had.

What follows is a series of initial musings because any systematic understanding of our experiences thus far are a long way ahead of us due to the large scale process of in-depth data analysis which we will need to undertake once our project finishes at the end of the academic year. This post can only hope to give initial impressions and reflections on some apparently important elements of an emergent and very different pedagogy which we are developing as we gain insights from the course and the students.

International groups are often very diverse, and the group with whom we are working this year is no different. We have students from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kurdistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and the UK. This leads to a wide spectrum of language ability, but students are also coming straight from undergraduate degrees, including Chinese literature to Chemistry, others have trained as teachers and taught in schools, and some have Masters degrees in other subjects. Consequently, the diversity of prior knowledge and understanding of both education and of research methods is huge. However, educational research has some interesting characteristics which are different to many single discipline approaches to research, and together with a rich conceptual language has led us to consider a number of ideas and approaches, some of which are outlined below as a series of short reflections rather than a single synthesised narrative.

Language is a central element in helping a diverse international group engage with, and understand, research methods. This area of study has a rich conceptual character with an equally rich and at times abstract language associated with it. To begin to gain a working understanding of research methods requires students to begin to have confidence in their use of terminology, and the ways in which that terminology links to important concepts. Interestingly, this means that a research methods language is not only new to those for whom English is an additional language, but also for native speakers. At the end of each session we have been asking students to identify terms which they still have trouble understanding, which then become the basis for developing an online glossary and subsequent quizzes at the start of following sessions. In interviews, both native and non-native speakers have suggested that a conscious consideration of language has helped them to develop their conceptualisation of research methods in the early part of the course. Conscious consideration of vocabulary is useful to everyone.

The development of a blended approach to learning also appears to have had a very positive impact. The use of a flipped classroom approach together with pre-reading has been important for the learning of students. A number of individuals have reflected on the importance of narrated PowerPoints which they watch before a face-to-face session. They can pause, rewind, and watch a video several times if they wish, allowing them to understand both language and concepts in their own time which they can then utilise more fully within the sessions. Likewise, use of pre-reading with focused activities has allowed students to further define and embellish their basic understanding of an area as well is providing them with concrete case studies and examples of research approaches. These papers can then be used to exemplify concepts in face-to-face sessions, concepts which might otherwise remain very abstract and difficult to understand. This approach means that a large part of face-to-face sessions becomes focused on paired and group work which allows for debate and extension of ideas which they have already come across. This is particularly important in helping students to develop active and authentic use of language.

In this first term we have focused on the philosophical and theoretical foundation for research methods, covering principles of what defines research as well as basic introductions to ontology, epistemology and paradigms. These have then formed the basis for a consideration of methodology and ethics. In addition to these core ideas we have spent a day exploring approaches to critical reading, and one developing frameworks for critical writing. Anecdotal experience of research methods courses is that these issues can become separated foci which rarely crossover one to the other leading to atomised and incomplete understanding. We have attempted to constantly revisit ideas as we move forward, leading to a strong narrative within the module. Critical reading has been discussed as a process of ensuring that the understanding of research methods underpins a critical reading of literature within their other, content focused modules. Therefore, having introduced ontology, epistemology and paradigms, these concepts have been used as a way of understanding different approaches to research covered in pre-readings. Then having focused on other issues within a critical writing day we came back to ontology etc through a consideration of methodology and ethics, leading to a degree of interleaving. This also allowed us to develop an understanding of the need to create a clear philosophical and practical narrative within the development of research projects. For example, given a project title, the outlining of context should lead to research questions and from here ontological and paradigmatic foundations. These principles should then act as the basis for appropriate methodologies and methods as well is outlining ethical considerations. By revisiting these concepts and vocabulary on a number of occasions and within a number of worked examples and contexts there is evidence that students’ confidence and understanding has started to develop well.

The last reflection which has been of interest in this first period has been the use of summary concept maps at the end of each face-to-face session. As a final activity each day students have been asked to reflect upon what they believe have been their main areas of learning and then to relate these to each other. Given that it might be possible to create a concept map which gives the appearance of a well-developed level of understanding without that understanding being present, we have also asked students to create five minute recorded narrations explaining the form of their concept maps. They then send a photograph of the concept map with recordings to us so that we can understand any misconceptions or holes in understanding which might be apparent. Students who have been interviewed towards the end of term believe that this activity has helped them gain a clearer understanding of their own level of learning within sessions and has also helped them to revisit terminology and concepts in a structured way. Their inclusion within our pedagogic framework has been both useful and popular.

Reflecting on what we have learned during this first term from this revised approach to research methods, central to our thinking has been the ways in which we build linguistic and conceptual understanding to help form coherent and strong narratives concerning the foundations for understanding research methods. Linking this to varied pedagogy which includes more transmissive approaches linked to more independent, project-based and group-led work, we have started to develop a very enriched approach, one which a ‘methodology of glimpses’ appears to have helped uncover.

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2 thoughts on “Reflecting on a new Research Methods course – Some initial musings

    1. Hi Russell. Thanks. I’m really happy with the richness of the narrative we’re capturing. There is a lot going on and we’re obviously only capturing some of it. For me personally, the importance of the interplay between language, conceptualisation and opportunities to discuss & apply have felt central. Increasingly feeling that only a considerable focus on blended learning and varied pedagogies can begin to develop an environment rich enough for real engagement with research methods. Will certainly post some more thoughts during the remainder of the year.

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