Teaching Research Methods to Undergraduates

By Denham, Bryan | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Teaching Research Methods to Undergraduates


Denham, Bryan, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Research methods may be the most difficult course to teach at the undergraduate level. Students are intimidated by the material from the start, and they sometimes construct barriers so formidable that teaching them about cross-tabulation and chi square analysis becomes all but impossible. One of the reasons they chose to major in communications, after all, was so they could avoid "doing math." How dare instructors ask them to compute the mean, variance and standard deviati on for a set of scores? What do these things have to do with operating a television camera or writing an effective lead?

They are an important part of a liberal education, as Markham (1991) explains:

Students need to understand the logic of scientific research. They need to know how to look for pattern in the chaos of social life. They need to learn how to formulate generalizations about relationships between variables based on careful data gathering, rather than on over-generalization from personal experience or a blind acceptance of cultural myths. They need to understand that tentative generalizations must be subjected to rigorous testing to see how well they hold up and how widely they apply (pp. 466-67). Indeed, research methods can play an important role in undergraduate education, especially in the field of mass communication (see, for example, Meyer,1973, 1991; Bolding, 1996). Students should understand how poll numbers are concocted by groups with specific agendas, and they also should appreciate how a report showing candidate A leading candidate B may actually be a story about a dead heat (Singletary,1994; see also Wimmer & Dominick, 1994; Kerlinger, 1986). They need to understand when to apply the three measures of central tendency, and they should know the difference between a rating and a share. In short, they need to understand how to think critically about social phenomena, for as Paulos (1995) has written, "(u)ncritical news-gathering routines tend to bolster the conventional wisdom. They're too often anchored to `what everybody knows,' to simplistic analogies, to whatever is psychologically available" (p. 18).

Undergraduate students often submit papers loaded with hyperbole and allinclusive statements; the methods course helps them develop an appreciation for the tentative nature of knowledge. It demonstrates how hypotheses supported in one study may or may not be supported in another, depending on the conditions under which the latter is conducted, and it illustrates the need to back away from "commonsense" reasoning and conceptualize problems in general, abstract terms (for example, Tichenor & McLeod, 1989; Babbie, 1990,1986; Singleton, et al. 1988). Students learn about the problems associated with post hoc, after-the-fact hypothesizing and discover the strengths of making predictions about the relationships between variables. They also learn about the difference between prediction and causality, thus helping them become more broad-minded in their approach to social problems.

Before completing the course, a student might take a tragic news story, such as a child burning down his family's mobile home and killing his sister after viewing MTV's "Beavis & Butt-Head," and attempt to make general statements about the relationship between television exposure and anti-social behavior. After completing the course, the student might be more conservative in considering the problem and may question whether a relationship would be present if data were aggregated across many children. Ultimately, the methods class helps to teach students that a certain behavior may be the result of several factors-that "social and behavioral science is much more complex than the idea of simple causation would suggest" (Tichenor & McLeod, p. 18).

Apart from issues of pedagogy, the undergraduate methods course can play an important policy role by increasing the centrality of communications study to the three-fold mission of land-grant universities. …

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