Improving Research Methods Teaching and Learning in Politics and International Relations: A ‘Reality Show’ Approach

By Matt Ryan, Teaching Fellow, Politics & International Relations

How do we know what we know and how do we find things out? How do we know if political scientists are just making things up? The answer is they rely on their accumulated understanding of a whole bunch of tried and tested research methods and the skillsets built up through applying them. It is imperative we always see students as researchers learning their trade, just like us.

Social Science students across the UK Higher Education sector tend to love the substantive ‘social’ and ‘political’ elements of degree programmes but not so much the ‘science’ part. In fact studies show that students have a long-standing aversion to the modules on degree programmes that are aimed at teaching scientific research methods, often finding them ‘dry’ and ‘irrelevant’. This is a sad state of affairs for us academics who rely on our own and others’ innovative research to make sure that all our knowledge and teaching remains at the cutting-edge. But whose fault is it – students, teachers or something else? And most importantly what should be done about it?

At Southampton we have focused our efforts on bringing methods alive for our students. Rather than reading about ideal research scenarios we try to give students a vivid understanding of the messy compromises in social research and a first-hand experience of working their way through real research problems. The result has been a pleasing improvement in student satisfaction, bringing satisfaction with research methods classes in line with the high satisfaction scores on our other modules. Other departments in the UK have joined our move and we hope others will too, both in bringing methods alive for students and sharing best practice.

Some analysis of early innovations are described in an article by colleagues (Clare Saunders, Emily Rainsford and Emma Thompson) and I published in the latest issue of Politics.

We continue to work dynamically to improve our approach with further innovations in the last year helped by the award of a Higher Education Academy Teaching Development Grant. More details about our development of research-lead teaching can be found here, including examples of some of the projects undertaken by our students.

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