Teaching research methods: how practical?

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    Can you learn research methods without actually doing any research? Our text, Researching Social Life, suggests a few exercises at the end of each chapter, but i haven’t had any feedback about whether students do them. And nowadays, student have all sorts of ethical and practical hurdles to overcome before they can engage in even the simplest project. Perhaps we should be going the same way as the teaching of engineering and science, and getting students to do simulations of research?

    Roger Cowell

    I think that you might learn research methods in theory, just as you might learn a language in a language laboratory and with text books, but I’m unsure where you would go next if you weren’t undertaking research. Personally I’m sure you can get insights from texts that can nourish or inform research work. I’ve been doing a Masters research project recently and found several texts including ‘Researching Social Life’, a couple of David Silverman’s on qualitative research & data, and Denzin & Lincoln’s, and readily applied some ideas and frameworks both in the data analysis and writing stages. Personally I found the questions and exercises extremely useful. In my Sociology Qualitiative Methods seminars we have followed a process of reading articles and scenarios before class, listening to the lecture, then discussing the set exercises. It works well but if we weren’t at various stages of our own research projects I’m not certain we would see the practical gains easily or even at all. I’ll take your question to the final seminar on Tuesday 5th May and ask the lecturer and the other students what they think.


    Hello Gilbert,
    I found your text very interesting.As a research methods lecturer myself I feel we have been having big problems with this issue for the last few years. Especially in the school of health. Up to 10 years ago it was quite easy for a student to conduct research projects with patients but nowadays it is only a few Msc students and PhD ones who have the time to go through university ethics and then hospital ethics as well [the hospital ethics application is about 60 pages long too). I am sorry I have not come across your text book however I would trend to agree with you -I really do not think students appreciate what research is about unless they actually do it- in fact the introduction of research governance has put an end to all undergraduate projects- and most students do systematic reviews in our university- Your idea of simulations is a great idea! because as the moment most students doing research methods modules find them very dry.Do you know of any simulations or are you creating some?


    A very, very long time ago (a clue: look at the copyright notice on the front page!) I created a simulation for our students which is still in use today. It is available on the web at http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/samp/ and free for anyone to use. It simulates survey sampling of a town, so that students can investigate the effects (and value for money) of different sampling designs and proportions. Have fun!


    Thanks for this-Josette-will go through it in detail when I am more alert! Do you know of any others?

    Debra Allwardt

    Interesting question, Nigel. I teach an undergraduate two-course methods-stats sequence and have been determined to have students experience research. In my opinion, I found the best possible solution for my situation. We redesigned the courses to fit the current hurdles. Students take the two courses back to back in order, and therefore have more time to complete a research project. I place limitations on their research so that they will only do studies that qualify as “exempt” according to our universities criteria (i.e., they must study only adults…). Students have one academic year to learn about basic research and stats, and while they do that they experience the IRB process, collect, and analyze data. It’s a LOT of work for me but I haven’t seen a better model yet, so it’s worth it (I also have many students present their findings, and that is a plus). I’ll be interested to read further about the simulations presented here by others. I’m open to other possibilities, but there seems to be something special about students “owning” their research.

    Bridget Thomas

    I do think actual hands-on experience is critical to students’ understanding methods, especially if the course is their first. IRB requirements can certainly be an impediment, but I know at my university IRB approval is not required as long as the research is for a class project and will not be submitted for publication (and only uses adults, etc.). In my undergrad course I had them create a simple survey and then collect data from about 20 people, just so they got a better understanding of the process/simple statistics/APA style. Without having some ownership of the process, some of my students never would have understood what I was teaching. I think that past a small project like this, however, simulations could definitely be helpful.



    I think is interesting to learn research using simulators, exercise, etc. But the focus will be always how to do the student can transfer the acquired knowledge to a real situation? Is equally or more important to plan for ways to teach that the media themselves.

    David Morgan

    Hello Nigel,

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue over the years. In particular, one of my side interests is in the development of expertise. In that area, I’ve the work that I’ve found most useful is a stages system developed by Hubert & Stuart Dreyfus brothers (see their book, “Mind over Machine and a very useful empirical example in Nursing by Pat Benner “From Novice to Expert”).

    The reason why I mention this is that their approach suggest that we teach beginners (‘novices”) a set of context-free rules that they are supposed to memorize as a way to get started. Our introductory Methods textbooks (and classes) are full of such rules. This is definitely a good way to teach novices, but it doesn’t do much for moving them on the higher levels of expertise.

    Experience, under the guidance of those who already have more mastery of the field is definitely a good way to move students along. What I wonder, however, is whether we could do a better job in the courses that students take after their introduction to methods?

    According to the approach to expertise that I’m following, students need to move beyond the novice stage by recognizing differences in “when” and “how” the rules apply. In other words, they realize that there is a lot of “context” involved in using any method.

    One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing is the comparison that a lot of textbooks use for qualitative and quantitative methods. This typically takes the form of one column for quant and another for qual, a set of rows that state possible strengths and weakness, and comments under each type of method with regard to each strength or weakness. From a teaching point of view, this is a useful way to caricature the differences between these two forms of research, so that “novices” can learn a set of basic rules.

    Where the problem comes in, however, is when students follow this up with a course that is strictly devoted to either qualitative or quantitative methods. At that point, it becomes clear that earlier context-free rules don’t really match the specifics that we are teaching them. From the point of view of developing expertise, we should give them explicit examples of how those rules actually get applied in practice, but all to often, we just focus on the practices in our sub-field, without relating it to the shared “foundation” that students were supposed to receive in the intro. course.

    When students get as far as a truly specialized course like the seminar I teach on Focus Groups, I spend a lot of with them on the idea of “knowing what their options are” and “knowing how to evaluate those options” for their particular purpose. Over the years, I’ve learned that thinking in those terms often takes a higher level of expertise than many students developed in their earlier courses. Fortunately, by that point most of them are working on designing their own thesis projects, and those server as excellent examples for thinking outside the box in which we seem to have stranded them.

    Sorry if that is a bit long winded, but the basic point is that we need a curriculum that is not only devoted to helping students move beyond the things that we taught them in more basic courses but also geared toward creating further progress in the additional courses they take. Instead, most of tend to teach our courses as if they were self-contained units. As a result, mentoring on actual research projects seems to be the only obvious ways for students to develop Methods expertise in the current system.


    John F Hall


    Only just joined this site today, so I’m enjoying ferreting round it.

    No-one has mentioned secondary analysis yet. With my second-year students I used real data from large general population surveys (and some smaller local ones) to teach not only the process of data collection and analysis, but also introduce students to think about underlying research design, questions and methodology. It helped that they were taught by a senior practising professional (me!). As part of their assessment, they had to choose a topic and do their own secondary analysis . They incidentally learned quite a bit of statistics (some said more than from their official stats course) and a lot of SPSS which made them useful on their professional research placements in year three, and on graduation far better placed to find studentships or employment.

    Details of this and the similar postgrad course are on my new website http://surveyresearch.weebly.com/ (including extensive tutorials using SPSS 15 for Windows and stack of materials from 40-odd years in survey research).

    John Hall

    PS Say hello to any of my old mates not yet retired and still at Surrey.

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