Teaching Research Methods using Collaborative Learning

Categories: Focus Series, Research, Research Cases, Research Skills, Students, Teaching, Uncategorised

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Collaboration is a MethodSpace focus for December, with posts about various types of collaboration that engage researchers and academic writers. The wide-ranging examples included in articles and cases demonstrate the need for specific skillsets in order to  to collaborate in ways that are productive and satisfying. How do future researchers learn the skills they will need to succeed in academic research and related professional work, where collaborative and interdisciplinary teamwork are increasingly expected?  One way is by using collaborative learning methods that allow students to gain the experience of working together to conduct, analyze, and/or write about research while still in the classroom. Let’s look for insights from researchers whose work has been featured on MethodSpace.

Learn how to plan the project with collaborative partners.

In the video included in the post “Collaborative Research: Enterprising Science Project” Laura Archer described two challenges. The first involves project timing, and the second relates to communication.

I don’t think anyone would pretend that collaborative research is easy. I think it takes more time. We need to spend a long time in the project learning to understand each other, and understand where we’re coming from– the different languages that we both use, the different constraints and demands that we have on us, and different motivations in the project as well.

Collaborative research in the classroom requires extra time so students have a chance to get acquainted and plan key steps of the project. In the process, they need time to determine a common language for articulating goals and describing their shared work. As Archer observed, sometimes when we are crossing disciplines or cultures, the words we use to describe phenomena are different. To avoid confusion, it is valuable to identify these differences and agree to definitions for essential terms that will be used in the project.

Learn to use communication technologies for a collaborative purpose.

On a practical level, plans for how and when to communicate are central to any collaboration agreement. If the collaborative partners are not co-located, and some or all of the communication occurs online, is valuable to think about how the partners will use synchronous and asynchronous exchanges. When is it important to sit down and meet in person or by video chat, and when is it possible to get things done  by exchanging drafts through email or shared folders?

The case “Coordinating diverse research practices using digital research notebooks: A case study in science education” offers a way to use commonly available tools such as Microsoft OneNote in collaborative research assignments.


With the digital research notebook (DRN), our work became collaborative from the start. Instead of working individually in separate Word files, each of us worked in different pages in the same notebook section. 

Instructors sometimes assume that students, especially those who are digital natives, are comfortable with electronic communications. Nevertheless, students’ digital literacy levels might not be adequate. Steps involved with collaborative research and preparation for a joint report benefit from familiarity with technologies that are somewhat different from those used for social exchanges. Assignments that use tools such as the digital research notebook can help to prepare students for complex projects that include multiple stages or different types of multimedia data.

Learn how to negotiate power.

Two of the SAGE Research Cases highlighted in this MethodSpace series highlight the importance of being able to let go, and enable others to contribute. In the case “Collaborative Visual Ethnography: Practical Issues in Cross-Cultural Research” the researchers learned a lesson early in the project that informed the way they carried out the rest of the study:

As I watched the villagers at work on their films, I realised that in handing over the cameras to the villagers I had also handed over the focus and means of production of the research. I saw quickly the value in letting go of the reins. Following instead of directing gave me access to parts of village life that would have taken months to reveal and record had I controlled the production process.

Similarly, the authors of the case “Youth-led participatory action research: A collaborative methodology for health,education, and social change” pointed to the importance of including young participants as fully-engaged co-researchers. The authors explained how the training they provided to youth allowed them to take a more extensive role than is typical in such studies.

[S]tudent co-researchers supported the partnership with undeniable enthusiasm and a unique community perspective that would not have been available otherwise.

It is never easy to let go of the reins, or to allow inexperienced people to take an important part in a research project where success or failure might have a significant academic or career impact. But as these examples demonstrate, the quality of the research was greatly improved by a more collaborative approach.

Classroom research projects may or may not involve participants in the ways shown by these cases. However, the same principles apply to group efforts that include stronger, more experienced students who are working in a group with others they perceive as less able to add value to the project.

Students often find this aspect of collaboration to be particularly difficult. This is especially true when students are accustomed to having their academic performance assessed based on individual achievement. Instructors who want to prepare students for collaborative research are wise to develop assessment strategies that reward students for the achievements of the group as a whole, as well as assessments for individual student contributions. Instructors can also consider their own roles in the situations and provide coaching or just-in-time training on research skills.

Teach and learn to collaborate.

Learning to Collaborate

Want to learn more about how to prepare your students for collaborative research? See: Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn, a resource for educators and instructional designers who want to design and teach assignments and projects that encourage students to use collaborative approaches while acquiring subject matter knowledge.

For more instructional suggestions appropriate for teaching research methods, see posts about using inquiry models and related MethodSpace posts listed below.

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