Teaching Research methods – Some initial reflections

On March 20th, we finally finished teaching a research methods module which is a core element of our MA International Education (MAIE) course. As I outlined in this blog last autumn (here, here and here), I have been working with a colleague in the School of Education to develop a new approach to our research methods course.

Having finished the course and the data collection we have captured from a parallel research project of our own on the module, it feels like a good time to consider some initial reflections about our work. This is obviously an initial perception, we need to spend many months analysing the very rich dataset we have collected. Any reflections can’t be taken as a detailed and accurate account. However, several issues seem to have emerged across the module:

1) Thinking about threshold concepts. As we began to develop a curriculum framework we discussed possible threshold concepts in research methods as a basis for instructional design. In a past post, I listed threshold concepts identified by Kiley and Wisher (2010). They saw the threshold concepts relating to research methods as being:

  • argument
  • theory
  • frameworks
  • knowledge creation
  • analysis
  • paradigm

We started from this point, but through discussion emphasised the following concepts as being both central to understanding research methods and also having the potential to be transformatory. Consequently, our list of threshold concepts became:

  • criticality
  • theory
  • methodology
  • ethics
  • analysis
  • epistemology/ontology

In the event, we spent less time on theory as a concept than we had expected, but all of the other concepts became a major part of the course. In student interviews criticality was seen as central to developing an ability to read research and from this to writing well considered and careful texts. Methodology and analysis were also seen as being important for assessing papers as well as being central to a critical and deep understanding of how to carry out research. One student reflected that previously she had read the ‘start and end’ of papers to engage with the main messages; now she first engages with the ‘middle’ to assess the degree to which the research could be used or trusted. Ontology and epistemology were the most difficult concepts to tackle and at the end of the module I would argue that some are still in liminal space in this respect. Some students reflected that at undergraduate level the nature of reality and knowledge, as well as paradigms, were assumed and hence never discussed. As an interdisciplinary pursuit education needs to engage in these debates as researchers from many different traditions meet at this particular crossroads and there is therefore a level of philosophical complexity. Methodology, analysis and ethics were all equally important in aiding students to gain a deeper and holistic understanding on which to base their expanding knowledge and practical experience.

One additional concept which we had not included in our original list but which I would be minded to include having completed the module is that of ‘sampling’. Some struggle with this and yet good understanding often acted as a basis for logical, well considered and critical bridges between methodology and data collection tools. Where sampling was not well understood this bridge was less, if at all, secure and logical explanation of research design began to default to general description and a lack of criticality.

2) Importance of language. We have started to see the research methods module more and more as a language course. This is not only the result of developing a course which predominantly attracts international students, although this is obviously important. We have a number of English speaking students and yet they often commented on the difficulty of engaging with the language. Research methods language is conceptually rich and difficult; we are teaching this language and regardless of student origin, we need to ensure that students understand the language and the concepts underlying it.

3) Research methods as an applied activity. In our planning, we also developed a pedagogic model which sees conceptualisation, knowledge and application as equally important, and intertwined.

understanding elements of learning for a master's RM programme

At the end of the module I feel this is a very useful framework and has aided in developing a critical approach to the module. Conceptualisation is vital as a basis for constructing and developing knowledge. However, where these began to really make sense for students was when they actually enacted their ideas. The application of research methods started from day one of the course and revolved around two practical exercises. Firstly, students acted in pairs to consider the characteristics of good interviewing before developing a set of group research questions based on a research problem given to them by ourselves. From the research questions they discussed and agreed interview questions before splitting into pairs to complete their interviews. Once complete, the pairs then transcribed and encoded their data. This process shadowed their work in face-to-face sessions and therefore their emerging understanding of the module. The final exercise focused on comparing codes across the group to identify re-occurring themes as well as outliers.

Students then moved on to complete a module assignment which asked them to develop an area for research, develop research questions from this, before creating a research design which was then piloted. Subsequent to the pilot, students were then asked to reflect on their experience and how they would change their research design as a prelude to developing their dissertation work.

This proved very challenging, but also, according to some of the students, allowed them to consider how far their understanding of research methods developed.

I am currently discussing the potential for a new master’s degree focusing on praxis-based approaches to education. Having developed our work on research methods I fully intend to embed an emergent element of research methods across all modules of the programme, leading towards a specialist research methods module. Research methods needs to be engaged with over a period of time and within different contexts to give a wide critical and experiential basis for discussion and theoretical understanding.


These are some of the basic reflections from the course, but as I said above, these are only initial and need to be considered in far more detail as we begin to engage with the very large amount of data we have collected from this course. In my next post, I will continue my reflection, by considering the process of researching this module and the utility of considering the learning environment as being a complex adaptive system.

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One thought on “Teaching Research methods – Some initial reflections

  1. In addition to teaching the ‘language’ of research, I found with this group of students that we also need to address explicitly cultural assumptions regarding, for example: student passivity vs agency in the student-supervisor relationship; traditions of respect for perceived great authors that translate into uncritical writing; engagement in experiential learning activities; students’ longstanding immersion in the culture of the Scientific Method that in some cases still dominates their RM writing at the end of the module; the right to question teachers etc. Given the brevity of the 1 year master’s it is important to address these issues swiftly and return to them regularly.

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