This workshop was funded as part of one of HEA Social Science’s strategic priorities 2013 – 14 Teaching research methods in the Social Sciences.
This blog post was compiled by Ciaran Acton, University of Ulster (email@example.com).
The main aim of this seminar was to generate pedagogical reflection and debate on the teaching of quantitative methods to sociology/criminology undergraduates and to provide delegates with opportunities for the sharing of best practice in this area. The outputs of two recent HEA-funded projects on teaching research methods in the social sciences were disseminated and delegates were also introduced to a variety of crime-related datasets and resources. Although there was an emphasis on employing these in dedicated quantitative research methods teaching, delegates were encouraged to explore the potential for integrating them across the undergraduate curriculum.
The inspiration for the seminar emerged from the 2013 HEA Social Science Conference on Teaching Research Methods and in particular the keynote speech by Professor John MacInnes (Beyond 'teaching research methods': making evidence, enquiry and explanation more important in undergraduate social science degrees). The centrality of quantitative research methods to social science and the importance of embedding these skills within the broader curriculum were issues we wanted to explore further. The seminar also relates to my own HEA-funded work on the adoption of assessment for learning (AfL) strategies in research methods teaching and details of this project were outlined at the event.
The key aims of the seminar were to:
- stimulate discussion around the challenges associated with teaching quantitative methods to undergraduate sociology/criminology students;
- provide advice and suggestions on how to embed quantitative research training throughout the curriculum and make quantitative data more appealing and engaging for sociology/criminology students;
- provide opportunities for professional networking, the sharing of good practice, and the development of a pedagogical culture in the teaching of undergraduate quantitative research methods;
- disseminate findings from recent HEA-funded projects on teaching research methods in the social sciences;
- provide delegates with the opportunity to reflect on their own practice and develop strategies for applying the knowledge and skills acquired in the seminar to their own professional context.
The event was jointly organised by the School of Sociology and Applied Social Studies and the School of Criminology at the University of Ulster in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy (HEA). The seminar was opened by Dr Bernadette McCreight, the Programme Director for Sociology, and Dr Helen Jones, the HEA Discipline Lead for Sociology and Criminology.
Session 1: Introduction to the NILT teaching datasets and associated resources - Dr Emma Calvert and Dr Paula Devine (School of Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work, Queens University Belfast)
The first presentation introduced delegates to the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey data and associated resources, with a particular emphasis on the use of this material in undergraduate teaching. Dr Paula Devine began with an overview of the ARK website and resources, a joint collaboration between Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster, which acts as a valuable gateway into a wide range of social and political information on Northern Ireland (http://www.ark.ac.uk/). Paula gave delegates an indication of the diversity of resources available and provided examples of how these could be used to facilitate the development of quantitative skills across a variety of social science disciplines. In addition to the various social attitudes surveys available through ARK (e.g. NILT), the website also provides access to a range of related publications, including the lay-friendly Research Updates, occasional papers and fact sheets. It was stressed that as the aim of ARK is to ensure that this material is accessible by the widest possible audience these resources are freely available.
Dr Emma Calvert sharpened the focus and introduced delegates to one specific set of ARK resources, the new teaching dataset and associated materials, based upon the Northern Ireland Life & Times and Young Life & Times surveys. The Higher Education Academy supported the creation of this suite of shared integrated teaching and learning resources and they are freely available online for use by both staff and students (http://www.ark.ac.uk/teaching/index.html). Emma talked delegates through the major features of this material, including the specially adapted SPSS teaching datasets, the user-friendly codebooks and the teaching workbooks. The importance of using real-world data to support student learning was emphasised and the topics that the teaching resources focus on (Politics & Good Relations and LGBT issues) have broad relevance across the social sciences. Emma also explained how quantitative methods were embedded within her own teaching and provided a variety of examples that illustrated the potential benefits of these resources to delegates.
Session 2: Using NI Crime Datasets in Teaching and Research – Dr Richard Erskine (Department of Justice, Analytic Services Group)
The second presentation provided a detailed account of the various official Northern Ireland crime-related statistics that are available to academics for research and teaching purposes. Dr Richard Erskine gave an intriguing insight into the rigorous process involved in the production of these statistics which cover a wide range of data from a multiplicity of sources. These represent a treasure trove for researchers but are currently under-utilised by academics in their teaching. Richard discussed the range of issues covered by these statistics and the frequency with which data is collected - Anti-Social Behaviour and Drug Seizures (monthly); Hate Crime, Domestic Violence and Stop & Search (quarterly); and PACE Arrests (annually).
The presentation also included a comprehensive examination of the Northern Ireland Crime Survey which highlighted the enormous potential of this resource for academics. The background information on the data collection process and the discussion of the rationale underpinning this survey was very insightful and provided a context for the examination of some of the NICS data. Richard’s comparison of the NICS and recorded crime statistics and his observations on the relationship between anti-social behaviour data and Neighbourhood Renewal Areas generated some interesting discussions in the afternoon session about the possible ways that these resources could be incorporated into undergraduate teaching. Although there are some barriers to closer collaboration between academics and research agencies Richard emphasised the importance of overcoming these for mutual benefit and in the public interest.
