Teaching Research Methods for the Public Sector: New Approaches in the Discipline

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Teaching Research Methods for the Public Sector: New Approaches in the Discipline Brian P. Macfie and Philip M. Nufrio, Applied Statistics for Public Policy. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2006. 536 pages. ISBN 0-7656-1239-9 (cloth).

In public affairs and administration, our teaching goal is to enable students to gain essential skills and practical experience necessary to effectively use quantitative approaches when solving social problems. While it may be true that professors differ in their pedagogical approach when exposing students to research methods and analysis, our ability to engage students in quantitative reasoning is the universal desired learning outcome for the field. Our hope is that students and (future) practitioners will use what they've learned in the classroom about the process of doing research, apply those techniques and quantitative approaches to solving real-life social problems, and be able to critically assess any statistical information used in decision making.

Since we expect students (and practitioners) to use quantitative reasoning to critically evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information related to problems in the field, we must assume that there is a consensus among scholars that dictates what should taught in a quantitative/research methods sequence. In a two-semester sequence, one can expect that statistics or quantitative methods will be covered in the first course and research methods will be covered in the second course. In quantitative methods, the focus is one of balance - trying to ensure that students fully understand the analytical approaches to problem solving and the application of statistical techniques used in hypothesis testing. The purpose of the course is to expose students to three aspects of social science research: 1) research designs, 2) data collection, and 3) statistical analysis. The desired learning outcome seeks to maximize knowledge in social science research methodologies and basic complementary statistical techniques. Since a number of universities have adopted statistical packages like SAS, SPSS, or STATA into their learning landscape, faculty teaching 'methods' typically introduce statistical packages early enough in the semester to ensure that students have adequate experience analyzing and interpreting data using computer software.

In the second course on research methods, students are expected to apply the general principles of research as learned in the first course to the practical application of "doing the research." Students utilize theoretical knowledge about scientific research to guide field research or a research project. Student learning outcomes seek to enhance their ability to employ quantitative reasoning appropriately while applying scientific methodology to address real-life problems in the public sector. While there is no consensus to designing a methods course/sequence, it is clear that faculty have to make hard choices about course content when teaching quantitative and research methods. Even under the best circumstances, where faculty and students have two semesters to explore topics related to quantitative and research methods, we seek educational resources that are practical, skill-building, and relevant to the public sector.

Macfie and Nufrio co-wrote Applied Statistics for Public Policy to ensure that students, professors, and policy analysts are aware of the advantages of utilizing statistics in the decision making process. According to Macfie and Nufrio (2006), "statistics is the science of investigating, collecting, organizing, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting data to assist in making more effective decisions" (p. 3). They note that statistics are used most often to describe information in the social world, explore social phenomenon and explain relationships among key constructs. …