Does it matter how we teach research methods?


Melanie Nind, SCDTP Deputy Director (Training & Impact), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, is a co-director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods. She was principal investigator on the Pedagogy of Methodological Learning study and the Changing Research Practices in Covid-19 series of studies.





When around a decade ago a couple of systematic reviews showed the lack of pedagogical culture surrounding the teaching of research methods in the social sciences, I decided to act.

Research has alerted us to the lack of pedagogical culture in research methods education. While in higher education teachers of English as a foreign language, for example, have textbooks on their subject, conferences, a whole body of work they can refer to on how to do it, teachers of research methods were argued to be largely relying on trial and error. At the time, as one of the co-directors of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM), I argued that we needed to do something about this.

I began some exploratory work, and then, with research fellow Dr Sarah Lewthwaite and doctoral researcher, NatCen’s Debbie Collins, embarked on a big multiple method study of research methods pedagogy. We interviewed experts like Sharlene Hesse-Biber, Yvonna Lincoln, John Creswell and Paul Vogt about their craft knowledge; we developed a stimulated recall, reflection and dialogue method to unpack methods lessons with teachers and students straight after their training events; and we conducted some in-depth case studies, including of teaching methods online and in commercial contexts. We also had the pleasure of running an online diary circle with research methods learners (doctoral students at different stages and early career researchers) about their experiences of learning methods, and we analysed and wrote this up with some of them.

In all of this, my passion for methodology and my passion for teaching and learning came together. We developed some deep insights into the approaches, strategies, tactics and tasks of methods teachers. We explored the distinct knowledge that some methods teachers have about how to translate what they know about research methods to enable others to become competent. I argued that this ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ is a bit different in qualitative and quantitative domains. Ultimately, teaching social research methods, we concluded, is about teaching with, through and about data.

Bringing this blogpost to the present day, most recently our new systematic review of the research methods pedagogy literature 2014-2020 has just been published. I’m happy to say that it illustrates that the pedagogic culture is growing. There are more papers being published on this topic now and more theoretical discussions of practices. The synthesis of 55 papers provides detailed rationale for the approach and strategies employed in doctoral/post-doctoral education. Most of the papers are ‘close-to-practice’ research, that is, reflections on teachers’ own practice rather that the kind of study conducted for NCRM. Nonetheless, they richly depict how to teach research methods and remove the need for any new teacher of research methods to rely on trial and error, unsupported by a body of work that provides practical, theoretically informed, guidance.

This most recent systematic review reinforces the importance of experiential learning, active learning and student-centred approaches to teaching social research methods. Knowing this and being deeply immersed in this field makes me very excited about the future of doctoral training partnerships like ours.

The new UKRI ESRC call for applications for funding to provide PhD training and professional development opportunities to students in DTPs has elements that are music to my ears! The call continuously stresses the need for training to be flexible and student-centred. It requires the expansion of ‘Research in Practice’ opportunities for active and experiential learning whereby all students have the chance to apply their skills and knowledge in the field. I’m not sure how much impact the NCRM pedagogic research has had here, but this pedagogic focus for future DTP is great to see. There will be funds too to support the development of new materials and approaches. I encourage you to get in touch over the summer/autumn if you have views on research training for our new bid.

I also make a couple of pleas to our SCDTP community:

  1. If, as SCDTP student, postdoctoral fellow, thematic pathway lead or supervisor you sometimes teach research methods/ do ‘methods training’, don’t go into this ill-informed. Take a look at the NCRM resources for trainers
  2. If you have a deeper interest in researching in this area, consider joining the NCRM Pedagogy Network where you will be part of a network addressing the enhancement of research methods education and training.

I am hoping that the working group on training for the DTP re-bidding process will be a further forum for dialogue. If the research methods education and training pedagogical culture is to flourish, we need to be talking to each other as well as drawing on, and building on, the body of research in this arena.


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