The need for innovation in research methodology
High completion rates in postgraduate education are linked to the quality of research methods courses and postgraduate supervision. Many successful supervisors are also knowledgeable about various research methods.
Research methodology provides students with the necessary knowledge to undertake better research and conceivably become successful career researchers.
Moreover, teaching research methodology to students has become more critical than ever because of the changing nature of data. The growth in data generated by machines, software applications, sensors and networks and the associated complexity of the research environment suggest that the ability to understand and judiciously use data to make useful decisions is becoming an essential competency of the data-intensive society.
Increasing volumes of data and an emphasis on the data-intensive economy also require graduates to acquire data and research literacy skills for future employability.
The current structure and content of many research methods courses cannot adequately support students to acquire the competencies they need to deal with complex data and new analytical tools.
What is more, those involved in the teaching of research methods courses tend to teach the same content for many years, in the same way, despite the changing nature of data (for instance, big data, analytics), and the complexity of the environment.
Research methodology programmes need to be redesigned to reflect the changing complexity of data structures, analysis and presentation. It is quite conceivable that in the future, research methodology will become an essential part of data science. Data science is an interdisciplinary field that uses scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems to harvest and extract knowledge from all forms of data using machine learning techniques.
Falling interest in research methodology
My interest in research methodology began in 1992 during undergraduate studies, when I took an introductory research methods course and was intrigued by it. My professor at the time encouraged me to enrol in advanced classes on research methods beyond the requirements of the undergraduate degree because the subject was vital to postgraduate education.
I took many research methods courses in postgraduate training, and for my PhD, I studied artificial intelligence in education and educational technology and explored research methods in computer science and educational technology. I developed a computational research method for studying the evolution and sustainability of online communities using advanced artificial intelligence techniques.
I have taught research methodology to undergraduate students, postgraduates, academic staff and corporate executives for over 17 years, but have noticed that students are getting less motivated to study research methodology. This observation led to the development of a research programme on the pedagogy of research methodology, focused on the questions:
- • Why are students less engaged in research methods classes?
- • How can we provide students with meaningful learning experiences in research methods?
- • Why do teachers of research methods approach the teaching of the subject differently?
I carried out a global study of teachers of research methods working in 139 universities. The goal was to learn what they considered best practices in teaching research methods. Participants came from Australia, Canada, Egypt, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States. There is a shared agreement that postgraduate students continue to face significant challenges in learning research methodology.
The research reveals that courses on research methods are becoming unpopular among students. Many universities offer limited courses in research methods, with the expectation that supervisors can provide students with the necessary mentorship in methodology. However, that expectation is not necessarily tenable since some supervisors may lack expertise in the methods students wish to apply in their projects.
Further, research methodology programmes are widely under-resourced, with courses designed as isolated skills students need to complete theses, instead of preparing students to become skilled researchers. Many universities consider programmes on research methodology as ‘service’ to students instead of part of the core curriculum. Subsequently, teachers of research methods are predominantly volunteer academics, most of whom view the subject as an ‘add-on’ to other teaching duties.
University teachers often teach subjects based on individual expertise, gained through graduate training or professional experience. However, the majority of the teachers of research methods did not acquire formal degrees in the field: some are self-taught while others acquired a knowledge of the subject either through practice or courses they took during postgraduate education.
Universities tend to delegate teaching of research methods to anyone interested. As such, the quality of these courses and the student experience vary.
Moreover, the diversity of backgrounds of those involved in teaching research methods influences the way research methodology courses are organised and taught. Teachers of research methodology exhibit multiple identities: some identify as expert researchers while others associate their identity with particular research methods, along with a clear epistemic attachment to a scholarly area. Few consider themselves to be research methodologists.
Some of the volunteer teachers were driven by an altruistic motive to teach methodology courses, with the intention of improving the quality of postgraduate education.
Teachers of research methods find it challenging to teach research methods because courses on research methods often bring together students from a wide range of disciplines, with different prior knowledge, diverse interests and expectations. Also, teachers of research methods face additional problems because the content of a research methodology course is highly multidisciplinary and too demanding to be effectively managed within a one-semester model.
Research has consistently identified poor learning outcomes associated with research methods courses across many universities. Though many students are aware of the significance of research methodology in postgraduate education, some express strong dissatisfaction with the way universities design and deliver these courses.
They describe the courses as pedagogically monolithic, conceptually challenging and inflexibly adaptive to future career trajectories. Students find the content of many research methods courses disengaged from practical problems.
Also, students report many challenges in learning research methodology, including framing research questions, understanding the theory or literature, difficulties in performing data analysis, unfamiliarity with the technical language describing fundamental concepts and lack of numeral knowledge to deal with quantitative methods.
The difficulties of teaching research methods courses are challenging to address because there is inadequate pedagogical research on innovative ways of teaching the subject. The outcome of my research informed the development of the (A)nalytics and (R)esearch (M)ethods (ARM).
The ARM is a research-led international professional development programme for postgraduate students and academics offered by the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand.
The ARM programme consists of introductory and advanced workshops on research methodologies, analytical data models and digital technologies. The programme has been offered to many universities in different countries, including Malaysia, Tanzania-Zanzibar, Uganda, Canada and New Zealand. The content of ARM is informed by research and continuously revised to reflect changes in data and technologies.
In 2018 ARM was recognised as an innovative teaching programme in research methodology by the European Conference on Research Methodology for Business and Management Studies.
Ben Daniel teaches educational technology and research methodologies in the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Further information on the ARM programme can be accessed in the recent publication:
Higher Education Research Methodology: A step-by-step guide to the research process, First edition.