How Will COVID-19 Impact Student Research Projects? 

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The world is changing and so are your research plans and options. SAGE MethodSpace is trying to help by answering your questions. See the whole Q & A series here, and post your questions in the comment area.

Around the world, higher education faculty and students have been grappling with the mammoth task of flipping from face-to-face teaching to online learning, practically overnight. As teaching faculty scramble to figure out how to use Zoom for online learning and the debate continues as to whether universities should cancel exams or switch to home-based open book or open Google exams, it’s becoming clear that the impact of COVID-19 on academic research could be just as profound as the impact on teaching. In-person lab experiments, face-to-face interviews, focus groups, fieldwork and other data collection may be impossible for much of 2020. Where possible, researchers will switch modes from face- to- face to virtual or telephone data collection, and where that’s not possible or desirable for practical or methodological reasons, university research offices and funders are issuing guidance for academics who need to delay their data collection or fieldwork. 

But it’s not just faculty research that will be impacted. Student research projects in the social and behavioural sciences will also need to be rethought in many cases. Many universities are giving extensions on research assignments and dissertations (a week in some cases, a month at other universities), and many dissertation supervisors are recognising that they will need to accommodate students who are now unable to collect primary data as they’d planned to because of COVID-19. The current situation could provide an opportunity to teach students about the challenges of collecting data in unusual circumstances and the ethical considerations of doing research during high stress situations. It could also spur universities to increase training for students on how to collect primary data online. But what about doing away with data collection altogether?

Some universities are allowing students to produce a literature review instead of undertaking primary data collection as they’d planned, and others are pushing students towards secondary data analysis projects using data from the UK Data Archive. Departments are likely to make different decisions on how to adapt based on the skills they feel are most important to assess through a research project – the ability to formulate a research question, undertake a review of the existing literature, or demonstrate the ability to analyse data and write up results. 

For students doing quantitative analysis who are now unable to collect their own data because of COVID-19, another alternative to using secondary data is to get students working with simulated data. Professor Alan Pickering from Goldsmiths, University of London has published an excellent screencast video for academics who are less familiar with quantitative methods showing how to simulate artificial data sets for student projects and assessments using SPSS. Using simulated data instead of real data would change the focus of the report or write-up, but still allows students to demonstrate that they have developed the required data analysis skills.

As faculty and students navigate the uncharted waters ahead, it’s hard not to speculate about what the longer term impacts on higher education teaching and research could be. Will the academic conference survive? Will the concept of fieldwork be changed forever? Will computer labs be replaced by online courses? Will secondary analysis for student projects become the default? Most of us have way more questions than answers right now. As we’re all figuring out what a “new normal” could look like, we’ve pulled together some of our favourite resources on writing your dissertation, doing a literature review, doing secondary analysis and using simulated data for faculty and students who are rethinking upcoming assignments. 

Writing your dissertation:

Doing your literature review:

Doing secondary analysis:

Simulating data for beginners: 

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