Dr. James F. Downes (Twitter @JamesFDownes) is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also an Affiliated Visiting Research Fellow (Honorary) at the Europe Asia Policy Centre for Comparative Research. He teaches courses in Comparative European and East Asian Politics, alongside Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods and is an Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He is currently developing new and innovative courses on Global Populism alongside Public Opinion and Polling at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Research Methods are often seen as a compulsory unit that politics and international relations undergraduate students must take to fulfil their course criteria for graduation. Such courses can induce fear and panic in turning even the most capable students green in the face at the prospects of taking such courses and the perception that their GPA will be lowered considerably as a result. Having taught research methods related courses in both the United Kingdom and in Hong Kong (SAR, China) specifically to politics undergraduate students, I can attest to the so-called “dread-effect” that such courses cause amongst students. Yet with careful planning and an emphasis on applied student learning, students need not fear research methods courses and can even flourish and enjoy courses that teach a range of qualitative and quantitative methods that provide a range of important skills in the 21st century global marketplace.
As an early career academic who has recently completed a PhD, this article draws on my personal teaching experience in teaching both qualitative and quantitative research methods to political science students. This article provides five short (but not exhaustive tips) that both early career academics and PhD students can use to bring research methods courses to life and at the same time enhance the student learning experience. It is time to make research methods great again!
- Make lessons both engaging and interactive
Terms such as the “Student Learning Experience” and “Interactive Teaching” are often considered as buzz words or meaningless jargon in contemporary higher education. I argue that these are not mere buzz words devoid of substance, but rather fit into my own teaching philosophy that is centred on applied teaching in the modern classroom. In short, research methods courses need to be engaging and interactive as there are central to political science programmes across the world. Why might this be the case you may ask? Research methods courses provide the essential building blocks for all other courses, such as providing students with the tools to design surveys and questionnaires, learning how to conduct a focus group and a literature review, alongside developing critical skills in data analysis. To borrow a term from the renowned American pollster Nate Silver, this allows us to decipher the signal from the noise in making patterns in interpreting data analysis and understanding more about important political phenomena in the world. Lessons must therefore be made engaging and interactive to pique students’ interests.
It is of no surprise that most courses we may remember from our high school days were ones in which the teacher was engaged, but also allowed critical thinking in the classroom. How can we therefore make lessons engaging and interactive to political students? We need to adapt these courses to recent key political and economic events. Recent landmark political events such as the 2016 Brexit Vote, the 2016 Trump Presidential Election victory and the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong spring to mind. In short, there are many exciting examples in recent times of how global politics is changing rapidly. In my personal view, there has never been a more exciting time to study political science, yet as academics we must integrate these landmark political events into our everyday teaching materials and enable students to make direct connections with their own research interests from these events. Students will likely have pertinent questions about why did citizens vote for Brexit and whether this landmark event occurred due to concerns over immigration, or with a longer term decline of the working classes and dissatisfaction with politicians in Britain. The central argument here is that without the power of qualitative and quantitative research methods, students would not be able to understand the answers to these important questions. Therefore as academics and educationalists, it is our job to create this interest and provide students with the classroom space to explore these important questions. The engaging teaching philosophy of the late great statistician Professor Hans Rosling comes to mind here and provides an inspiration to us all in how to make lessons come alive!
- Emphasise the future career benefits (academic and non-academic) that Research Methods can provide
Drawing on my own personal teaching experience, students will often ask about why they have to study such a course and what benefits (be it academic or non-academic) does the course provide for them. It should be our job as academics to emphasise why research methods are highly relevant for students and their prospective future careers, whether it involves working in a political polling company such as YouGov, the civil service, as journalists or even as academics. It should be our mission to inform students about the wide ranging careers that research methods provide. There are a wide range of future careers that students will be able to go into that draw on research methods related courses. From a personal perspective, I often receive a number of emails from students who I have taught telling me about how research methods courses have been instrumental in helping them to obtain graduate level jobs. Furthermore, the usefulness and relevance of research methods courses can also be felt in final year undergraduate student projects, where students can draw on knowledge of qualitative and quantitative methodologies that have been acquired and learned on research methods courses.
