Using Collaborative Research Projects to Facilitate Active Learning in Methods Courses

Article excerpt

This article proposes facilitation of active learning in methods courses using collaborative survey research projects. Students form groups in which they develop and administer questionnaires that explore public attitudes and behaviors. Each step requires they apply key concepts toward completion of the project. Collaborative research project tasks are integral to achieving course objectives and engaging the broader academic community.

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand," reads a Chinese proverb (Confucius). Academic scholarship has affirmed how "active learning," or "learning by doing," may effectively bridge divides among teachers, students, course materials, and the education process (Meyers & Jones, 1993; Andresen & Kirby, 1994; Alex-Assensoh, 2000; CiliottaRubery & Levy, 2000). The goal for instructors is, therefore, to develop pedagogic techniques and class assignments that enhance the learning experience by directly engaging students with the coursework and each other.

In this article, I outline a proposal for facilitation of active learning through the use of semester-long collaborative survey research projects in political science methods courses. Students form research groups in which they develop, design, and administer public opinion questionnaires that examine attitudes and behaviors of the university community. Following theoretical development and data collection, students analyze the data and report key findings to the class in an oral presentation and to the instructor in a research portfolio. Each step along the way requires that students apply key concepts in a practical way toward completion of the project. Moreover, assignment tasks are integral to achieving course objectives - that is, helping students gain a better understanding of research methods subject matter - and fundamentally directed at engaging the broader academic community.

The Context

The project described in this article is implemented in political science research methods course at a regional university in the southeastern United States.1 Methods is a lower-division requirement in that all majors must complete the course, with a C or better grade, before receiving their degree. The course also fulfills requirements for students majoring outside the discipline - in international affairs and geographic information systems, for example. Qasses are typically twenty to twenty-five students in size and meet in a computer lab equipped with an SPSS-ready computer workstation at every seat.

Challenges of inadequate student preparedness and poor engagement are no greater than in research methods courses (Hubbell, 1994). These are as true at my university as they are at most any institution of higher learning. As such, research methods courses serve as worthy platforms for testing and evaluating innovative teaching methods and designs. "Many students enter these courses intellectually or otherwise ill prepared, because of weak writing, information literacy, critical thinking, and abstract thinking skills" (Hill, 2006). Principle objectives typically include equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to undertake their own political science research, which requires the facilitation of "hands on" experience with various research activities. While students may be well-versed in substantive subject matters, research methods is often their first opportunity to actually do political science. Nonetheless, many approach methods with (at best) a less than enthusiastic mindset. They are likely to be "unmotivated and difficult to engage in the work of the class" (Hill, 2006). Course materials are written off as dry, stale, irrelevant, and impractical. Students are simply not convinced that the study is anything more than a "hollow, academic exercise" laced with mathematical mumbo jumbo (Hubbell, 1994, p.60).

The Literature

Active Learning

The proposed survey research project is reflective of the "participative" mode of exercises encouraged by Andresen, et al. …