Research Methods: Consuming Passions?

Some time ago I was asked by a publisher (who shall remain nameless because I’ve mercifully forgotten their actual name) to run an introductory computing course for sociology teachers. I initially agreed because it was a topic that interested me and the money they were paying was okay. Always the most important consideration. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t until I’d started to discuss what I’d planned with them that they casually let slip that “there wouldn’t be any computers available for anyone to use on the day”. At which point I made my excuses etc. Even I drew the line at trying to teach a computing course sans computers.

And yet, when it comes to research methods that’s precisely what many teachers do: teach methods sans research.

Which isn’t a criticism because it’s not really a choice, mainly because trying to give students hands-on experience of the methods they’re studying invariably takes up too much time for too little payback. Teaching students about problems of reliability with different methods may not be very interesting, exciting or illuminating, but it takes a fraction of the time compared to students experiencing some or all of these problems for themselves.

While in an ideal teaching world (something that definitely doesn’t include English education in the 21st century) teachers and students would have the time and space to explore both the practical and theoretical dimensions of research methods. But even though this world’s not ideal and you don’t, doesn’t mean you can’t. You just have to use a little bit of initiative. Or deceptiveness, if we’re being really honest.

Flip That Teaching and Learning

One way around the time problem is to find it elsewhere, And if there’s no time inside the classroom then the obvious place to look is outside it. Which is a convoluted way of saying that if you can convince your students to do the practical methods work in their own time you can use this work as the basis for a more-forensic examination of various methods and their associated methodologies in the classroom.

Basically, you use a specific type of flipped learning to make the extra time. Your students collect data by applying different methods to research a problem and this data and the experience of collecting it is used as the focal point for subsequent research methods classes. The secret to pulling this off is to get your students to collect data on a topic that is very familiar to them and with which they engage all the time: an audit of their media consumption.

How much actual time you ask your students to devote to data collection is something you can decide with them, but something like a couple of days over a weekend (Friday night to Sunday night, for example) should be more than sufficient. While the data being collected will be interesting – and possibly illuminating – it’s really only secondary to an application and assessment of the methods used to collect it.

How you actually go about organising the whole process is, of course, entirely up to you and your teaching preferences, but doing things this way offers up a wide range of opportunities to examine different types of research method, apply, interpret and evaluate them and consider various aspects of research methodology, such as reliability and validity in a way that combines both hands-on experience and classroom teaching. In other words, how you plan and execute this process can be as limited or as extensive as you like – but the key notion here is planning. You need to carefully prepare your students for both the research they will carry-out and how you can use it as the basis for further instruction. For example, will you use this opportunity to teach one particular method or a range of different methods?

This is an important question because what you choose here determines how you decide to teach research methods. If your focus is a single method an obvious choice is some form of observation, such as content analysis. You will consequently need to prepare your students, as a class, to use this method.

If, on the other hand, you plan to apply a range of methods you will probably need to split the class into smaller groups, or even individuals, each of which is charged with using a specific method. Doing things this way, of course, means you’re committed to teaching methods in a radically different way than if you use it as a one-off exercise to illustrate a particular method.

  • Using the former is much easier to organise, but will have a much more limited effect on teaching and learning.
  • Using the latter will involve extensive, long-term, planning and organisation. It will, however, allow you to explore a wide range of methods-related ideas and generate a lot more long-term student interest and investment in those ideas.

Whichever route you chose, this process gives you a lot of leeway in how you eventually decide to teach research methods, even though it will initially involve much the same ideas. For example:

Introduce the idea of sociological research and how you would like your students to conduct their own small piece of research on their media consumption.

This gives you space to get your students to think about different research methods (which you can briefly introduce into any discussion) and also, if you wish, the parameters of the research:  what do we mean by “media consumption”, for example. This kind of discussion can add a great deal to students’ understanding of sociological research and design because it gets them thinking about the importance of defining exactly what you’re trying to research. This, in turn, strongly influences how you can collect data about it and so forth.

You need to firm-up the discussion you may have had about different research methods. This can either be done as a class or smaller groups can be assigned a different method to research and report back.

You need to assign different methods to different individuals or groups they will use to conduct their own research on media consumption. This can involve some pre-research predictions / hypotheses about what they’re likely to discover if you want to introduce models of research, such as positivism or interpretivism.

Once you have the research collected by students this gives you a great deal of scope to explore how that data was collected. This gives them the opportunity to use their practical experience to identify things like the strengths and weaknesses of different methods. This will give them a much stronger understanding of these ideas than simply being told what they are. This experience should also help them identify problems that don’t always feature in textbook discussions – something that’s likely to prove useful in any discussion of research methods in an exam.

This process also gives you the opportunity to discuss various methodological questions, such as reliability and validity, from a first-hand point of view – something that will make it much easier for your students to understand these frequently abstract concepts.

The process will also give you an opportunity to introduce and discuss various aspects of triangulation. This should make these ideas easier for students to understand because it can be framed in the context of the research they’ve done as individuals or in groups.

What I’ve done here is sketch a basic way you can use a simple piece of research that your students can conduct in their own time to spice-up research methods teaching.

Hopefully it inspires you to think about the kinds of stuff I’ve outlined, adapt it to your own personal preferences and improve it in ways that make teaching sociological research methods more interesting and insightful for both you and your students.

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