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How can Learning Technologies Support Teaching of Social Research Methods?


While social research methods are arguably a core feature of social science degrees universally, It appears to be a common trend that such modules are generally unpopular and have a bad reputation among students in the social sciences (Bos and Schneider, 2009; Peffefer and Rogalin, 2012; Ryan et al, 2014; Lewthwaite & Nind, 2016).  Ryan et al (2014) suggest that this may be because research methods training is often seen as an add-on rather than being thoroughly embedded in the curriculum while students can fail to see the value in methods teaching or its relevance to their lives. Bos and Schneider (2009) believe that students are anxious about their ability to master the broad range of research approaches required, while many students have particular anxieties about their capacities in the areas of maths and statistics.  They argue that these fears are ‘holding students back from optimal learning’ (p.376). The combined result of these factors is described by Parker et al. (2008, p. 14) as follows:  ‘The seeming irrelevance of such coursework [methods] combined with its difficulty, undermines the efforts of methods instructors before anyone even sets foot in the classroom’. At the same time, though, there is a broad agreement that research skills are important in many aspects of work and life and need to be strengthened among university graduates (Leston-Bandeira, 2013).

To identify and describe the pedagogy of teaching research methods, Kilburn et al (2014) conducted a review of published papers on the teaching and learning of research methods between 2007 and 2013. They were interested in how methods teaching was ‘conceived of, enacted and reflected upon by practitioners’ (p.195).  Their analysis found evidence of three key ‘pedagogic goals’.  Firstly, teachers sought to make the research process visible, which often involved engaging students in active learning to help them to understand research concepts and principles. Secondly, ‘learning by doing’; teachers they sought to provide students with experience of undertaking research in real world contexts. Finally, ‘reflection on the research process’ is an approach whereby students are encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes towards and experiences of conducting research.

Kilburn et al (2014) argue that good research methods teaching requires a combination of knowledge transmission and practical experience, reflecting a broad consensus in the literature that there is a need to provide practical ‘hands on’ experience to students of research methods.  McKinney et al (2004) also recommend that research methods teaching should include active learning techniques that enable student engagement and encourage critical thinking. Studies have shown, however, that most research methods teaching uses ‘traditional’ techniques that fail to engage the learner as a participant. Ryan et al (2014) argue that much research methods teaching is characterised by an ‘unhealthy disassociation’ between research in theory and research in practice. Pffefer and Rogalin (2012, p.369) argue that teaching practice often ‘situate instructors and researchers as infallible experts on the subject matter and students as blank-slate repositories of knowledge’, and fail to engage students as active learners. Some believe that the problems with the teaching of methods could be addressed through the adoption of a discipline-embedded approach, whereby research is not seen as a standalone module but something that is threaded through the curriculum as a whole (Leston Bandiera, 2013; Buckley et al, Ryan et al, 2014).

A range of studies have recommended the integration of technology and computer-based methods into teaching of research methods as a means of realising a more effective pedagogy (Kilburn et al, 2014), while a review of approaches to statistics education by Tishkovskaya and Lancaster (2012) highlights that computer-based and Web technologies are a key part of this evolving discipline.  Kilburn et al (2014) describe a broad range of activities and approaches used in research methods teaching, many of which involve learning technologies to some degree.

In this blog post, I explore ways in which learning technologies have been used in research methods teaching in the social sciences.  From a review of the literature, I provide examples from the literature of five various approaches have been used or can be used in research methods teaching.  Before moving on to outline the approaches found, a brief description is provided of how the literature was searched.


Using the James Hardiman library, a search was conducted of Science Direct data base, using the search terms listed in Table 1.  A range of relevant articles were found but many related to the teaching of research methods in general and not specifically to learning technologies.  The review by Kilburn et al (2014) was valuable in identifying specific studies which had reported on the use of learning technologies.  From this paper, a snowball process was pursued, whereby relevant papers were sourced from the reference list and in turn the references in these paper pointed to further relevant sources.

Table 1: Search terms used.

Social research teaching AND

  • Video
  • Blogs
  • Wiki
  • Podcast
  • Twitter / social media
  • Mobile technology
  • Clickers


As the popularity of podcasting (audio recording) has grown over the past decade, academics have explored ways to integrate podcasting into teaching and learning activities. According to Morrissey (2012), the attractive features of podcasting in an educational context include its relative simplicity, the minimal technical requirements for both lecturer and student and the fact that recordings are ‘portable’ and can be accessed in multiple contexts.

Podcasting doesn’t necessarily require anything new or different in terms of content– the material already developed for lectures, etc. can be used for podcasts.  Thus, in terms of research methods teaching, podcasts can be made available to students on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as supplementary material to re-cap on key points from a lecture or to re-iterate key concepts.

