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Research Methodology

My Research Methodology class.

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.

 

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The following is a quote from William Badke’s article “The Great Research Disaster”

But we have not accomplished information literacy until our students have at least some sense that research is fun. Research is about discovery and problem- solving, not merely about meeting obligations. Ultimately, it’s about giving students the conviction that their research projects are indeed their own, not a gift to their professors. I’ve seen quite a few of my own students “get it” and actually discover the fascination of research. But this happened only when I went beyond teaching them how to use the tools and started helping them make sense of why they were doing all this. Grappling deeply with issues and open questions instead of fudging a professor’s assignment is indeed fun.

citation: William Badke, “The Great Research Disaster,” Online, November/December 2009, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5044784188.

Quick though: There are many positive lessons in the quotparticularly for revising teaching methodologies for adult learners.  This makes sense to me within the context of how I am revising my own teaching strategies and methods.

Recently someone asked me whether they could do a thesis (MTh level) on postliberalism, particularly looking at the work of George Sumner. Since the person was from India, and a Christian, (both categories I use for myself as well), I felt certain questions needed to be kept in mind before deciding on a thesis writing topic.

1. What is the rationale/context of your study? Ie. why postliberalism?

2. There are two ways of doing postliberalism;
– as a historical study (looking at its birth/development and key figures).
– as a current issue, that either potentially helps evangelical(?) Christianity, or potentially harms it (or of course a bit of both).

3. If there is a current issue, then the thesis-writer needs to find a current theologian who has dealt either with postliberalism or writes within its framework. George Sumner is one, but is there any “Indian”/Asian
voice that either similarly expresses postliberal thinking, or at least necessitates a person like Sumner? By this I mean, like the thesis-writer has to answer why postliberalism, he/she similarly sneed to answer, why George Sumner (or any other theologian of their choice).

4. Are you (the thesis-writer) trying to address the “liberals” in India today? If so, who? What exactly are they saying? Once you identify those “problem” voices (and I’m assuming the writer finds liberal voices problematic), then it is easier to look for (and justify) the voice of ‘solution’.

5. In view of pt. 4, it is dangerous to begin research with the solution (ie. postliberalism or even George Sumner is a good example of how theology should be done etc etc).
– It is better to identify the problem and see whether postliberalism can help.
– Unless, of course, postliberalism IS the problem, in which case you should be able to show that it is a problem in India.

On that note, the following Calvin and Hobbes comic is appropriate! :)

Just read an interesting article/study on Google books. And while Google has reportedly fixed the errors, the article still draws attention to important issues in internet education.

article: Google Book Search: A disaster for scholars
In the Chronicle for Higher Education.

http://chronicle.com/article/Googles-Book-Search-A/48245/

Whether the Google books settlement passes muster with the U.S. District Court and the Justice Department, Google’s book search is clearly on track to becoming the world’s largest digital library. No less important, it is also almost certain to be the last one. Google’s five-year head start and its relationships with libraries and publishers give it an effective monopoly: No competitor will be able to come after it on the same scale. Nor is technology going to lower the cost of entry. Scanning will always be an expensive, labor-intensive project. Of course, 50 or 100 years from now control of the collection may pass from Google to somebody else—Elsevier, Unesco, Wal-Mart. But it’s safe to assume that the digitized books that scholars will be working with then will be the very same ones that are sitting on Google’s servers today, augmented by the millions of titles published in the interim.

To read more click here.

The following is the critique guidelines I gave my students when arranging for a peer-level symposium. The aim was for the students to get together and in a “safe” environment critique. In the Indian context, we need to encourage our students to critique others (usually it’s polite not to say anything). These particular guidelines were given for the first of the symposiums, particularly looking at the outline of student dissertations. I think these guidelines were helpful as a starter.

The goal of this Symposium is to give the presenters opportunities to clarify their thesis-related thinking. Our job, as participants is to aid in this process by asking important questions that may expose weaknesses in thought or reveal new directions to pursue. Primarily, as participants, we hope to encourage the presenter by being positive and constructive in our evaluation.

Symposium Format:

  1. Read the paper thoroughly in advance. Please do read it!
  2. Author will present his/her paper.
  3. The participants can ask for clarification of the paper.
  4. After clarification, the participants will then proceed to critique along the suggested lines (“Things to look out for in the paper” below).
  5. After the critique, the author can then express any difficulties in the thesis-writing process he/she is currently facing.
  6. The participants will then attempt to address the difficulties by providing any positive perspective or guidance.
  7. Finally, we close with prayer for the presenter.

Things to look out for in the paper

After reading this draft, do you get a clear sense of what the author is trying to say?

Is the problem statement clear? Is there a clear academic problem?
Is the thesis statement clear? Does the thesis statement address the problem?
– Does the author look like they understand the methodological issues of their topic?
– Are you convinced by the methodology adopted by the author?
– Looking at the outline, do you think the chapter structures help support the thesis statement adequately?
– Does the outline have too many chapters? Should the author simplify?
Is the outline missing any chapter? Should the author restructure?
– Finally, in terms of format, does the researcher display any explicit language errors?
– A
re the errors in the paper carelessness or language flaws?

Some Suggestions

Always look to encourage the presenter. Be constructive in your comments. However don’t hold back on your critique. By not saying anything, you are not helping the author.

Regarding Spelling and Grammatical errors, perhaps it is more helpful to identify error patterns (like “you usually misspell this word” etc) that the presenter can then look to correct.

I was looking on the web for helpful mentor guidelines for my own institution, but couldn’t find something I was looking for. So I devised my own. These mentor guidelines is what I gave external mentors for my students’  MTh dissertation. It may be relevant to you. May be.

