Teaching A-level Research Methods: Part 1

A few years ago I was asked to deliver a Conference on “Sociology and the Internet” to teachers interested in learning more about what was available on the Web and how to incorporate this material into their teaching. The “one proviso” stipulated by the commissioning company was that “there would not be any access to computers on the day”. I thought long and hard about this for all of 5 seconds before politely declining. Although the money on offer was good, even I’m not that masochistic.

“So what?” I hear you think (and yes, I really am that perceptive. And also in desperate need of a link between the first paragraph and the next).

Well, since you ask, I was listening-in on a Twitter chat the other day about the difficulties involved in teaching research methods and I was reminded of the invitation to teach a bunch of people about all the brilliant resources available on the Web without giving them the ability to actually look for them…

It would, of course, have been possible to learn something by listening to me patiently explain about all the wonderful stuff that was available, how it could be used, how to create your own resources and share them with others etc., all with the aid of some frankly quite colourful and cutting-edge OHP acetates: no computers really did mean no PowerPoints which, while not in itself a bad thing, really was pushing the limits. It would, however, have been so much easier, interesting and informative to be able to show them and let them experience it for themselves…

This set me thinking of my days spent teaching research methods to a-level sociologists. Even with the brilliantly creative use of some frankly quite colourful and cutting-edge OHP’s etc., it was always a long, tiring, grind. To cut a long story short, while I didn’t quite lose my mind, the main problem with “Methods” was that there was little or no useful opportunity to actually “do research” – to experience what it was like and, by so doing, gain an insight into the practical problems and processes involved that students could apply to their work in a way that gave them a real sense of understanding. As you’re no-doubt well-aware, the real enemy here was time.

There was simply no time available in a crowded curriculum to “do” research methods – open and closed postal questionnaires, focused, structured and unstructured interviews, observation, overt participant observation, covert participant observation, (pause for breath) experiments, longitudinal studies, case studies, content analysis, semiology, (phew, nearly there) document analysis and official statistics – in any meaningful way. Being a generally resourceful sort of person (necessity being the Mother of Invention) I did, of course, develop a few ways to lighten the load:

Firstly, I always tried to incorporate a real piece of research in the teaching, usually some form of experiment that could be done within the classroom and which involved all the students. Simulating an Asch Test, for example, always worked well. It was easy to prepare, produced results that surprised the students and generated good discussions around a range of methodological concepts (such as ethics). The main problem, of course, was that it took a lot of teaching time to make some relatively specific points about a single piece of research within a single research method. While it was effective on a number of levels it was not something that could be repeated across all research methods in the time available.

A second approach was to introduce students to a real piece of research – getting them to prepare by reading an account of the research or, where possible, using a short film to illustrate the research. Something like Milgram’s “Obedience” experiments or Ditton’s ethnographic approach to studying “part-time crime” worked well in this context, but there were a number of drawbacks – students had to put in a lot of extra work to familiarise themselves with a particular study (and, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, not all of them did), the focus was again relatively narrow, not all methods could be easily illustrated in this way and, once again, it was time-consuming.

Thirdly, a refinement of the above was to use “imaginary scenarios” based around the idea of problem-based learning (I’ve been a fanboy for this approach for a long time now). Students were set an imaginary problem, such as “How to research the police” and required to discuss various aspects of the problem based around a series of focused guidance questions, such as:

• which method/s would be most appropriate and why?

• what were the uses and limitations of different methods in this particular context?

The scenarios also involved thinking about a range of nuts-and-bolts methods questions (data collection types, sampling techniques, reliability, validity, etc.). The advantage of this approach was that it made students think about how to apply their knowledge of methods to different situations and this led to “real world”-type discussions: while covert participant observation, for example, might be a way of generating highly valid data, if there was no-way for a researcher to easily enter this particular world the method wasn’t an option on the table (something that in this particular case helped to illustrate the idea that sociologists have to make “real world” choices about their research).

Something I came across a couple of weeks ago – the Border Walks research web site – also set me thinking in a way that linked the above ideas – particularly the problem-based learning approach – to teaching research methods. Although the Border Walks concept is mainly linked to crime and deviance (which offers some interesting possibilities in relation to Crime and Methods in Context that I’ll develop in a later post. Probably. Unless I forget or get distracted) the basic principle – walking around a specific location while observing and recording – is one that can be developed in  methods’ teaching by anchoring virtual research in a real and very familiar place – something I’ll develop further in Part 2: Virtual Research in a Real Location.

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