Ryan et al. (2014) give an interesting example of how podcasts were used to bring research alive in their Political Science research methods course. Working with lecturers across the degree programme, they identified a range of key research papers that were essential reading for students.  They then conducted interviews with seven of the authors of these papers, asking them about their methodological approach and the issues and challenges encountered. These interviews were recorded as podcasts.  As part of their assessment for the module, students were asked to conduct a critical review of the study design used in two of these papers and the associated podcasts. This approach ensured continuity in students learning across the curriculum and helped to challenge the tendency for research methods teaching to be seen as abstract.  Students were expected to address the following questions in their critical review (Ryan et al, 2014, p.91):

  • What were the research questions that were being addressed?
  • How did the justification for research relate to the broader literature?
  • Which method(s) of data extraction and analysis was used and why?
  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of the method?
  • What were the key research findings? How might methodological shortcomings be resolved?
  • They were also required to show an appreciation of the idea that research requires compromises.

In the module evaluation, the majority of students reported finding the interviews to be either ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’.  Ryan et al (2014, p.95) believe that ‘moving from general lectures to a ‘reality show’ helped to make the methods come alive for students, demystifying the research process and increasing its broader relevance’.  It also resonates with Bos and Schneider’s (2009) advice to give research methods students as many examples as possible.

Video and Film

Video is a key pedagogical tool in the promotion of active learning and student engagement, supporting the emergence of the flipped classroom as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements are reversed (Educause, 2013). Lecturers can make videos with their own content or use pre-existing resources available online to reinforce learning or as part of a flipped classroom.  There have also been examples of students making videos as a pedagogical tool as well as a form of assessment.

There were some interesting examples in the literature of how film and video was used in the teaching of research methods.  Pfeiffer and Rogalin (2012) describe how a guest lecturer used video effectively in their research methods module.  Students were shown video footage from research with mothers and infants and were asked to code three minutes of video for instances of infant smiling. Once students completed individual coding, they then paired off to assess interrater reliability. This exercise helped them to appreciate the challenges associated with achieving inter-rater reliability, which led to an illuminating class conversation about research challenges.

Burkley and Burkley (2009) showed clips of the TV series ‘Mythbusters’ to Research Methods students in psychology.  This TV series explores various myths, from ancient legends to modern folklore, using a variety of research methods to determine if the myth is true or false. The authors reported that Mythbusters uses a variety of methods which are similar to those covered in a psychology research methods class. The clips were shown every 2-3 weeks, and were chosen for the relevance to the topics which had been covered in that segment of the course.  After students viewed each clip, they were given a handout that required them to reflect on and identify how the process used in the Mythbusters study related to the research techniques and concepts that had covered in the course – for example,  identify the independent and dependent variables and explain how these variables had been operationalised.  Students discussed the questions in small groups followed by a class discussion of the answers.

Their end of module evaluation, students reported that the clips were enjoyable, had helped them to apply course concepts to real world research and highly recommended their use in future research methods courses.  They also found that students performed better on exam questions that were related to concepts addressed in the Mythbusters videos than they did on unrelated material. Burkley and Burkley (2009) conclude that the success of the initiative was in the fact that it captured students interest and helped them better understand key course concepts.

Virtual learning environment (VLE)

The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), such as Blackboard, offers the opportunity to provide a range of resources to complement face-to-face learning. For example, in addition to traditional academic resources (such as journal articles), technology based resources such as podcasts, web-based tutorials, and instructional videos ensure that students can engage with relevant concepts using a variety of media.  The VLE can also be used to facilitate students to engage collaboratively with each other and with the module content. One example of this is the use of using wikis, through which students can co-create content.

An example of how the VLE was deployed comprehensively to support classroom learning in a research methods module is provided by Leston-Bandeira (2013). Undergraduate students in a large module (80 students) were supported to develop a research proposal and undertake a research project through a blended learning approach, which combined lectures, smaller workshops and extensive use of the VLE (Leston-Bandeira, 2013)   The module commenced with 5 one hour lectures, which also included group exercises.  Students had to find out what to prepare for each lecture by logging on to the VLE each week. For example, in one lecture, they had to draft a short questionnaire based on their research topic, and bring it to class where it was then discussed in small groups.

Additional literature on topics related to research methods, ethics, working with secondary data is also made available on the VLE. Fifteen minute workshops for three students at a time were held to enable updates on progress and support from tutors. According to Leston-Bandeira (p.213), the students learned from each other in these workshops which ‘helps further to demystify the process of undertaking research, where common problems and successes are shared’.  Students were expected to log in to the VLE every week and to take part in forum discussions. The author describes this process as follows (Leston-Bandeira, p.203):

‘Students are asked to post in the forum their first thoughts for the research question from the third teaching week onwards. As research ideas are posted, the respective tutors comment on these in the forum, and provide feedback and advice on how to improve the research questions further. All students can read and comment on all messages; this is a powerful tool to engage students with the process of defining a research question, nurture research skills confidence and widen ideas. Again, these discussions act as a way of demystifying the process of carrying out research – by each student becoming more aware of what the other students are doing in their projects. It also encourages students to be more realistic and focused about what they aim to research. Although initially it may seem a daunting exercise, the vast majority of students do participate in this and identify it as a very useful step in their learning process; simple techniques are used to encourage participation, such as the offer of a virtual prize for the first posting and the regular recall of the forum’s role in the lectures and in other communications. As an example, in the 2011/12 academic year, out of a cohort of 82 students, 227 messages were posted just on research questions, involving the participation of 68 different students, that is, 83 per cent of the cohort.’

