Catherine Dawson on Creating Activities for Teaching Research Methods

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This post originally appeared an the SAGE Connection blog as part of its Connecting with the Community series and is reprinted here by permission.


Catherine Dawson

Catherine Dawson

Ho research methods are taught and engaged with constantly evolves thanks to fluctuating learning environments, changing classroom numbers, improving technology and new data sources. What’s an instructor to do?

For one, turn to Catherine Dawson’s 100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods and its companion website, a source of exercises, games, scenarios and role plays that serves as a practical resource for research methods tutors, teachers and lecturers. Dawson, a self-employed researcher and writer, has over the years developed and taught research methods courses for undergraduate and postgraduate students and has designed and delivered bespoke research methods training sessions to employees at all levels in the private sector.

Interested in learning more about how her new text engages students and teaches the material all while challenges traditional concepts, we caught up with Dawson for some quick questions.


Find out more about 100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods here and read the two free sample activities here.

What made you decide to write this book?

When I first started teaching research methods my students were adult returners from non-typical student backgrounds. Some hadn’t taken part in any formal education since their school days. Others had encountered problems with their schooling and had left at the earliest opportunity. They had decided to return to education later in life as part of a ‘re-balancing strategy’ (they perceived that their lives had become unbalanced due to some type of life/personal transition and education was seen as a way to restore balance).

My students were nervous and unconfident, but very keen to learn. They were on the course for a purpose: if it didn’t meet their needs they wouldn’t stay. I felt it was important to teach research methods in a down-to-earth way that would not be off-putting or daunting. It would also need to have personal meaning and be of relevance (and perhaps help students to re-balance their lives).

I felt that enjoyable and non-threatening activities that engaged and motivated students were the way forward. As existing research methods literature didn’t provide this type of activity, I started to develop my own. I continued to develop, modify, adapt and improve these activities over many years of teaching and, eventually, decided that it might be useful to put them together into a practical resource for other tutors. Luckily, eight out of ten reviewers agreed and came up with some excellent and constructive suggestions for improving the book.

What can this book teach us about the way in which research methods teaching is changing and developing?

That’s an interesting question. Teaching methods in general will always change and develop if tutors take note of the latest research and choose to update their skills and methods. For me, it was more a question of having to adapt to changing students and find methods that would suit them. As student numbers increase we experience more diverse student groups and it is important to adapt to meet the needs of all students on our courses. In this book I try to provide a wide variety of different activities because some will suit some students (and tutors) whereas others will not.

Obviously, technology is having a much greater impact on teaching methods: the activities in the book have adapted and changed over the years as a result of technological advances (greater use of student-centered digital resources and data visualization tools and techniques, for example).

What top tip would you give those teaching research methods?

Keep complex epistemological and methodological discussion away from the classroom until you are sure that your students are relaxed, confident and determined to stay the course.

What is it about activity based approaches to research methods that you think helps with learning?

A small selection of comments from my previous students will help to answer this question:

‘It’s been different, funny and a laugh, although I’ve learnt more than I’ve done on other courses.’

‘You learn from each other. I just thought you would teach us like at school but that didn’t happen. I felt much better because I felt I could give as well as get stuff from others.’

‘I’ve enjoyed it ‘cos it wasn’t boring and it helped you to understand methods and methodology. I was watching a quiz on telly and they asked what is methodology and I answered and my wife nearly fell off her chair.’

‘Some of those where you actually get off your seat really work because they keep you awake and alert. I’m not sure about those where you have to do loads of work on your own though, I’m better working in groups so I liked those.’

‘I was really worried about this course because when I read those books on the reading list most I didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought I shouldn’t be on this course and everyone knew all about it and I didn’t. But when you work with other students you find they don’t know it all and you all feel the same and you can help each other through it.’

‘It’s better than being lectured at.’

Research methods, its practice, skills and methods needed are changing. Where do you think the field will be in the next 10 years?

I can’t answer that! If you’d asked me that question ten years ago I wouldn’t have predicted the technological developments in data analysis software, data visualization tools and techniques and the huge increases in the generation, dissemination and searching of big data and open data. Obviously, these technological developments will continue rapidly and provide exciting challenges for researchers and tutors.

I think we will have to be even more aware of research ethics, personal integrity and data protection (quality assurance, data corruption, statistical confidentiality, privacy rules and so on). Hopefully, ‘expert bashing’ is just a fad and won’t grow in momentum over the next ten years. But we will have to be extremely careful about what we do and how it is presented and protected.

I can tell you what won’t change: the arguments that are generated between those who prefer qualitative research and those who prefer quantitative research. I try to engage both (and those who prefer mixed methods) in my book: I wonder if I’ve succeeded?


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