Ridiculous Learning

Yesterday, our School held one of its regular doctoral days. In these, students present their work, either in general “how am I doing?” terms or with a more specific focus, and colleagues ask questions and provide feedback. It’s a good way of helping to build an exchange of ideas, to get practice at presenting one’s research and to unblock problems.

As is often the case, such workshops raise generic issues of research design. Indeed, it brings to mind one exercise that I run with our undergraduate students for their final dissertation, a 10,000 word piece of individual research. For the large majority, this is the most extensive piece of research that they will have attempted to date and many of them feel overwhelmed by it.

The exercise is simply to research a chapter outline for a research question that I give them: they work in small groups (ideally with a range of backgrounds and abilities) and have to put their thoughts up on the board after 15 minutes, together with a few comments to the class about what they did and why.

The twist (because it’s me) is that the research question is a ridiculous one: “to what extent did Silvio Berlusconi’s receding hairline prompt him to break so many laws, with regard to his bunga-bunga parties?” would be a typical example.

The idea here is to get students to stop thinking about the substantive points within the topic and instead focus on the process of building a research project. This requires students to work methodically through the logical steps that would furnish an answer (in this case “none”) and to think about what is and isn’t necessary to include.

This last point is central: anyone who’s ever had to write a dissertation or thesis will have had to have cut out something, somewhere down the line. Indeed, we could argue that this is why there are so few good generalists these days and everyone’s a specialist instead. From the students’ perspective, it’s really helpful to get much more of a sense of what is (and isn’t) possible within a given number of words, and that it is better to be precise, rather than encyclopaedic.

As with a lot of the things we discuss on this blog, the idea is one of giving students a lived experience, which is much more likely to stick in their memory than a passive lecture on the same subject.

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