Redesigning methods teaching: parallel workshops for interdisciplinary learning

This guest post comes from Dr Viviane Gravey and Dr Heather Johnson, both of Queen’s University Belfast

Research methods are crucial, particularly in Graduate learning, but methods modules are often the most unpopular with students and staff alike.

This makes methods modules prime candidates for either offloading onto temporary staff, or confining to designated ‘methods heavy’ positions for often isolated staff. This shunting of methods teaching onto precarious staff communicates unspoken but negative messages to students about the importance of this training, while consistently lower-than-average student evaluations (regardless of actual teaching excellence) negatively impact the profiles of vulnerable colleagues. 

At a time where we see silly op-eds calling for a Deliveroo approach to higher education (students deciding what they want to learn at MA level, and taught by temporary providers hired ‘on demand’), methods module would be first on the chopping block. Yet these unloved offerings provide, or at least should provide, the building blocks for that much-loved rite of passage: independent research and the MA dissertation. Beyond the dissertation, a deep engagement with methods is needed to better understand where we position ourselves in our respective fields, and so provide critical insights into both the mainstream and its critics.

Redesigning how we teach methods is far from a new topic on ALPS, with examples from using games to make students’ introduction to methods less frightening, to a series of posts on flipping the methods classroom.

This post draws on our own experiences, alongside reflections from EUROTLC discussions on curriculum design. Usual caveats apply: this is not a silver bullet. It depends on our local conditions and is still very much a work in progress. But at a time where the pandemic is forcing a rethink in how, what, and even where we teach, our stranded, workshop-based module can offer a useful starting point.

Context and problem

Following an administrative merger in 2016 we are a bigger school, with a growing number of MA students across 11 programs in Politics/International Relations, Anthropology, and History. Many students have backgrounds in other disciplines, and a growing proportion come from overseas. Some programmes are interdisciplinary, some more discipline-specific, with significant variation in student numbers from 6 up to 80+.    

Teaching different methods modules for each pathway is impractical, and while the merger offers opportunities for interdisciplinarity, combining methods teaching raises three dilemmas. First, should we aim for depth and specialization, or breadth and variety? Second, could we agree core teaching across the disciplinary boundaries?  Finally, how might we achieve student-led learning that encourages exploration and recognizes diverse backgrounds?

An innovative stranded, workshop-based module

Core or optional, breadth or depth? Instead of choosing we opted for both, via two simple design choices (a) ditching the one week/one topic model in favour of parallel workshops and (b) designing ‘strands’ to organise these workshops. Instead of covering 10 to 12 topics in as many weeks, we offer a wide range of parallel workshops, limited only by staff and room availability (and our collective imagination). Last year we offered 40 workshops, delivered in 8 weeks, taught by a team of over 25 colleagues according to their expertise, for close to 200 students. This also served to engage staff at all levels and in all areas of the School, centralizing rather than isolating methods teaching in the curriculum.

Workshops are organized across 6 strands (see examples in Figure 1) – from epistemology to case studies, whereby colleagues walk students through their own research design in a recent project.  These strands are populated according to the demands of our different MA programs, and also reflect the best practices of RCUK graduate training by exposing students to philosophy of science, and to both quantitative and qualitative methods.  They seek to enable flexibility for students according to their prior experience, with workshops that build upon one another in complexity and with different entry points.  A good example is the quantitative methods strand, which offers both basic training for primarily qualitative-focused researchers, alongside both beginner and advanced workshops for students who wish to specialize.

Figure 1

Students can, in effect, design their own path through the module: guided by their own interests and goals, they must take at least 9 workshops, including at least one from each strand.  Each individual program has designated compulsory workshops that students must include in their schedule in order to meet any specialization requirements. Thus, students have the opportunity to specialize, for example, by comparing different approaches to research interviews (5 workshops), or to explore new methods or move beyond their disciplinary boundaries.

Students are assessed on an applied methods portfolio of two items such as a short essay on epistemology, a data analysis exercise, or a practice interview or observation – and a research design proposal, bringing together content from the entire module (literature review, research questions, methods choices, ethical considerations). This proposal can be linked to the MA dissertation, and students are encouraged to treat it as preparation for their own independent research, working with their dissertation supervisors where possible.

Where next?

Reflecting on the first two years of this module, the welcome increase in student choice came at three costs – which we working to offset.

First, we need to ensure we do not ask students to run before they can walk: some students have no background in either methods or epistemological debates, and the kind of writing required in research design is often different than in a traditional essay.  As general training in writing skills is offered elsewhere in the university, this is difficult to address.  Nevertheless, we can both develop more ‘nuts and bolts’ workshops, and also sign-post students early on to outside support.

Second, the workshop model plays havoc with student timetables and our room-booking. Students can have different teaching loads week on week, and our commitment to (relatively) small class sizes means that we often need to add duplicate sessions to accommodate workshop popularity. This lack of certainty does not impact our student population equally – students working alongside their studies, those with caring responsibilities, or those living far from campus, will see their choices limited in practice. Providing more sessions online via asynchronous means will solve some, although not all, of these difficulties. We can also commit to publishing the timetable of workshops before term begins to facilitate student planning. 

Third, while the teaching load is shared, such a large and complex module comes with a commensurate administrative load for the course convenor. While some of that burden can be front-loaded in preparing the online learning environment (e.g. online workshop registration), the administrative load will remain large and often invisible.

Methods in a time of coronavirus

How teaching will happen in September remains uncertain. Nevertheless, we can focus on a number of ‘no regrets’ options.

First, we can ‘flip’ lectures, with pre-recorded, asynchronous introductions to different methods, and focusing any in-person class time on application. This would also allow students to discover a wider range of methods, and provide long term resources for their dissertation.

Second, it will be important to provide some dedicated training towards online research methods and ways to adapt traditional methods to social distancing. 

Finally, we can draw on external sources to broaden workshop options and resources. There is a wealth of methods teaching resources online – for example podcast series such as the UK National Centre for Research Methods podcast, or the Give Methods a Chance series.

In these trying times, it is time for universities to collaborate – where better than on methods teaching?