Teaching methods the right way

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-07-20

The best way to learn research methods is by slowly analysing how others are using them.

If all goes well according to the schedule made public by the dean’s office of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tribhuvan University (TU), first semester students enrolled in its MPhil-PhD programmes in several disciplines will be taking in-class three-hour exams on research methods next month. While the exact titles of the individual papers differ a bit across the disciplines, these exams will test what the students know about the research methods used in their respective disciplines. In some disciplines like anthropology, the students will need to take the method paper during their second semester.

Now don’t get me wrong. Taking a class on research methods is important for any student undergoing training to be a researcher (and I assume that is what the MPhil-PhD programme is about). However, experience has shown that taking repetitive classes on research methods and regurgitating stuff learnt from lectures and readings during an exam have not made our students better researchers.

What exactly is repetitive? Take the case of a first semester MPhil-PhD student in sociology now preparing for the forthcoming exam on methods. If that student had majored in sociology during his or her BA studies at a TU college, he or she would have taken a paper on research methods. This student would have again taken a paper on research methods during his or her MA studies in sociology. So this past semester is the third time that this student has heard lectures on methods.

According to one colleague who has passed through this route, the MA paper on methods in sociology was a virtual duplication of what he had read in his BA studies while the MPhil paper had a little more depth in terms of its coverage. Moreover, the way in which the students are evaluated over their BA, MA and MPhil studies—in-class exams—is also repetitive.

Repetition has made our students somewhat knowledgeable about the research process. They know enough to differentiate between qualitative and quantitative research methods or explain what a “mixed methods research design” is. Such exposure has enabled them to take in-class exams on research methods and pass them with relative ease.

But where is the evidence that such repetition is not making our students better researchers? I acknowledge that this evidence is anecdotal, but I would also suggest that it is all over the place. It can be found in the boring MA theses being submitted to various TU departments, in similarly uninteresting papers being presented at various conferences in the country, and in the weak papers being submitted and published in Nepali journals.

What could be done?

Along with many others, I believe that the best way to learn research methods is by slowly analysing how others are using them in their studies and then trying them out in one’s own research over the course of several months or more. This is exactly the kind of training that is missing at TU (and in other Nepali universities). TU faculty members who I have spoken to about this theme in the past have told me that at the BA and MA levels, there are too many students and hence engaging with them in more productive ways is simply not possible.

Is another way possible for the execution of the methods module in the four-semester MA programme? I answer this question without taking into consideration any limitations so that we can first learn to fly imaginatively.

During the first semester, the students should be offered a mandatory methods course primarily delivered as classroom lectures. At the end of the semester, the students could be evaluated in an in-class exam. During the second semester, the method course would shift gears. Assuming that the semester is 16 weeks long, students should be asked to identify 15 journal articles to read on a theme related to one in which they are interested to pursue further research. The assignment would be for the students to write an 800-1,000 word commentary on each of the journal articles they have read. This text would need to summarise the research method used in the article, describe its limitations and explain how successful it has been in answering the research question initially posed in the article. The students would need to turn in these writings every week, submitting a total of 15 such commentaries. Class-time could be used to share what the students are learning while writing these commentaries. The entire portfolio of such submissions would be read by the faculty member(s) teaching the methods course and a grade should be assigned that is commensurate with the quality of the total submissions.

During the third and fourth semesters, the students should take a two-semester method course. During the third semester, they should be asked to design an original research project using some research method learnt during the previous two semesters. This project would need to pose a research question and use one or more methods to answer it. The in-class meetings could be used to discuss the individual challenges being faced by the students as they try to design the research project as a whole. There would be no grade submitted for this course at the end of the third semester. During the fourth and final semester, the students should be asked to finish their research projects and produce a piece of writing (a journal article, thesis or something similar) that tries to answer their research question. The joint grade for the two-semester course would be based on the quality of the research design and the final written output.

At the MPhil-PhD course level, I don’t see any point in offering yet another lecture-based course on research methods. Instead, in the first semester, students should be asked to prepare a 15-page proposal of the MPhil thesis they want to pursue. They should also be asked to critique the proposal text of one of their fellow students. Their grade for the term would be based on the quality of their own proposal and the critique they produce. During the second semester, the students should be asked to begin their research for their MPhil thesis and take only two other courses (instead of three so that there is enough time to focus on the research). During the third and final semester of their MPhil studies, they would need to finish their research and writing, make a classroom presentation, and submit it to the department in question.

I am sure some of what I have said here will appear as wishful thinking, coming from someone who does not work at TU, an institution reeling under the debilitating effects of the bhagbanda spoils. But I would insist that the proposed schemes are possible for execution, especially at the MPhil-PhD level given the relatively small class size of students. But for that the dean’s office at TU will have to give up its lust for control of research management at the university, and its relevant central departments will have to be majorly augmented with larger numbers of competent faculty members who themselves are researchers.

Is that possible in a university that is now more than 60 years old? It is up to those who run the show to answer this question.

Published at : July 20, 2023
Souce: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2023/07/20/teaching-methods-the-right-way

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