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Teaching research

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The production of a piece of research is what characterizes academic education and differentiates it from vocational training.

Students are expected to demonstrate scholarly academic standards in the form of careful and accurate collection of evidence, from which they draw relevant and considered conclusions.

This article will look mainly at teaching research methods on an undergraduate degree, with brief reference to postgraduate and research degrees.

Teaching research on undergraduate courses

The research project, or dissertation, in the form of an extensive piece of writing and investigation, is an integral part of many undergraduate business and management courses, at least in the UK. It necessitates skills in independent learning – students needing to make judgements and pursue their own lines of enquiry – as well as some familiarity with research methods.

There are real divisions amongst management academics about the value of teaching research to undergraduates. For some, a business degree is a way of equipping students to become better managers, for which research is an unnecessary distraction. For others, having research expectations of students strengthens the academic content of the course, which becomes more of a liberal academic degree and not just a form of vocational training.

Putting research into the curriculum

Jane Harrington and Charles Booth (2003) have studied the teaching of research in the post-1992 universities in the UK system, and have recommendations as to how to fit it into the curriculum of business and management degrees. They propose a ‘research spine’ which runs through the curriculum from year 1, culminating in the dissertation in year 3, by which time the student can be expected to have some familiarity with research methods:

Research spine
Year 1

A quantitative methods course, which would link in to later research, and which would be geared to increasing students’ numerical and data processing skills and dealing with ‘math anxiety’.

Academic literacy, which would help students write, think and act academically by encouraging criticism, deep learning and evaluation.

Year 2 A research methods course, which combines the practical issues raised by the project, such as finding a topic, literature search, project managing a research project etc., with technical issues such as research design, techniques and data analysis. This module should be taught , and not, as is often the case, delivered via a VLE.
Year 3 The dissertation, which does not need to include empirical research and could focus on the analysis of secondary or archival data, or theory building from the literature. Whatever the requirement, it should be supported by the necessary practical skills training in the use of techniques

Engaging students

Even with a carefully designed curriculum, students may fail to engage with the subject of research methods, perceiving it as dull and failing to make the link with the dissertation. This is partly, believes Charles Booth1 , a matter of delivery: if the teacher is research active and has engaged with research methods for some real research, he or she is more likely to be interested and communicate enthusiasm to the students. However, having the courage to depart from the book and adopt a more activity-based approach may also help.

Using their experiences at Southampton Business School, Benson and Blackman (2003, p. 43) have researched a new teaching approach to the subject, designed to ensure that ‘the methodology (developed via the research methods module) should ensure that students collect and analyse information suitable to their research question’.

Benson and Blackman (2003) believe that the dissertation calls for skills in independent learning - the ability to analyse and meet one’s own learning needs, to be self motivated, and reflect. This calls for a less theory-based, more active approach to learning, advocated by many writers on higher education.

Active learning requires the student to apply their knowledge, and develop their cognitive and higher order thinking skills through tackling problems. Benson and Blackman replaced the lecture with three hour workshops, based on themes rather than a single topic, and containing case studies, buzz groups and in-class exercises.

Part of the rationale behind the length of the workshops is to allow time for reflection on the activities, and the development of reflective learners is also encouraged by tutorial support and the practice of reflective diaries.

Charles Booth agrees with this experiential approach, and himself uses exercises and case studies. ‘It helps bring the subject to life if you can include real examples, case studies of research that have worked and ones that haven’t. This helps emphasize that research is a real, human activity that can go wrong’.

Exercises can be based on mundane, real-life examples:

  • Benson and Blackman gave each student a bag of different types of beans and asked for a description, as a way of illustrating populations.
  • Booth divided his class in two, giving them a simple every day topic such as walking, and get them to come up with qualitative and quantitative approaches respectively.

Needless to say, this type of exercise calls for precise briefing from the tutor!

Teaching research on masters' courses

There is no consensus as to how teaching research on masters’ courses should be differentiated from teaching it at undergraduate level. Some maintain that it’s better to keep the more ‘intellectual’ elements of methodology and philosophy for graduate level only. Charles Booth, however, disagrees, believing that it’s a good thing to get undergraduates to engage with the more ‘intellectual’ aspects of the subject, which bring the methods to life. As before, it’s important to set up appropriate learning experiences. He believes that the differentiation should be one of engagement rather than of content - students should have a deeper understanding of the schools, contexts and people behind the various movements.

Take, for example, Wittgenstein on the limits of language. Whereas undergraduates might only need to understand his view that the only things that you can research are the things that you can describe, postgraduates would be expected to go much more deeply into the nature of language, and adopt a more discursive approach.

