Teaching Research Methods to more Disciplines than the Social Sciences…

This year I begin my first semester (of hopefully many) teaching the Honors Research Seminar course. The course is 3-credit hours and it is designed to help Honors students develop a Research Proposal, which will eventually become their Senior Thesis required to graduate with a degree form the Honors Program. I have been on the Honors Committee for three years now so I am familiar with the process. The committee acts as an undergraduate “thesis proposal defense” committee at the end of the semester, as students’ proposals are held to the scrutiny of the scholars on the committee who approve, approve with revisions, or disapprove the proposals. This process is the closest thing to a Masters or Doctoral Defense at the undergraduate level I have seen at an institution.

Before the process begins, each student seeks out and asks a professor in their field to be an expert mentor and help them with the research design and eventually the completion of the project. In some situations the student has an original project and completes it from the ground up. In other situations the professor has a research project and extends an offer to have the student essentially take the lead as Research Assistant on a current project and possibly become a co-author on a published paper.

The key difference this year is that the class will focus on teaching research methods, rather than only guiding the students through the proposal process. Students will have to learn research methods writ large in a broad context and be responsible for more than the methods they are using on their project. This presents a significant difference from the past course and is the primary reason it was changed from a 2-credit hour to a 3-credit hour class. 

I have taught Social Science Research Methods for well over 5-years now at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. However, I have never taught a methods class that needed to appeal to a wide-variety of disciplines. I am hoping that the basic “Research Design” skillset applies across disciplines, but I am well aware that there are going to be serious differences. For one, I know that not every discipline (often including my own) is theory driven. I also know that the literature review differs from discipline to discipline – for example in the natural sciences the literature review might only be a page or two citing a handful of scholars. I am excited to dive in and assist with all of different projects and I am hoping to make the class better as I continue to the teach the course. 

I wanted to share the structure of the Research Proposal here to demonstrate the broad outline of the project. 

  • Literature Review and Research Question
  • Theoretical Framework and Hypotheses
  • Significance and Purpose
  • Methodology and Discussion

I am hoping that these basic segments of a Research Design apply across many disciplines and areas of scientific research. The students will also learn about many methodologies including Experiments, Surveys, Observational (Historical or Secondary) Data Analysis, Ethnography, Qualitative Interviews, Focus Groups, Case Studies, and Field Research. Students will also be exposed to a wide-variety of statistical methodologies and issues including conceptualization, operationalization. scientific sampling, contingency tables, measures of association (PRE and correlation), t-Tests, ANOVA, regression (bivariate and multivariate), and limited dependent variable analysis (logit and probit). I know that these methods have applications in all of these sciences (natural/hard and social sciences). 

The most interesting part of this process will be working with the mentors, as they know their field best. My expert knowledge is limited to political science, so the students will have to rely on their mentor to be sure they are finding real gaps in the literature and dealing with knowledge creation in their field properly. It is hard enough to get students to conduct a proper literature review in political science (where I am aware of the literature), let alone a field for which I have no knowledge. 

In any case, this post is really just a reflection as I enter the process. I hope that as I move through the semester I will be able to learn from this experience and post some thoughts from my adventure in Research Seminar – possibly even some tricks and tips that I learn from teaching methods outside of my discipline.