The forum also included a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section which proved to be very popular among students.  Students were expected to submit a 1,000 word research proposal at the end of Semester One and a 4,000 word research report at the end of Semester 2. They are also asked to reflect on their experiences of undertaking research.  The author notes that the communication function of the VLE is critically important in ensuring student engagement with the module.  Feedback from students indicated that they greatly valued the opportunity to define their own topic and conduct research on something they were interested in.

In-class surveys and quizzes

It is obvious that the use of in-class surveys and quizzes is a natural fit in terms of research methods teaching.  A wide range of learning technology is available to support this practice.  Online survey platforms such as survey monkey can be used to host surveys which are completed by students either in or outside of class.  A technology which is also used to enhance pedagogical practice in the classroom is Personal Response Systems (PRS) or clicker systems (Banks, 2006) These systems can be used to pose a variety of questions in the classroom, including recall questions, as well as questions involving conceptual understanding or application of learning.  Where previously this practice required to distribution of clickers to students, much of this practice is now conducted through mobile technology.  Mobile phone applications such as Socrative facilitate students to respond via their own mobile phones. Socrative allows lecturers to design their own quizzes and surveys to assess students understanding of concepts with prepared activities. Student answers can be reviewed at an individual or class level, while the instant feedback available to lecturers enables them to adapt or tailor their approach based on the level of understanding demonstrated through the assessment.

An example of how the surveys can be used to address the concerns and anxieties that many students have regarding research methods is provided by Bos and Schneider (2009).  They recommend that students be asked about their fears and concerns about research methods at the start of the module, in addition to their knowledge and confidence in relation to various aspects of the curriculum, including research questions, literature review, etc.  While Bos and Schneider don’t refer to online survey platforms, this mechanism could be used to gather data and to share the findings with the class.  The students may be reassured to realise that other students share their concerns and to have the lecturer acknowledge these concerns. This data could be used as part of the follow up module evaluation to assess change.

Online datasets and web repositories

The availability of online quantitative and qualitative datasets, such as Eurobarometer or British Social Attitudes surveys, provides a valuable resource for teaching research methods.

Buckley et al (2015) give the example of how publicly available datasets, combined with an online survey, were used in a comparative politics module.  Students were asked to complete survey questions on ‘attitudes to immigration’ from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey.  The students’ responses were then compared to previous class cohorts and to the general British public.  Buckley et al (2015) highlight that this exercise ‘makes students ‘part of the dataset’, which leads to higher levels of engagement and interest.  This data was then used to explore a range of methodologically issues related to survey design. For example, when discussing if the questions measure attitudes reliably, students were able to draw on their own experiences of answering the questions.

One issue with the potential use of such datasets is that they may be overly complex for undergraduate researchers to access and interpret (Kilburn et al, 2014).  Tishkovskaya and Lancaster (2012) highlight that many online datasets and web repositories provide datasets specifically tailored to higher education teaching and learning.  Two examples are:

  • Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS): The ESDS Data Catalogue contains over 5,000 datasets. ESDS also provides teaching datasets which are typically subsets of the larger UK government surveys. 35 teaching datasets are currently available.
  • Creation of Statistical Resources from Real Datasets‘project (STARS). The project uses real datasets and scenarios to help develop teaching and learning resources for staff and students. The statistics packages used are Excel, MINITAB, SPSS and, to a minor extent, SAS.


Research methods teaching is considered a critical component of social science degrees at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, yet it can often be viewed by students as irrelevant, complex and removed from real life. There have been calls for research methods teaching to become more student-centred, applied and engaging.  It is clear from the examples provided in this brief review that a range of learning technologies can be used to help to achieve a student centred and ‘hands-on’ approach to the learning of research methods.  Examples were given of the use of podcasts, film and video, Virtual Learning environment, in-class quizzes and surveys and online databases.  Before deciding to adopt or adapt any of these approaches, however, it is important that lecturers reflect on the overall pedagogic approach and give careful consideration to ensuring that the chosen technology enhances the learning experience for students.  Kilburn et al (2014) also highlight that the incorporation of new technologies may require an additional investment of time.


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Dr Bernadine Brady is a Lecturer in the School of Political Science & Sociology, NUI, Galway and a Senior Researcher with the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre and member of the SSRC