Teaching research methods – lab curriculum

With the click of a button I’ve just uploaded all of my students’ final grades and am officially done teaching for the 2010-2011 school year!  The class I just wrapped up was my department’s undergraduate research methods class, and I’ve posted what I’ve been doing with them below for others who teach similar classes.  You’ll find a basic overview of everything I did, some online resources, and some things I wish I had done.

I’ve worked as a teaching assistant for this class twice now, and it is the class I’ve enjoyed the most so far.  By the end of the class the students have picked a research question to answer, found out what work has already been done on it and modified their question accordingly to make it improve on what has already been done, written a basic literature review, chosen research methods to answer their question, designed their research tools (survey, interview questions, etc), pre-tested and modified their research tools, and speculated on where the research might take them if they were to actually pursue the rest of it.

It’s a difficult task but some of the students get really excited about their projects, and learn a lot about scholarship in the process.  The “Big Assignments” listed below were assigned by the professor leading the class, Gabby Sandoval, and appear here with my edits.  Some of the “lab assignments” listed below I adapted from the research design class I took with Katherine Masyn when I was a masters student at UC Davis.  The important thing is to help the students break down what can be an overwhelming project into manageable weekly tasks, especially during the first half of the class as they are getting started with their projects.

The lab plan below was designed around a teaching workload that involved students going to lecture twice a week with the professor, and then attending a 2 hour lab once a week with me.  I was responsible for two labs of twenty students each.  Students each sat at their own computer, enabling me to combine lectures, group-work, and time for students to work on their projects individually while I moved around the room to consult with them.  During individual work time, I made an effort to check in with each student instead of only those that sought my help, which helped nip problems with their projects in the bud.

Week 1: No Lab

Week 2 Lab

  1. Students bring first draft of their research question to lab
  2. Mini-lecture: Research methods are cool!
  3. Mini-lecture: What is the difference between a research proposal and a term paper?
  4. Go over handout: Common Problems With Research Questions and How to Fix Them
  5. Peer review of draft research questions
  6. Introduce Lab Assignment 1: 5 new and improved versions of their research question
  7. Individual and partner work on Lab Assignment 1
  8. Turn in first draft of research question and peer-review sheet

Week 3 Lab

  1. Students get back the first draft of their research question with my feedback on it
  2. Mini lecture: Operationalizing research questions
  3. Demo: Read aloud my first and final drafts of “key terms” for my thesis research, discuss significance of the changes made on my findings
  4. Demo: 2-3 students volunteer their research questions and we work on operationalizing them as a group
  5. Lab Activity: Individual and partner work to revise and operationalize research questions
  6. Mini-lecture: review literature review assignment
  7. Introduce Lab Assignments 2 and 3: find 20 sources and fill out one article summary table
  8. Hand back lab assignment 1
  9. Individual work and student-TA check-ins
  10. Students turn in lab activity and lab assignment 1

Week 4 Lab

  1. Hand back lab assignment 1 and week 3 lab activity – review operationalization
  2. Literature Review Quiz
  3. Check in on progress on lab assignments 2 and 3 – discuss common problems with finding sources
  4. Introduce Lab Assignments 4 and 5: literature review outline and more article review tables
  5. Workshop literature review outlines for 1-2 student research questions
  6. Individual work and student-TA check-ins
  7. Students turn in lab assignments 2 and 3

Week 5 Lab

  1. Mini lecture: Review Big Assignment #1 – Literature Review
  2. Guided discussion: trouble-shoot literature review problems
  3. Mini lecture: In-text citations
  4. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: Hand back and discuss lab assignments 2 and 3 while students work on literature reviews
  5. Students turn in lab assignments 4 and 5

Week 6 Lab

  1. Students hand in Big Assignment #1: Literature Review
  2. Peer review: literature review drafts
  3. Review requirements for Big Assignment #2: Methods Section
  4. Review class calendar
  5. Introduce Lab Activity: methods worksheet
  6. Introduce Lab Assignment 6: research tool
  7. Workshop methods that could be used to answer research questions for several students
  8. Groupwork: divide by method students plan to use, and discuss how they could design research to answer their question

Week 7 Lab

  1. Methods Quiz
  2. Workshop: discuss ways to pre-test the methods of several students’ research questions
  3. Mini lecture: filling out Institutional Review Board forms
  4. Mini lecture: assessing the ethical implications of your proposed research
  5. Students get back graded literature reviews
  6. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: students work on methods section

Week 8 Lab

  1. Students hand in Big Assignment #2: Methods section
  2. Mini-lecture: Pre-testing
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins

Week 9 Lab

  1. Review requirements for Big Assignment #3: Final Research Proposal
  2. Hand back graded methods sections and research tools
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: Students work on revising literature reviews, methods sections, or research tool as needed

Week 10 Lab

  1. Students conducting surveys as their pre-test of their research tools conduct surveys in class and get feedback from the rest of the students
  2. Hand out and review Editing check-list
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins

Finals Week

  1. Students turn in Big Assignment #3: Final Research Proposal


Other resources for students:

To do list for next time:

  • Create a handout that shows one basic research question reformulated in many different ways.  For example, a quantitative version of the question and a qualitative version.  Versions that would require different methods to answer:  in-depth interviews, textual analysis, participant observation, survey, etc.  The students often have a hard time imagining all the different ways that their topical interest could play out in a research project, so I think seeing one question that has been developed in many different directions will give them a sense of the array of options they have.
  • Prepare some materials to teach different approaches to writing a literature review. In particular, I’m interested in helping the students explore the slightly different role of  the literature review for an applied research project as compared to a theoretical research project.
  • Create “Areas for Improvement” feedback forms.  The form lists common errors that many students need to improve on in their papers.  As I read a paper, I circle all the items that apply to that particular paper, add a few hand-written comments and then staple it on the back.  This has worked reasonably well when I’ve used it for other classes.
  • Mark up the model research proposal that I shared with the students. The proposal I shared was written by one of my students when I taught this class last year.  It seems like it was very helpful for the students to see a model written by a peer to meet the same requirements they had instead of looking at models written by established scholars for other purposes.  It was an excellent proposal, but still had some flaws and areas for improvement that confused the students since it was being held up as a model.  I think I’ll just make a few comments on it in ‘track changes’ and share that version instead in the future.  I’ll also add a few more models that I requested from my students this year, so future students get a sense of the range of research questions and methods that they can tackle.
  • In the future I’d also like to spend more time helping the students understand examples of research projects that have had real world outcomes so they can make better links between their own research ideas and the changes they would like to see in the world.

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