Research methods modules have long been among the most-hated modules for undergraduate students on social science degrees, and students’ anxiety towards them, especially quantitative methods, is well-documented. They are frequently taught in a theoretical, dry manner, and students complain that the content has nothing to do with the rest of their degree. The more self-aware teachers have noted that the training reflects a cycle of abuse: new lecturers inflict the same awful teaching on the next generation as they themselves received as students.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
In a pilot study with 200 second-year undergraduates studying politics, students were introduced to research through real-world projects. With no prior training, students designed and carried out a real-world research project in the space of 11 weeks. They showed incredible dedication, worked very hard, and found some remarkable results (more about this in a moment).
Students had a weekly lecture that introduced an element of research design like formulating research questions, conducting a literature review, developing and testing hypotheses, and analysing and presenting results. They had a hands-on session in which they were introduced to qualitative methods like interviews, focus groups, and observation; and statistical analysis from descriptives through linear regression. They had project-based seminars where they received supervision on their progress, and they had additional clinics where they met with organisations and learned about research ethics.
Students chose topics submitted by public- and third-sector organisations based mostly around Nottingham. The topics proposed were questions to which the organisations had a genuine interest in the answer; most of the organisations did not have the research capacity to undertake the research themselves. Students worked in groups for research design, ethical approval, and data collection but wrote up their results individually.
Some of the key findings were:
- Financial literacy is the key to financial inclusion: those suffering the most are least conversant in the options available to them; and there is a direct link between financial inclusion and employment status.
- Parents from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are well aware of the importance of involvement in their children’s education, but many feel limited by time and their own educational attainment.
- Increasing black and minority ethnicity (BME) voter turnout requires two-sided education: education of the BME population about how to vote and its importance; and education of politicians about how to engage with minority communities.
- BME respondents in Nottingham are more likely to hold a negative view of the police and are less likely to want to work in the police.
Some of the results have already had a real impact. For example, the findings of one team carrying out a feasibility study have convinced a large employer to begin the Living Wage certification process. Research undertaken on hate crime reporting has indicated a huge amount of underreporting by victims; this finding has been taken to the city police, who are using it in their efforts to re-design the victim experience after hate crime incidents. One student has used the research experience to gain a summer internship with Ofsted.
From being the most-hated module on the degree programme, the module has actually become some students’ favourite. Attendance and performance have increased, and the change in student engagement has been remarkable. While there are, of course, lessons to learn from the pilot, it shows that research methods can be engaging, relevant, and even fun.
In two upcoming blog posts, due out tomorrow and the day after, students who researched youth participation in politics present their findings – findings that politicians would do well to heed in the General Election 2015.
Dr Helen Williams is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham