Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 1

Today we have the first 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.

Since I have started teaching graduate courses on research methods, I have struggled with the way in which such courses are usually taught. Why do we still teach research methods from textbooks? Most academics will agree that you learn best how to do research by simply doing it, and the traditional lecture format, where students are rather passive, seems inappropriate to achieve this.

For this reason, my Leiden colleague Alexandre Afonso and I have spent the last two years developing a new way of teaching research methods to our students, transforming our existing course into a flipped classroom using blended learning. The flipped classroom was developed with the financial and material support of Leiden University’s ICTO program and the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. Alexandre and I will describe what our flipped classroom consists of, how we set it up, and our experiences teaching it.

The idea behind our Research Methods 3.0 course was simple: in order to be able to spend more class time on practicing hands-on research skills, we needed to move some of our teaching online. In our department, graduate courses often only meet once a week and the duration of a typical course is seven weeks, too short a time to cover the full range of social science methodologies. We quickly learned that our students did not need such a broad survey to carry out their own thesis projects. This led to our second decision: not only would part of the course be moved online, but it would also be modular, allowing students to pick and choose which research methods they wanted to specialize in.

The redesign of our course then centered on two parts. The online component contains a small number of learning modules, combining short video presentations of no more than 7 minutes with online readings, quizzes and assignments. The online modules focus on the most important research methods and techniques in our field (e.g. qualitative interviewing, survey analysis, regression analysis, case studies, etc.). The basics for each method is explained in the video presentations, after which students are expected to do a small number of readings and make a larger assignment. We also built a number of modules around academic skills. These modules targeted specifically those skills that we know our students sometimes struggle with: finding academic literature in repositories and specialized databases or – in an international program like ours – academic writing in English. The modules are accompanied by a podcast channel on which our colleagues discuss their use of particular methods in their research.

We also found it important to have a face-to-face component of the course, during which students could engage in group-based learning activities and receive direct supervision from a faculty member. Initially, this was going to be a series of in-class seminars during which students would be able to apply the insights gained through the online modules to their individual research projects. We found out — the hard way — that students would be at varying stages in their thesis project by the time they took our course. This complicated how we could teach the seminars. We therefore replaced the seminars with more general workshops tied to particular online modules, during which students would do assignments and exercises designed by us, rather than work on their own research projects.

The flipped classroom on research methods works like a toolbox that students can use to learn the methods they find useful for their thesis. It is flexible and not constrained by time like usual lectures: students can watch as many videos as they want, as many times as they want. Contact time in class is freed up as much as possible for interaction and discussing the concrete application of research methods.

Throughout the whole process of designing and then teaching our flipped classroom, we were lucky to receive the strong financial support of our Faculty. Being new to the game, however, we quickly discovered how difficult it is to transform a course like ours.

In our next post, we will talk more about the practicalities of building a flipped classroom.