Session 3: Engaging Sociology Students in the Numbers Game: The Use of Active Learning Strategies in Undergraduate Methods Teaching - Dr Ciaran Acton and Dr Bernadette McCreight (School of Sociology and Applied Social Studies, University of Ulster)
In the third session the emphasis shifted to the classroom with an examination of some of the strategies that can be used to engage students in the use of statistical data. This presentation reported on the outcomes of a recent HEA-funded project on Assessment for Learning (AfL) in quantitative methods teaching which included an examination of the impact of adopting more interactive, collaborative and student-centred approaches within an undergraduate research skills module. As the University of Ulster is has a very effective widening participation strategy a large proportion of students on the sociology degree are from non-traditional academic backgrounds and many find research methods and statistics course difficult and peripheral to their degree. This poses a challenge for teaching staff and highlights the need to develop innovative ways to encourage the more reluctant students to engage with the course content. Most of the successful strategies identified in the study are grounded in the University of Ulster’s Principles of Assessment for Learning (http://ee.ulster.ac.uk/assessment_and_feedback/index.php) and the examples discussed in the presentation included: (1) The use of tutor and peer feedback during collaborative group work; (2) Informal ‘low stakes’ assessment in SPSS workshops; and (3) The use of audience response technology during lectures.
The sharing of good practice and resources both within and between institutions was highlighted by the links between this project and the QUB project discussed in the first presentation. Many of the sociology modules at the University of Ulster make use of the NILT datasets and other ARK resources and we have found that giving students the opportunity to work with real data on topics that are both interesting to students and sociologically relevant facilitates greater and more meaningful engagement. Although the focus of the HEA project was on the 2nd year undergraduate quantitative methods module it was explained that this was part of a broader strategy within the sociology department to embed quantitative methods throughout the degree. The development of this strategy is the focus of a follow-on HEA project and delegates were provided with some illustrations of the successful embedding of quantitative data analysis within substantive sociology modules.
Session 4: Using Police Statistics and Crime Maps in Social Science Teaching and Research - Fiona O’Hara (Higher Police Analyst, PSNI) and Karen McComb (Higher Police Analyst, PSNI)
The final presentation was given by Fiona O’Hara and Karen McComb and provided a fascinating insight into the ways in which Northern Ireland police statistics and crime maps are employed by police analysts and their potential for social science teaching and research. The presenters outlined the various techniques utilised in GIS and explained how these addressed the various operational needs of the PSNI. There was an interesting discussion on the evolution of the various forms of crime mapping and the ways in which the data produced drives decision making. The use of examples from Northern Ireland with maps identifying ‘hotspots’ and ‘emerging risk areas’ captured the audience’s attention and highlighted the potential of using various forms of data visualisation techniques in teaching.
It was emphasised that this is a rapidly changing research environment and in that context the significance of ‘big data’ and role of social media were also considered. This presentation generated a lot of discussion during the plenary and provided delegates with a variety of interesting possibilities for embedding crime data and mapping techniques within their own individual teaching context.
Plenary Session: Employing Existing Datasets and other Quantitative Resources within Your Own Teaching Context
The plenary session provided delegates with the opportunity to reflect on the presentations and explore some the ways in which they could employ the various datasets and statistical resources in their own teaching. The potential barriers to successful integration were also considered. There were some very interesting discussions and these generated a number of excellent ideas as well as potential areas for future collaboration between delegates.
This point was picked up by Helen Jones of the HEA in her closing remarks where she highlighted the value of closer cooperation both within and between institutions. As the sharing of resources and ideas underpins much of the HEA’s work and was one of the key aims of the seminar this was an appropriate note on which to end the day.
A considerable amount of work is being carried out in this area through the Q-Step programme which was developed as a strategic response to the shortage of quantitatively-skilled social science graduates (http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/q-step). The aim is to share the resulting expertise and resources across the higher education sector through an accompanying support programme which will also forge links with schools and employers.
The HEA is currently funding another venture that intends to build upon the work of two of the projects outlined in the seminar. The aim is to shift the focus away from dedicated methods modules and to encourage the embedding of quantitative skills within substantive sociology modules. The Studying Northern Ireland project referred to above developed a range of teaching resources based upon the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) and the Young Life and Times (YLT) surveys and these offer a number of exciting possibilities for the development of quantitative skills throughout the undergraduate curriculum.
One of the primary aims of this new initiative is to increase students’ familiarity with quantitative data throughout their degree and to help them become more confident in their ability to handle this type of material. This emphasis on continuity and progression is one the central features of this project and the objective is to demonstrate to students that quantitative research methods should not be viewed in isolation from the rest of the sociology curriculum. This should be of interest to other sociology departments and cognate disciplines as it aims to provide a model for how quantitative methods can be integrated relatively seamlessly throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Exemplars of the activities and resources employed in the different modules will be made available along with some audio and/or video ‘tutorials’ from staff explaining the rationale underpinning them. The fact that the NILT survey data and associated teaching resources are also publicly available means that teaching staff in other departments can adapt these materials to suit their own teaching or disciplinary context.
How can we encourage more academic staff in the social sciences to utilise existing quantitative datasets and resources in their teaching (not just in quantitative methods modules) and what are the potential barriers in relation to this?
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