blog article

Facilitating undergraduate research methods learning and teaching among political science students

20th April 2023

Author: Mr. Adrian LAM Man-Ho Course Tutor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration and a Research Group Member for the Common Core Curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

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There is no universal curriculum over the development of methodological expertise among undergraduate students.

Therefore, instructors need to particularly design and implement one for their students, which ideally combines theoretical understanding, procedural knowledge, and practical skills. Nonetheless, in reality, such mandatory module is often deemed by students as the most intellectually demanding one throughout their undergraduate educate. Followed by covering the technical, complex, and even dynamic course materials, they are typically unpopular among students. This article aims to reflect on some of the learning and teaching practices of an undergraduate political science research methods course that are grounded on different pedagogic theories and principles.

Careful staging and sequencing of topics

When it comes to mapping out the weekly topics for the whole semester, the spheres of students’ experience are stretching from more concrete and near matters like field observation and survey research to more abstract and remote things in their life like statistical inference and regression. At the same time, such arrangement of covering qualitative methods prior to quantitative techniques can also further reduce students’ methodological anxiety, given that many of them are often fear of numbers and statistics. This is indeed a buy-in strategy to improve their initial sense of efficacy and empowerment. We hope that they can start off within their comfort zones of high confidence and security before pushing them outwards for more intellectually demanding tasks.

Systematic explanation of concepts

To ensure that students can follow the rigid yet unavoidable research procedures, we deliberately break down many of the big concepts into smaller yet interrelated components. For every lecture, under the whole-part approach, we will first explain the concepts of that specific core method for the week, followed by going through its techniques, strengths and weaknesses, principles, and rationales. The interrelationship presented here is in complete reverse to the directional relationship between the building blocks of research, which begin with ontology, epistemology, methodology, methods, and eventually sources. Our intention is that students will first understand the technical and mechanical aspects of the planning and execution, followed by digging into the underlying logic and intuition, and eventually articulating and justifying their relevance and applicability in relation to the research questions and genuine situation. After going through all these three components, we will reiterate the importance of linking all three constituent parts in an organised manner.

Precise and concise explanation of content

To ensure comprehension, we will illustrate all content in the simplest possible manner. The first thing that we do is to cut out those irrelevant and unnecessary information like jargons and rhetoric. We then present the remaining information in multiple modes, including verbal, textual, and visual, which aims to facilitate students’ memory processing and transfer. Since certain factual details are unavoidable for students to develop a rigorous research, we will further facilitate their learning by offering an integrated presentation of information, such as presenting the validity and reliability, strengths and weaknesses, as well as challenges and potential fixes side by side on a single table. Throughout all the slides, we also only offer keywords and key images as they serve as the memory hooks for more detailed verbal information delivered by us. Meanwhile, we also include several summary slides to reinforce those key learning points for that class.

Provision of authentic examples and scenarios

Many students with shallow experience in conducting research always struggled in terms of generalising the information contained in a particular example shared in class and transferring it to an entirely new problem. Meanwhile, students understand new ideas through observing relationships and formulating connections with their prior knowledge. Therefore, for each of the methods covered each week, we include a wide range of recent research studies published in top-tier research journals are incorporated into the class reading list. These are not merely for comparisons and contrasts, but also allow students to practise transfer of knowledge and skills among themselves, especially they need to plan ahead for their group research proposals. By going through these articles in both lectures and tutorials, students are offered with further hands-on opportunities to critique and practise the diverse research methods in authentic and real-life context.

Preparation of group research proposal

Since many issues covered throughout lectures and readings only become worthwhile upon experience, students are asked to prepare a group research proposal that allows them to undergo every single stage of the research process gradually and systematically. They need to come up with a research puzzle, conduct literature review to consider the scholarship and gaps, propose a rigorous, detailed, and feasible research design and implementation plan, and anticipate the hypothetical data patterns. To this end, throughout the semester, all students are asked to write the individual sections of their proposals with multiple drafts, whereas immediate and frequent feedback from us help foster their fluency and proficiency in utilising research language. These ungraded yet critical milestones can also allow students to build their skills in low-stake manner. Most importantly, all of their works offer us with a series of explicit and concrete indicators of how they are performing. This allows us to make timely and relevant changes of our teaching plan based on their performance.

Leverage of student diversity and background

Since students more or less have learnt and conducted some research methods but in a less rigorous manner, such as conducting a field visit and designing an online survey, in each lecture and tutorial, we will first inquire their understanding and impression of these concepts before our teaching. The connectedness of knowledge can be constructed based on their prior knowledge and individual experience. Although many students did not carry out a research study beforehand, some of them did some of the separate components in other courses and scenarios. Therefore, we believe these more experienced learners should form groups with the less experienced ones that allow them to draw on their experience and expertise to benefit others’ learning. Therefore, throughout the tutorials, students will shift and work with new members to further explore how to put theories into practice.

Exchange of opinions and experience

Weekly tutorials are crucial for allowing students to share with and learn from one another. We hope that students can become aware of those common issues throughout the research process, which reduces the risk of specialisation. They can also check in with their peers and realise that they are not the only ones who are struggling with some abstract course materials when applying to their concrete proposals. Most crucially, students can frame and communicate their research ideas with people who have shared interests but different perspectives in this integrated knowledge community. With continuous reviews and feedback from both their peers and us, students can revise, reconsider, and remake their research ideas accordingly. We hope that these exchange and co-exploration can further expand their perspectives and possibilities. This also helps them to cultivate and sustain practices like active questioning, ongoing queries, and healthy. All these small group dynamics can even help build a collaborative spirit, such that students can gradually become more confident in group working arrangements and contributions.

Inspiration from professional and experienced researchers

A genuine research process often involves decision-making, compromises, and trade-offs, which are nonetheless substantially influenced by that particular research problem in context. There are also many thinking and considerations that remain subtle or even hidden in the research work that students work. Therefore, we hope our students can further immerse into the research field by getting used to how a researcher thinks, plans, acts, and reflects. To this end, throughout the lectures and tutorials, we are asking our students a series of thoughtful and open-ended questions that challenge their previous conceptions and will generate contradictions that facilitate further discussion. At the same time, through revealing the backstage of doing research, especially the sweat and struggle behind, we want students to be confident in confessing that there are always gaps in their knowledge and understanding, and bearing risk to try out new ways of thinking.

About the author

Mr. Adrian LAM Man-Ho holds degrees of Bachelor of Arts, English Studies as well as Politics and Public Administration (First-Class Honours); Master of Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy (Distinction); as well as a Postgraduate Diploma in Education in Secondary English, all from the University of Hong Kong.

He is currently a Course Tutor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration in the Faculty of Social Sciences and a Research Group Member for the Common Core Curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

His most recent academic publications include a series of peer-reviewed journal articles and book articles in the areas of interdisciplinary learning and teaching, higher education, high-performing learning systems, curriculum studies, and educational policies.

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