***

MTh Mentor Guidelines
Theology Department, April, 2007

 Thank you for agreeing to mentor an MTh student. The following is a guideline for mentors for the MTh thesis supervision. This document is not binding, and mainly functions as a tool to give you an idea of what is expected from mentors. Feel free to interact with the Head of Department, for further clarification and/or procedural modifications.

Purpose of MTh thesis

According to our Prospectus, the purpose and procedure of an MTh Thesis is as follows:

The thesis is designed to demonstrate the student’s competence in his or her area of specialisation. It should deal with the topic in a way comparable with a paper published in an academic journal. It should fulfil all the requirements and procedures outlined in College thesis manual, such as format, style, footnotes, bibliography and length of the thesis. The thesis is to be of 100-120 pages, including footnotes, of double spaced computer print-out. The thesis must be submitted by the end of November during the second year. The student’s mentor as well as an external reader competent in the field will examine the thesis. The final grade of a thesis will be the average of the mentor’s and the external reader’s grades.

Role of a mentor

The relationship between the mentor and student is central in the procedure for development and completion of an MTh Thesis. The Head of Department usually assigns a mentor and from then on, the entire thesis supervision is taken over by the mentor. Only in special cases, when the mentor requires it, the Head of Department or another faculty, is approached by the mentor for further help on the subject. Thus, the student is primarily accountable to the mentor, and will be assigned a grade by the mentor at the end of the process as well.
 

Meeting Procedure

Typically, a mentor meets a student at least twice a month; once, in an informal-pastoral way where the Mentor sees how the student is faring. This time is also typically when the student submits his/her chapter. The other time is when the student receives and reviews mentor comments. This time is also typically when the mentor sets new chapter submission deadlines. The college encourages more meetings depending on the availability of the mentor and the needs of the student (especially in the early stages of the thesis). The mentor is free to manage their own students’ visits.  Our students have also been informed that meetings with the mentor must be by appointment only.

Additional assignment/s

Typically, there is no need to give any extra assignment to the student apart from the actual research work. However, in special circumstances, the mentor can assign additional reading or writing that will aid the student in development and completion of their MTh thesis. Such extra work could be assigned in the first month or if needing in the beginning of a difficult chapter in a later month.  Thus, if a student is struggling with her chapter three, the mentor can assign a short thought paper to help collect all her thoughts on the subject. Such assignments are neither compulsory, nor graded, and are assigned only at the discretion of the mentor in view of the students need for their thesis. The Mentor can take special care not to overload the student in this regard.
 

Help

As a main goal for thesis writing is to engage critically and thoroughly with a subject to propose something meaningful and relevant for the student’s context, the mentor’s role is to help the student be focussed and clear in their work, and maintain consistency and quality. Usually, the mentor is free in the manner in which they help the student achieve these goals. Obviously the mentor encourages independent thinking, while acting as a guide who helps channel the student’s own ideas and creativity.
 

With regards to English, some mentors correct the grammar and spelling of the students, while others insist that the student get an external ‘editor’ for correcting basic grammar and spelling. Both are acceptable, keeping in mind that a student is expected to submit a fully corrected copy at the end.

 

Time Limitation

The typical time period for doing an MTh Thesis is from June to November, six months. The students’ thesis proposal has already been approved by March. The deadline for thesis submission this year is November 30, 2007.

A student can be given an extension only upon the recommendation of the mentor, and approval of the Head of Department. Such an extension may still result in grade reduction. It is up to the mentor to decide whether the grade reduction applies for the student or not. Typically, an extension should not extend beyond December 15, 2007.

 

Evaluation and Feedback

After thesis submission, the Mentor will submit a final letter grade to the Head of Department along with a written rationale for the grade, in report form. The assessment of the thesis will only be on the finished product and not on early drafts, student submissions or potential.
 

The thesis will also be given for evaluation to an external examiner. Mentors are encouraged to propose an external examiner to the Head of Department. However, the final decision for external examiner will be taken by the Head of Department, in discussion with the Faculty Council.  The final grade of the student thesis will be the average of mentor and external examiner’s grade. At present there is no viva for student defence of thesis.

 

To further strengthen the process of mutual learning, we will be encouraging the students to give a written feedback of the mentoring process (after the grade is submitted, but before the student finds out what grade s/he received). The student will be asked certain questions on how to better enrich the Mentor-student relationship. The Head of Department will communicate the results of the feedback of students to the mentors.

 
Payment

Details of the payment for your services will be given to you separately.

 
Finally…

As mentioned earlier, these are guidelines that will hopefully give you an idea of what supervision expectations are.  If you feel you need to adapt these to suit your purpose, please feel free to do so in consultation with the Head of Department. 

 
Thank you once again for taking time to participation with us in this way. May your involvement be a blessing to you and your student.

Only today I heard of the “Google Generation” (though it’s quite obvious to have an inclination to what it might mean.) And only today did I find out that according to a research team, it was a myth. The article which discusses this is found here.

The “Google Generation” is a term designated to the current crop of students/researchers who are supposedly web-wise and thus more (computer) literate. The correspondence, and false one according to the study, is to equate computer literacy with actual literacy.

The study rejects the assumption that the ‘Google Generation’ are most web-literate and claims that, “although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web.”

As an educator, I have been struggling to convince the education that Microsoft Word is not a better programme just because it has grammar check. I have seen that just because people have the tools, it doesn’t help them become better students… ie. I have seen that spell check (and grammar check) actually reduces the ability of the students to spell correct.

In the same way… unsurprisingly… the extensive use of search engines for research has made researching (for me included) so easy, that we’ve become lazier.

It’s not hard to see the myth behind advertisements for buying computers (in India) that argue that children will have a better education just because the family has a computer.

It seems, therefore, that real education begins with the fundamentals… like learning to read, learning to think, learning to research… with actual books… and life.

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