Participatory research as active learning

Over the last semester, I have been running a research project, funded by the University of York’s Learning and Teaching Fund, exploring assessment norms and innovations utilised on Politics and International Relations degrees.

The project has been my first foray into participatory research with students. Throughout the project, six students took on the role of ‘Student Partners’ to help design, deliver, and conclude the research activities – activities that included running focus groups with other students. It made sense from a methodological standpoint to have this level of student involvement – after all, I was hoping to gain a student-centred understanding of the challenges and opportunities with innovating assessment practices.

Last week, we had our final research activity – a half-day workshop with the Student Partners to discuss research findings and to conclude the project. We also had some time to discuss the experiences of the students in collaborating with staff and each other on the research project. That discussion was an eye-opening one and made me keenly aware of how beneficial this kind of hands-on research experience can be for students as a form of active learning.

Politics and International Relations, at least in the UK, is not a field where students are routinely involved in research being conducted by academics in their department. This contrasts with other fields. For example, in Psychology and Education, students are often expected to participate in research as part of their studies – even though they are often not compensated for this participation.

The final workshop’s debrief impressed on me that there is a strong pedagogic value to students being partners in research – one that helps them clearly articulate their developed skills and also feel more deeply integrated within the life of the department. Perhaps the extent of this effect was the result of the pedagogic focus of this project, however other research has shown how favourable students are towards participating in research. In a study by Brewer and Robinson, one student framed it as ‘I like being a lab rat’. Whilst this shows a research relationship which is removed from the participatory research approach, it still usefully demonstrates that being involved in research can be an enjoyable experience for the student – rather than solely an effective or accessible one for the researcher. 

A majority of the Student Partners had already undertaken methods training as part of their undergraduate studies – and these students all discussed how participation in the research project had usefully made concrete for them what had otherwise been somewhat abstract learning on qualitative research methods. They said that they felt that the opportunity to participate in research and, importantly, shape the research process, was a highly effective learning exercise in methods that otherwise felt out of reach because of their position as students.

The usefulness of research participation for learning about research methods was underlined with the use of a feedback document used for the project which included a question about the challenges the Student Partners had faced. Interestingly, all of the students independently focused on methodological issues – especially centred around small tweaks they would have made to better lead the focus groups. To me, this showed that the students had gotten highly engaged with their role as partners in the research process and were thinking critically about how improvements could be made to future projects.

Of course, whilst it is great to talk about the benefits of participatory research – there are realities that I should also acknowledge here. Unlike the experience of some Psychology and Education students, the Student Partners on this project were compensated for their time (thanks to the University of York’s Learning and Teaching Fund for this). Limitations in both funding but also methodological usefulness meant that the number of Student Partners made up a tiny percentage of our department’s undergraduate cohort – making this type of active learning an exclusive proposition. 

Nevertheless, the active learning benefits of this research project had some useful takeaways for me. Primarily, students that are especially interested in expanding their methods training should be actively encouraged to apply in the call for participants, as they might have the most to gain through inclusion in a research project. I was also left thinking about how, in the future, I would want to better introduce, in the very first session with Student Partners, the fact that the research project had the potential to be an active learning experience for them. This early framing may have multiplied the effect as the partners would have had more context for engaging with questions of methods practice, beyond the immediacy of one particular project, throughout their time working on the study. 

I am hoping to publish the results of this research project in the coming months – and so will share more on ALPS about the process and the findings as I do (fingers crossed). There are a heap of topics and conclusions that have come out of the research both in terms of assessment formats and practices but also in terms of research with Student Partners – including the building of a small student research community, ethical pedagogic research, and good practices in calls for participants. I look forward to sharing more in due course. 

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