Working away from home: teaching social science research methods in medical education

In this post Jenni Carr (HEA Academic Development Officer, reflects on her experiences of 'working away from home' as a social scientist in transdisciplinary contexts. Drawing on work carried out by Simon Forrest (Head of School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health, Durham University, she outlines a new research project that aims explore how best to support the development of a  ‘pedagogical culture’ - a culture that values and supports the particular skills needed to teach, rather than simply conduct, research - within a research methods community, in this instance social scientists working in medical education.

My first experience of ‘working away from home’ was in the Faculty of Science at The Open University. Although the issues that we were exploring through the (In)visible Witnesses project – the gendered representations of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians on UK children’s television and the effects of those representations – were ‘social sciency’ in nature, being based in a Faculty of Science meant that I learned to talk to colleagues about my work differently than I might have done when speaking to fellow social scientists. It can be difficult to convince people of the seriousness of your work when they see that your lab is full of televisions and video recorders, and any time they walk in you appear to be watching programmes like Peppa Pig, Blue Peter or Dr. Who!

I became very adept (or at least I thought so!) at explaining what my work involved in a language that colleagues could not only understand, but meant that they could see how the work was of value and relevant to their interests. The issues of how young people's, particularly girls', images of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (STEM) are constructed and the impact this has on their engagement with STEM are, of course, not new concerns to those working in STEM. Indeed we probably know a great deal more about why young people are turned off STEM than we do about why they might feel that the social sciences are not for them. But whilst the importance of topic itself was not difficult to explain, the ‘nitty-gritty’ of the research methods being used did, in many cases, require translation. Talking the language of social construction within a, largely, positivist context can mean you start to lose your footing in what my colleague Catriona describes as the ‘marshy ground’ of multilingual (or transdisciplinary) interactions. Thankfully, many colleagues were generous enough to show genuine interest in the work and the approach we were taking – or at least to make the effort to feign interest very convincingly!

From the Faculty of Science I moved to the Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology. So more experiences of working away from home, of having to articulate the relevance and usefulness of my home discipline in a ‘foreign country’. The use of the phrase ‘foreign country’ in this context caught my attention whilst I was reviewing submissions for the HEA Social Sciences annual conference back in 2013. The submission, from Simon Forrest, proposed a round-table discussion around the topic of social scientists teaching research methods within undergraduate medical education programmes.

Tomorrow's doctors

“graduates are now required to demonstrate that they can: critically appraise the results of research including qualitative and quantitative studies as reported in the medical and scientific literature; formulate research questions and design studies including in those within a psychosocial paradigm; and, apply the findings of studies to specific clinical problem.” (GMC, 2009, Tomorrow’s Doctors , p.18)

Tomorrow’s doctors is the title of guidance, produced by the GMC, that sets out “the knowledge, skills and behaviours that new UK medical graduates must be able to show. It also sets standards for teaching, assessment and learning for medical students and medical schools”.

I found the issues discussed during the round-table at the conference fascinating, not least because they resonated with some of my thoughts about the ways in which my academic career had developed – the opportunities offered, but also the hazards presented by trying to keep your balance whilst navigating that ‘marshy ground’. I was particularly pleased then that Simon submitted an expression of interest for our strategic project funding stream, and when the reviewers agreed that this was a project worth funding.

Simon completed this project in July 2014, and below you can access the preliminary findings of the project and the presentation that Simon gave at the HEA Social Sciences annual conference that year.

‘Working away from home’: the state of the art in teaching and learning of social science research methods in medical education - Simon Forrest from HEA Social Sciences

Teaching social science research methods to undergraduate medical students: the state of the art and opportunities for practice and curriculum development - Simon Forrest from HEA Social Sciences


Two of the issues highlighted by Simon struck me as being particularly relevant to a broader topic that has been one of HEA Social Sciences strategic priorities since 2012 - the issue of developing a ‘pedagogical culture’ - a culture that values and supports the particular skills needed to teach, rather than simply conduct, research - within the social sciences research methods community. 

Development and sharing of resources: social science input to medical curricula tends to be ‘front-loaded’, that is placed in the first 2 years (Phase 1, pre-clinical). The survey findings suggested that respondents felt that while biomedical staff and medical students generally recognised the value of social science research methods, their applicability to future clinical practice was less clearly perceived. It was felt that there was a need to develop ways in which resources could be linked specifically to possible teachable moments in the clinical practice phases and shared with relevant colleagues teaching these phases. 

Career implications: Respondents were overwhelmingly committed to making a contribution to medical education, largely perceiving the opportunity to have an influence on future medical practice as both satisfying and an indirect route to improving patient experience and outcomes. However, respondents articulated challenges around professional and intellectual identity and a portfolio of activities commensurate with academic interests and career plans. It was felt that the development of a network that supported the scholarship of teaching and learning in this transdisciplinary area might help overcome these challenges. 

Working with Simon and with Lauren Brooks (Keele University) and Sara MacBride-stewart (Cardiff University) I will be using focus groups to explore these issues further. Although this project will look at the two issues highlighted above within the specific context of medical education, we believe that the insights offered by this project will be of value to other social scientists working in an interdisciplinary context. We will keep you updated on the progress of the project via future contributions to this blog.


What are your experiences of ‘working away from home’? What advice can you offer to colleagues trying to navigate this ‘marshy ground’?

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