Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 3

Today we have the third post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Going Offline 

In our two previous posts, we wrote about the general idea behind our flipped classroom in Research Methods and producing the content for our online modules. Today we will discuss the offline series of workshops in which students gain hands-on experience with the research methods or skills they studied online.

When you do a big blended learning project such as this one, it’s very easy to get carried away by the new and shiny part: your attention will go predominantly to the online content. This makes sense: the online component is often not only the novelty aspect of the course, but also the more time-consuming part to produce, and the one that will last. It’s very easy then to fall into the trap, as we did, of not paying enough attention to the more familiar offline part of the course.

When we applied for funding to set up the flipped classroom, our idea about the offline component was as follows:

Students will be stimulated to go back and forth between the theoretical material online and the concrete application of the methods in class. This course design will stimulate a much more experiential learning process than in a traditional research methods courses, as the course will assist the students in “learning by doing” research. The learning experience is also much more interactive than in a traditional course setting, as students are actively involved in each other’s research projects, jointly handling common challenges involved in doing research during the course seminars.

We were wrong. Our initial idea – to have students do the workshops, as they were writing their thesis – presumed that all students would at the same stage of the thesis project by the time they took our course. This was not the case: some had started but switched topics, others were already quite advanced and still others had not even started thinking about a thesis topic yet. In other words: the activities we envisioned them to do (e.g. carry out a qualitative interview with a respondent) simply bombed. We had to find a plan B.

It took a few iterations of teaching the course to find a good design for the workshops. We first dropped the ambition of connecting the workshops to the thesis projects. Instead, we designed specific workshop assignments that all students had to complete. Not all students appreciated this switch. Those who had already made some progress on their thesis felt that they were doing “double work.” Some students even asked why they were paying university fees to watch videos. After a few repetitions of the course, these criticisms receded. The course is no longer presented as explicitly linked to the thesis project, and students have come to appreciate the advantages of this format.

Other students objected to having to participate in academic skills workshops. They felt that skills like academic writing belonged in an undergraduate program, but should not be taught at the graduate level. As the people who read their writing, we strongly disagreed with this point of view. At the same time, we felt that we could give students the opportunity to prove us wrong. Now all students still need to complete the academic skills modules and answer questions on them at the final exam, but participation in the skills workshops is voluntary.

So what then do we do during the workshops? Just a few examples: mock interviews, peer editing of written work, locating and analyzing historical documents, carrying out a criminal investigation to apply process-tracing. Before every workshop, students need to submit a draft assignment linked to these exercises. During the workshop, students do the exercises and we discuss strategies to successfully complete them. Afterwards, students are allowed to revise their assignment once more, based on what they learned in the workshop.

We have found that students now score much better on the assignments and on the final exam. What’s more, we were surprised to notice that we actually achieved what we thought our initial course design would do: our colleagues who are supervising our students’ thesis projects tell us that students are now able to do things that used to require a lot more guidance from their supervisors.

We learned from developing a flipped classroom that you can be wrong, and that students are not always willing to try new and risky things when it comes to their education and perhaps their job prospects. But with trial and error, we can really improve the ability of students to acquire skills.

In our next post, we will tell you how we tried to improve “research-based” teaching in our department through this flipped classroom project.