Supporting the dissertation

If students can engage with research methods in the meaningful ways described above, they will have useful skills to help them with the dissertation. Likewise, encouraging them as independent learners will help them in what is essentially a lonely task. Other aspects of the Benson and Blackman (2003) approach may prove useful:

  • Making the assessment process more transparent. The dissertation normally attracts a high proportion of the overall mark; most students are strategic as well as independent learners and want for obvious reasons to give what they believe is being asked for. For this reason, Benson and Blackman linked assessment criteria to learning outcomes, for example asking learners to justify their choice of research methodology, and reflect on how their learning linked in with the rest of the course.
  • One of the big problems with the dissertation is that students do not allow themselves enough time. Thus tutors should constantly be stressing the need for an early start (as well as reminding of the need to allow time for the all important production stages which so often get squeezed into an impossibly short time-scale). Many institutions have ‘milestone’ dates e.g. for proposal, first chapter etc., with students on industry-based gap years being encouraged to select their project from their work experience, and certainly to decide the topic the summer before their final year. Benson and Blackman ensured that the proposal (submitted at the end of the second year) was not just and outline but a substantial piece of work, with an introduction, a literature review and a methodology, thus ensuring that students engaged with design issues and with the theoretical background. Such an approach would enable tutors to see early on any problems with the project’s scope, feasibility design etc.
  • Supporting the student as they write the proposal and the dissertation by reading drafts and providing formative assessment (and thereby engaging the student in reflection). Incidentally, a piece of writing of any length is likely to test the abilities of most students, particularly the weaker ones who may have particular difficulty structuring an argument. Writing can be improved with practice which is another advantage of getting them to write certain chapters early.
  • Good relations with helpful supervisors are also considered important to help the learner feel safe and engage in meaningful learning, and improve likelihood of a successful outcome.

Research degrees

The notion of ‘teaching’, with its connotations of imparting information, is inappropriate to a situation where the bulk of the work is by research, as for a (British) PhD or research masters. Here, the goal is to produce an autonomous researcher, trained in research methodology, and the process more one of facilitation and enabling – normally referred to as supervision.

So, what and how should the supervisor teach his or her student about research? The answer lies in the two concepts referred to above – training and autonomy.

Training

Phillips and Pugh (2000, p. 53) point out that much of research is a craft, which can only be learnt by doing. Thus the first task of the researcher, having selected their field and approach, is to systematically consider how they should get the training in each of the craft elements they need to pursue their research.

Having identified the skills and techniques they need, the student needs to find an opportunity to practice them, and receive feedback. This should be in an environment outside the thesis, as a separate exercise – ‘no procedure, technique, skill etc., which is relevant to your thesis project should be exercised there for the first time’ (Phillips and Pugh 2000, p. 53).

Although much can be learnt from other experienced researchers, it is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that the student can receive training in the necessary skills, which may range from carrying out an electronic literature search, to evaluating research, from developing a questionnaire to performing a statistical test or putting data into a computerized form.

Autonomy

Autonomy is not produced by neglect; it is moulded by a carefully guided process. The researcher has his or her own topic, but should be guided in the delineation of this topic, and the approach of the research, by the supervisor, who should have been selected because of compatible interests in field and research methodology.

It is important that the supervisor clarifies what is expected of the student, including frequency of meeting, report on progress etc., from the beginning. They should meet regularly, with the major decisions of the meetings being recorded. Particularly in the case of part-time students who are not always around on campus, it is important to establish how communication will happen between meetings, or in the case of meetings being changed.

Close supervision is particularly important at the early stages of the research, when the student is finding his or her feet. At any stage, however, the student may be presented with a problem in the research which is simply too big to be dealt with alone. Or a new research direction may present itself which needs to be evaluated. The supervisor, with his or her greater, and more mature, understanding of research, should be in a position to guide, and help resolve any problems.

References and further information

  • Benson, A., and Blackman, D. (2003), "Can research methods ever be interesting?", Active Learning in Higher Education, vol.4 no. 1
  • Harrington, J., and Booth, C. (2003), "Research methods modules and undergraduate business research: an investigation", International Journal of Management Education, vol. 3 no. 3. A revised version of this article was published by the Business Education Support Team at Bristol Business School
  • Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D.S. (2000), How to get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK

Further information on the supervisor relationship may be found in:

  • Eley, A.R. and Jennings, R. (2005), Effective Postgraduate Supervision: Improving the Student/Supervisor Relationship, Open University Press

Note

The teaching of research methods at undergraduate area is a fertile area for pedagogic research, and those interested should contact Charles Booth (Charles.Booth@uwe.ac.uk), whose help in writing this article is gratefully acknowledged.