Teaching Research Design through the Lens of Critical Praxis

Categories: Instruction, Online Learning, Professional Development and Continuing Education, Research Design, Research Methods, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles, Teaching

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We continue to learn about the design stage in February and March by focusing on Choosing Methodology and Methods, and Ethical Research. This post is from our February Mentors in Residence Pengfei Zhao, Karen Ross, Peiwei Li and Barbara Dennis. See their new book, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology.


In our previous posts we advocated for more conversations on the roots of social research, such as researchers’ onto-epistemological and ethical commitments in relation to the research process. We argue that doing so could help us transcend an essentialized divide between qualitative and quantitative research. Now you may wonder: How shall we talk about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research at all if we enter into the conversation with the hope to not essentialize the divide?

This is especially challenging in the context of teaching introductory research methodology courses. Most instructors would want to cover not only the “roots” but also the “branches” and “leaves” of research methodology. In this post, we propose a teaching activity and a class design for instructors to introduce the convergence and divergence between qualitative and quantitative studies. We hope to open up more conversations on this front especially because current textbooks and curricula often juxtapose the two without offering substantial opportunities to put them into dialogues. 

An anchoring point for us to approach this issue is to consider social research as social action, namely, that social research is shaped by existing social, political and cultural structures and it makes real-world impacts (For a more detailed discussion, please check out Chapter 6 of our book, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology). Accordingly, we conceptualize designing research as establishing conceptual and action maps to guide our research practice. In Chapters 8 and 9 of Making Sense of Social Research Methodology, we elaborate on these ideas with examples from everyday life and the research world. Here we would like to situate this conversation in a teaching context. One way for us to do it in an introductory research methodology course is to use a general research topic as an example to illustrate how researchers employ different designs to explore the topic. For example, in the PowerPoint slides that Pengfei created for her course, she used the topic of teacher expectations as an overarching topic, together with a set of empirical articles on teacher expectations as supporting materials. Below we outline the learning objectives, recommended reading sets, potential class activities, and points for reflection for designing such a class activity.

Learning Objectives

Through this class session, students will:

  • Review different types of inferential connections that researchers seek to establish in qualitative and quantitative studies and their connections to research questions;
  • Understand the relationship between one’s onto-epistemological & ethical commitments, research topics and questions, and research designs;
  • Unlearn the idea that research designs are about following fixed procedures and dividing research into different steps;
  • Establish a reflexive understanding about dynamics between designing research and performing research centering on the idea of praxis;
  • Explore different features of research design in qualitative and quantitative studies.

    2. Recommended Reading Sets

Methodological readings:

Zhao, P., K. Ross, P. Li & B. K. Dennis (2021). Making Sense of Social Research

Methodology: A Student- and Practitioner-Centered Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press. Chs. 8-9.

An example of a set of empirical readings:

The examples below are on the topic of teacher expectations; they could also be offered as optional readings:

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. F. (1968). Teacher expectations for the disadvantaged. Scientific American, 218(4), 19-23. (Experimental design)

Goldenberg, C. (1992). The limits of expectations: A case for case knowledge about teacher expectancy effects. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 517-544. (Ethnographic case study)

Dallaire, D. H., Ciccone, A., & Wilson, L. C. (2010). Teachers’ experiences with and expectations of children with incarcerated parents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(4), 281-290. (Mixed methods design)

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of educational psychology, 99(2), 253. (Meta-analysis)

Tate, W. F. (1994). From inner city to ivory tower: Does my voice matter in the academy? Urban Education, 29(3), 245-269. (Autobiographic study)

Class Activities

There are multiple ways for instructors to organize this class session/activity. Because of the overview nature of the session, we found it helpful to keep a balance between instructors’ guidance and students-led activities. For Pengfei’s example, she created the PowerPoint Slides to guide the discussion. Download the slides here:

However, during teaching, she never presents the concepts or features of research designs with understanding taken for granted. Typically, she raises questions before offering any tentative answers, invites students to give examples or problematize her ideas, organize pair or group discussions. For example, after instructors and students reach a preliminary consensus on the relatively linear feature of quantitative research, she always asks for counter-examples or counter-arguments. After students bring up that they think philosophic underpinnings for qualitative research are important, she always raise the question of what is the role of philosophic underpinnings for quantitative research.

Points for Reflection and Expansion

In the following class meetings, instructors can revisit the discussion in this overview session and continuously expand it. For instance, if we consider designing research as a form of social action, then we could locate this action/a series of actions on the spectrum from habituality to creativity. If designing a study is only about following procedures, then we could ask to what degree this habitual practice of following established rules may reduce or close off a researcher’s capacity to critically reflect upon their practice in a specific context. If a researcher locates their practice at the creative end of the spectrum, a conversation about upon which the creative mind rests may be helpful.


Interested in purchasing the book?

Use this code, MSPACE20, for a 20% discount when you order the book from SAGE Publishing.

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