What should be included in a research methods course, but is often left out?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had conversations with people about the content of research methods courses at universities. The main question seems to be what needs to be included to make it a good course? The answer may differ for an undergraduate course compared to a postgraduate one, though I think there are still some common features. I do agree that there may be differences between disciplines.

Topics that seem to be included in most research methods courses include:

  • How to develop a research question
  • Developing a research design
  • Methodology
  • Methods of data collection
  • Sampling
  • Ethics
  • Validity, Reliability, Rigor
  • Techniques of data collection (For example, how to conduct a good interview)

All of those are pretty important when it comes to research methods. Then there are topics that seem to be optional when it comes to course design but are also essential to the research process. I have listed the topics that I think are often the most left out but also important to include in methods courses. Some of them have been overlooked in subjects in which I have tutored or was a student. The list isn’t exhaustive by any means, and I’m really interested in your feedback.

Epistemology and Theoretical Perspectives

Theoretical perspectives and epistemologies set the foundation for designing and understanding research. When you are reading an academic publication, it is easier to critically evaluate the article and determine any biases in the research if you understand these concepts. If you’re designing your own research,  they can be useful in helping you narrow your topic and justify why you have used certain approaches. For qualitative researchers, they can help you to defend your topic and methodology to those more quantitatively minded! I always tell my students that if they understand different epistemologies and theoretical perspectives, they can win any argument without knowing anything about the topic. The reason? Because they will immediately be able to identify any biases or assumptions in the research (or argument).

New, emerging and unique ways of data collection

There are many different ways of collecting data beyond the interview, and survey. I used interviews and fieldwork for my research, but after hearing about some of the methods of my peers, I felt quite old-fashioned and conservative! Just to give you an example of some I have come across:

  • Digital ethnography
  • Photo diaries
  • Creative writing (including story-telling)
  • Picture diaries (where people draw things)
  • Visual surveys (instead of word responses, there are pictures)

That’s just a start! There are lots more! I think they are great to include because it makes the subject more interesting and it also gives students ideas on how they could use different techniques for their own research.

Analysis

This is a really important one for me. When I run NVivo workshops, I AWAYS get asked about techniques for analysis.  I find that in postgraduate courses, students are taught everything up until data analysis and then the course stops. Students are guided on developing a question, methods, collecting data and then just told to do their analysis and write up. I can’t understand why this is the case. Data analysis (regardless of the method) is not a straightforward process, particularly for qualitative methods. Even quantitative analysis is more complex than clicking a few things in SPSS. In any form of data analysis, you need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it and how the process will affect your results. Sadly, this isn’t often taught.

How to write

Students are just expected to write. While most people can put words on paper, or type words on a screen, the process of producing a literature review, thesis, report or academic paper is not as straightforward. I’m sure many academics will attest to that! There are different writing strategies that can be taught to students to help with the process of writing. Particularly those that help students identify what “type” of writer they are.

The list of topics to include in a research methods course is by no means exhaustive! I’m really interested to hear about your thoughts and experiences with research methods, whether it be as a student, tutor, lecturer or none of the above! Do you have other things you would include? Are there things you don’t think are important? What has been missing or useful in methods courses you have taken?

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13 Responses to What should be included in a research methods course, but is often left out?

  1. @helen_kara says:

    I agree so much about this that I’ve just written a research methods textbook including all these points – plus a few more, e.g. how to actually manage the research process alongside everything else in life. The book is primarily aimed at practitioners conducting research, which may be postgrad academic research for CPD or workplace research (evaluations etc). NVivo gets a favourable mention – I’m a long-time user and devotee! Book info here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Research-Evaluation-Busy-Practitioners-Time-Saving/dp/1447301153/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1345098242&sr=8-1

  2. Dale Reardon says:

    Hi,

    Helen – I shall check out your book as sounds very useful.

    I am a PhD student in Australia. My university doesn’t offer a coherent research methods course (just a few bits and pieces)

    Are you able to recommend a good research methods course either in Australia or UK via distance?

    Thanks,
    Dale.
    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  3. Really interesting ideas here Anuja – so many new NVivo users say “Ok, I’ve got all my data in, now what?” Not only are they trying to get to grips with the software but they’re struggling with how to approach data analysis as a whole – understandable since their research methods course probably offered little help with this crucial phase.

    • anujacabraal says:

      That is so true. I get it in workshops all the time. Students are often well supported until it gets to the data analysis stage, where they are sometimes just expected to know what to do. I see this all the time as an NVivo trainer. I really want to start incorporating some of those methods into my workshops. The knowledge gap needs to be filled somewhere!

  4. Shanthi Robertson says:

    Hi Anuja,

    I feel we often miss discussions of research as professional practice- as something that happens outside of academia in the ‘real world’. The researcher-as-activist and the researcher-as-practitioner. This means tailoring methods courses to give students the kinds of research skills they may need in industry, whether that’s quantitative analysis, monitoring and evaluation, or participatory action research.

    I also think, for undergraduates in particular, methods courses should engage students as critical consumers of research. They should give them critical research literacy so that they can look at the results of research that are thrown about in media and policy debate and think critically about the methods, the bias, the sampling and so on that have led to that result.

    After several years teaching research methods courses it always depresses me how very boring most methods textbooks are. They are pretty dry and don’t do much to get students excited about the possibilities of research. I like Maggie Walter’s Social Research Methods and Zina O’Leary’s Researching Real World problems for undergraduate courses in particular.

    Cheers,
    S.

  5. anujacabraal says:

    Thanks for sharing your feedback. I particularly think the word “critical” is important, especially so students can distinguish between media reports and good research, even between good and bad research!

    I like the Walters book too (pictured above on my desk) but find that it is biased towards quantitative methods. I particularly like Crotty for explaining epistemology and theoretical perspectives. i haven’t come across O’Leary’s text, but will look it up.

  6. saumen says:

    Hi Anuja

    Do you offer webinar on Nvivo’s use , if you do i would love to reserve my seat !

  7. Cosmas Okello says:

    well this is very interesting am glad in my university this research methods are being taught.so pray for other universities to adopt the module.thanks cosmas

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