[N.B. all the names used in the below are pseudonyms and are used to make the report more readable.]
After I completed the open coding process, I reorganised the quotes into categories that felt to me to be related and meaningful. There were eight larger categories and a series of smaller one that emerged from the data during the analysis. I will describe each category in turn (in no particular order) and comment upon it with respect to the teaching and learning literature.
Category 1: “using equipment” + “trying out techniques”
One of the aspects of the course that was raised by three of the students that had completed the questionnaire, Megan, Caroline and Anne was the opportunity that was provided to use equipment and software and to try out research techniques. Most of the comments made were positive and were raised in the context of questions 1 (What was the best thing about the course and why?) and 3 (Which of the five projects we carried out did you enjoy the most and why?). The concept of “giving a chance” was often used in conjunction with the idea of using the equipment, suggesting that the students appreciated the hands-on experiences provided. Caroline commented that using the computer in one project may have detracted from her enjoyment of that particular task, but she also states that another of the projects was “fun to do, as it gave me the chance to try out questionnaires on people”.
This finding ties in with the idea of activity being an important aspect in motivating and assisting student learning (Ahmet & Fallows, 1999). This type of activity, which is essentially play related to ‘hands-on’ experience with the ‘tools of the trade’, may not force the student to engage particularly deeply with the concepts underlying the study of methodology. But simply engaging in activity as such can be a good in its own right, as a way of addressing attention – activity increases arousal and that in turn improves performance (Biggs, 2003).
Category 2: “step-by-step” + “definite”
Clear guidelines and definite answers were a topic of concern for Megan, Ben and Jessica. All three expressed a preference for projects with definite answers rather than “ambiguous” and opinion-based ones. Ben chose this concern as one of his replies to question 1 (What was the best thing about the course and why?): “Also, it was nice to have at least these two modules which has fixed answers and not just opinions of views.”
I was not surprised by this expression of a preference by some of the students for definiteness and ‘facts’. Some personality types find it difficult to deal with concepts such as the provisional nature of knowledge, while others seek to question things (REF!) However, I was surprised at Ben’s comment that the two modules had definite answers. From my point of view the module had contained many fruitful and searching discussions amongst the students, which had not got resolved in favour of definite rights or wrongs. That said, there is a certain truth to Ben’s comment, since at least where statistics are concerned, there are clear-cut rules to follow on this course. Maybe this can be used as a ‘selling point’ in its own right in methodology teaching? However, I think it would be better to encourage students to accept uncertainty about knowledge sooner rather than later in their academic careers. How to do this is a question that warrants further exploration.
Category 3: “doing the research” + “the whole process”
This category is again related to the issue of activity in learning, but rather than playing with equipment this is about following through a whole process in a clear progression of connected features. Five out of the six respondents made comments about doing the research in the modules and about their perceived ability to do their own research after having completed the two modules. Furthermore, Megan, Caroline and Jessica commented favourably upon having had the opportunity to go through the whole process from start to finish. All the students who commented on doing future research felt that they would be able to carry out projects on their own. Megan, in fact, commented upon how a group of students of which she was a member had already used the knowledge gained in these modules to carry out another project. Jessica’s comment “It was good to have learned how to do research from the beginning to the end” sums up this category for me.
Allowing student to go through the entire research process makes it possible for them to see the connections between the disparate skills they have to learn during a research methods course (REF!). It also makes it clear why certain processes need to take place, and illustrates how each process is applied. (REF!) The way I see it is that the ‘start to finish’ way of teaching research provides a conceptual framework upon which the students can hang some of the different methods skills that we require them to learn. This approach may require a certain amount of simplification at first level, but amending a conceptual framework to allow for more complicated features that will be introduced later strikes me as easier to work with than an attempt to put together separate chunks of knowledge.
Category 4: “examples” + “realness” + “applying acquired knowledge”
Closely related to category 3, this category collected together students’ comments about aspects of the course the made them feel that the course was ‘real’ as opposed to an academic exercise. Students used different words to capture this concept. For example, Megan commented that the projects process “made the statistical analysis real, purposeful and memorable”, Ben enjoyed that projects “showed me how to use statistics in a more adventurous way”, while Jessica commented on being “able to obtain proper results”.
In my own experience, the real motivation to learn statistics and research methods came from the desire to analyse my own data while I was doing my PhD, and I sympathise with the students comment about examples and opportunities to work with real data. Learning statistics in a directly applied situation has previously been shown to be an effective if not problem-free way of introducing students to these skills (Clarke, 1999), at least in terms of course evaluations. The comments in this current research support this finding. Students’ subjective experience appears to be enhanced if there is a feeling that they are dealing with ‘real’ findings.
Category 5: “our project” + “interest” + “involvement” + “opportunity”
Hand in hand with the concept of a project’s reality comes the question of ownership and having a personal stake in the learning task. All six students commented on these points predominantly in question 5 (How did you feel about your level of involvement in the projects?). Megan states that the responsibility for the projects was part of what made her want to complete them and “see what results we had gathered”. Ben and Caroline see themselves as having had “opportunity” to get involved. Megan, Anne and Robert use the personal pronouns “our” and “my” when talking about the project and research ideas. Megan, Caroline, Anne and Jessica comment up personal interest or lack thereof affecting their enjoyment of the different projects carried out.
A sense of ownership can be a powerful tool in motivating learning (Fallows & Ahmet, 1999), and allowing students the freedom to make projects their own early on in a course might also help foster an independent approach to solving their learning problems (Clarke, 1999). However, I may have attributed more to these data than the students intended, since I was essentially hoping to find some evidence that the students had enjoyed the opportunity to carry out their own projects. I have chosen to interpret terms like “opportunity” as a positive that students appreciated, but this may not actually be in the data as such. However, personal interest in a topic area was not something that I had particularly been looking for, but four out of the six respondents mentioned interest in the context of their experience of the modules.
… okay… time for another break. I want to get up and stretch my legs and clear my head a bit. This stuff is pretty much what I am drafting for my write-up… still has some bits missing. I think I need to be more explicit about what I think certain comments by the students mean. But that has to wait for now. Another 4 categories still need to be described and discussed, and I need to write a conclusion. But first of all I need to take a break and stop myself from panicking. I’ll get the rest done, I’ll get the rest done… just keep repeating that to yourself, dear.