This article is part of the Learning to Research, Researching to Learn series of posts focused on teaching and research in methods and curricular courses.
Research activities are beneficial to students in curricular courses, whether or not students are preparing to conduct empirical studies. In today’s world, we need citizens and professionals in every field who are curious, and know how to look beyond the surface to understand roots and contexts of contemporary problems. And research practice will be beneficial to students who move into a scholarly direction as qualitative or quantitative researchers.
Inquiry-based instructional approaches offer the opportunity to develop critical and creative thinking skills, and to mesh theoretical and practical perspectives. Online research activities allow us to expand the scope of study and to advance digital literacy.
Inquiry models of learning as articulated by Weil et al (2009) suggest three stages that can be applied here. The first, focus, is aligned with acquisition of foundational concepts, theories, and background information, and the formation of questions. What Weil describes as conceptual control can refer to collection of relevant evidence, and analysis of the evidence in light of other readings or assignments. The third and perhaps most essential stage involves converting conceptual understandings into knowledge and skills. This stage is accomplished through individual and group reflection, written expressions through essays or journals, and discussion of what was learned.
Through this process we want to know: how do people understand and experience the issues and topics we are studying in this course? How have people come to terms with problems, and what strategies have they used? How do their experiences and practices compare with the explanations and recommendations we study in textbooks and articles?
The beauty of the online environment is that we have access to people and events locally or globally, with countless opportunities for observation, interviews, and analysis of user-generated content and archives. Think about the milieu most suitable to your course goals: your own class, the local, professional or social community, or boundary-less cyberspace? Who has expertise in the subject at hand, who might be willing to participate in a class project with your students? What events (meetings, webinars, presentations) could students observe? What kind of agreements or permissions might you need—given that what students learn would be used for internal classroom purposes?
Here is a general example you can place within your own field or discipline: let’s say you are teaching a course that includes a focus on understanding teamwork. The overarching question for this unit of study might be: “what motivates team members to contribute?”
Students are assigned materials to read from the textbook or articles—but instead of reading to find answers to fulfill the assignment questions, ask them to read to find new questions. What is missing, or where do experts disagree, and what else do you want to know about how these ideas play out in real teams?
They might begin by interviewing each other—or perhaps students in another management class across the university or across the globe. What are their experiences in teams, good or bad?
They might refine their questions and ask them to business, nonprofit or NGO managers or team members. Depending on academic level, these could include parents, employers, colleagues or friends.
An online search will yield many recorded webinars, videos, and/or discussions on social networking sites about teamwork and related experiences. What are they talking about, complaining about, pointing to as good practices?
How does what you read about initially compare with the real experiences you explored with peers and others? How do theories and recommendations from the text compare with strategies used in the field?
What did other students in the course discover? Is everyone in agreement—or not? What would your class recommend as best practices—and what more do you want to know? What new questions are raised by this series of exercises?
Depending on the nature of the course and amount of time available, instructors can define project steps and structure, or allow students to define and design their own projects. Instructors can also decide whether to assign group or individual projects. (More about collaborative projects in a future post!)
Will students who learn to ask questions become better researchers? That is a question to explore! What are your experiences—as an instructor, student, and/or researcher?