I’m struggling at the moment to build / rebuild my curriculum for Research Methodology. I have been teaching Research Methodology for the past three years to MTh/MPhil level students (and sometimes DMin and PhD) at SAIACS, the theological institution where I work. The course, like in many other institutions, is mandatory and all students have to take it at the beginning of their programme.
I was initially happy for the opportunity to work with this subject, mainly because it gave me to the opportunity to impact students who had just joined the college… give them a good start, so to speak. I was also given a lot of freedom to devise the course as I wished. During my course planning, I was also exposed to expectational teacher-training material, particularly action and objective based learning, where the goal for the students was more the focus than the goal for the teacher.
I planned a really good course, I made it exciting and practical (I thought), and it turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taught. However, a few weeks later, after my course, about 6 of my students were caught plagiarising, and they confessed to their teachers that they still did not understand the rules (I had taught them the rules). Then, a few months later, when I began to work with a few students from my class (within my specialisation), for building their thesis research proposals, I found that none of them remembered my rules/methods of research. All those exciting classes were as if they did not even exist. I had to start from scratch, helping students understand many basic elements of research and even had to go through the rules of plagiarism and formatting again. At that point I really felt like a failure. I couldn’t believe that after so much hard work, there was so little positive to show for it. I couldn’t help but think that something was wrong… in my teaching methodology, in the students, but also perhaps in the course itself.
After much reflection, and as I redesign the Research Methodology course yet again (I will be teaching it in June), I have at least identified a few problems.
A few of my struggles with the Research Methodology course are as follows:
i) The pace is too fast. In my own experience, I learned research by doing research through my long academic journey as a student. My Research Methodolgy course was not where I learned Research Methods, but over a period of several courses and years of trial and error. Research Methodology thus comes too soon, and attempts too much, in a short period of time. Many ideas of research are actually (in the developing world setting) fundamentally new for students (let alone some weakness in English), and I envisage that it could take more than a few courses/months to correct primary academic/thinking flaws.
ii) Spiritual vs academic. Research methodology is also a terrible “first” course for students entering seminary/theological colleges, because many of us come to such places with a “spiritual” goal, but the first course is as “non” spiritual as it gets. It’s hard to bring in theology consistently while teaching formatting rules, style guides, categorisations, argument construction etc.
iii) The institutional expectations tend to be unrealistic. Students, after doing this one-month course, are held accountable for understanding not just the Institutional rules (like footnote styles / formatting etc), but also, critical thinking skills, general research methodology skills, and sometimes most importantly, the ability to break a life-long habit of plagiarism. In my experience, most students, me too, learned most of these skills over time… but having a month, at the beginning of the academic year, with the students mostly just getting adjusted to the institution, its expectations and its ethos, there is just not enough time to achieve all this.
iv) The students are just not able to learn theory before practice. While I have tried making my class “practical” with lot of discussion, practical assignments… etc… there is no way I can prepare a student for what she/he will actually face in their first assignment and beyond. Learning the skills in abstract, separated from the real-life scenarios that the student will face (not just assignments, but departmental teacher-expectations), is actually no learning at all. Students are able to grasp the concepts in the month I teach, but they find themselves having to learn entirely new methodologies, ways of writing, researching, when the teachers gave courses. Ultimately, students adopt a practical methodology, a way of writing papers that is often completely different (even opposite) to the “theory” of research that I have been teaching. And naturally so. How much better would it be to work WITH students whlie they do their courses… while they do their assignments. In fact, focus on different aspects of research methodology for different courses/assignments. (perhaps within this is the natural problem of higher education where we teaching theories/theologies outside the real-life context of the world/church… as a result, here too students are faced with a dichotomy between theory and practice).
v) Large classes. Again, I think I did a good job putting people in smaller groups, getting discussions and activities within a smaller unit of the large classes. Yet, it was still evident that different students were learning at different paces, and especially the weaker students were getting left behind. (The stronger students, ironically, did not even need the research methodology course because they intuitively seemed to get everything).
vi) It’s not as much fun as actual research. As much as I try to make the students “do” research in the class, I find that the focus of learning skills is less exciting than actually going out and asking/answering questions. In a sense, what else is research methods but the learning to ask the right questions and finding the right way to answer those questions. And yet, the course focuses on meta issues, and addresses the needs/lacks that the institution finds in the students, rather than emerging as a need that the students themselves have, and thus want to find ways to solve/find help in.
So that’s just a brief list. In my more negative days, this list is longer. And I must admit that I have considered quiting teaching this subject. But I do feel that while some problems cannot be changed (like the course timing), perhaps the last point (vi), where I make this subject really something that students feel they need help in… to help students identify their own problems so that they seek out the solutions… could actually bring more lasting impact/change/help in them.