- Mix it up: Teach both qualitative and quantitative methods
It is important to provide students with the full learning experience and not short change them by placing more emphasis on quantitative as opposed to qualitative methods, or vice versa. From a personal perspective, course syllabuses should be mixed up and allow for an equal balance between qualitative and quantitative methodologies. For example, the first part of a course syllabus should focus on more qualitative methodologies, such as how to design a literature review, the design and implementation of surveys and how to conduct focus groups, alongside the formulation of research questions and where they come from. Furthermore, the latter part of a course syllabus should then focus on quantitative methodologies, such as data analysis, in enabling students to understand how to interpret data from a non-mathematical and applied perspective. This allows students to have a wide range of methodologies at their disposal, alongside understanding which research methods are most appropriate in being applied to different research questions when they come to their final year dissertation honour’s projects.
- Draw on online resources and materials for a hands on learning experience
To spice up and make research methods courses more engaging and interactive for students, a wide variety of online resources can be deployed. For example, when teaching important techniques such as survey design, interactive and funny clips from classic programmes such as Yes Minister can be deployed- see an example here on how to avoid ‘Leading Questions’ that is used in my research methods course (GPAD 2111B) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When providing an introduction to data analysis in political science, the British Election Study (BES) data analysis playground provides an excellent and online interactive tool for students to construct charts and make key patterns between important variables, such as the relationship between key socio-demographic factors such as age and voting behaviour in understanding generational differences in the landmark 2016 Brexit vote. Spurious correlations is another excellent online website for students to use and further underlines the pitfalls of associating correlation with causation via the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool versus the number of films that Nicolas Cage appeared in! Can we really come to the conclusion that Cage’s films are that bad? Of course not…
In addition, to consolidate Hong Kong students’ understanding of data analysis and surveys, online graphs and data visualisation from the Public Opinion Programme (POP) at the University of Hong Kong are utilised to further enhance students overall learning and provide a more local perspective of how surveys are conducted in the Hong Kong context for students. It is also important when teaching research methods courses to use an online programme such as Moodle or Blackboard. Uploading frequent materials to a course homepage or a personal website further allows students to access materials both within and outside the classroom and provide a range of teaching materials at their disposal and further consolidate their learning experience. An additional note is that when teaching data analysis topics such as multiple regression (econometrics) to political science students, it is important to create classroom handouts for students, in order to show them how to analyse difficult statistical techniques from a non-mathematical perspective. Furthermore, these handouts should contain annotated diagrams and not include mathematical formulae as this can be too complex for students, especially when the research methods course is an introductory one and the first time they encounter such materials. Again, as educationalists we must remember that students should be taught to walk first before they can then run! The practical application of knowing how to (a) interpret a statistical technique and (b) when to apply the statistical technique is more important than knowing all the ins and outs of the mathematical formulae. Future graduate and advanced level study provides plenty of time for this.
- Use a statistical software that is user friendly- Remember that students must be able to learn to walk before they can run
Finally it is of paramount important as an educationalist to think carefully when teaching data analysis about which type of statistical software to teach students. This is a similar process to language teaching and when we acquire a new language, with different grammar and syntax rules that must be paid attention to. A similar set of rules applies to teaching a new statistical software, particularly in regard to undergraduate students. Primarily when I teach a research methods based course, I seek to use a statistical software that is (a) user friendly, (b) transferable to future careers in the academic and non-academic world and (c) applicable for the level of study (undergraduate or postgraduate level). In courses that I teach, I have tended to use statistical software’s such as SPSS and Excel, primarily due to both software’s filling the two criteria set out above. However, a programme such as Excel may not be user friendly for student’s and may also lack advanced statistical firepower that a software such as Stata and R provides. When teaching undergraduates data analysis, I tend to use SPSS as the main statistical software, primarily as it is user friendly and easy to use, highly transferable and directly applicable for undergraduate students. For postgraduate researchers and early career academics alike, it is highly important for us to think both carefully and critically about the type of statistical software that we will use in our research methods courses. The success of such a course often depends on this important aspect. Thus, I believe the three criteria above provide a general framework and allow us to choose an applicable software to adopt in the classroom environment. It is also crucial for us as researchers and colleagues alike to share best practices in teaching research methods and such initiatives have been run by the Department of Sociology at Oxford University that I was fortunate to attend back as a PhD researcher and Assistant Lecturer. This allows us to learn from each other’s expertise and further reflect on and improve our research methods courses for the future.
In conclusion then, I believe that these five tips allow not only for a successful research methods course, but for an enhanced student experience for politics and international relations students at the undergraduate level. These tips should be of use for both early career academics and postgraduate researchers who teach. With careful planning and an emphasis on applied student learning, students need not fear research methods courses and can even enjoy courses that teach a range of qualitative and quantitative methods that provide a range of important skills in the highly competitive environment of the global marketplace.
For further information on the HEA's work in student engagement please click here.