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Against research methods courses in HE

John Issitt

It came as no surprise when I encountered a synthesis of 89 papers on research methods education in the social sciences including education (Earley, 2014) which found that students taking research methods courses ‘fail to see the relevance of the course to their major and their lives’ (p.245). It came as no surprise because that is exactly what I have observed in relation to both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching over the last 20 years since the fashion for research methods and its associated industry took hold.

If you are a research methods enthusiast you may choose to read no further because not only is it clear that such courses are universally disliked – if you need further confirmation just ask the newest members of staff who get dumped with teaching them because everybody else has dropped them like hot potatoes, but, I argue, there are many negative features of them. My evaluation of them is that they are:

  • intellectually impoverished and impoverishing and partly to blame for lowering the level of intellectual engagement in HE overall 
  • occupying excessive amounts of the curriculum
  • putting students off learning anything at all
  • banaal
  • by way of the crude binary ‘qualitative and quantitative, reducing the qualitative to the quantitative and thereby continuing the onward march of positivism and naive scientism
  • imposing managerial prerogatives at the cost of really creative learning
  • acting as one of the bulwarks of the instrumentalism that dominates institutional learning
  • symptomatic of our culture looking up its own backside with medicalised glasses
  • policing what can be known/understood/learnt/engaged with.

 When I put these arguments to colleagues two things become clear.

  1. People start speaking in hushed tones – I am voicing dangerous heresy.
  2. Most of them agree with me – to greater or lesser extent – but wouldn’t admit it in public.

Surely, if students see no relevance in research methods courses, we shouldn’t teach them on the minimal pedagogic grounds that if they see no relevance of meaning then they are not learning anything

One of the interesting things about Mark Earley ‘s study is that in his implications for further research section he points to the need for research into who we teach, how we teach and what content we teach in such courses (p.249). He doesn’t ask the very obvious question of why on earth we should teach them at all? Surely, if students see no relevance in research methods courses, we shouldn’t teach them on the minimal pedagogic grounds that if they see no relevance of meaning then they are not learning anything?

Under the cover of darkness I have been pursuing precisely this question and it seems that research methods courses have a hegemonic status. Those who might agree with my view of them (and many do), dare not challenge their occupancy of large sections of the curriculum. Most acknowledge that we don’t actually have to teach them as separate courses and that a bit of data literacy and some philosophy of science structured into the curriculum overall plus some dissertation support in actual methods students might actually use, is far more effective and leaves space for things students might find meaningful. Most also recognise that the standard, quality and interest of research itself has not obviously improved since the introduction of such courses, indeed the opposite might well be the case. Unfortunately however, the level of performance related pressure most HE practitioners live with, means that they are very unwilling to rock boats or risk their heads above the parapet.

How have we got here? I could point to research council requirements, the short-sighted and limited ideology of the evidence base in all forms of research, the historical 1980s scars descending from Thatcherite exclusion of any discussion of what learning might actually really be about. These, arguments and others, have explanatory potential but there is a deeper current originating in the well intended, but ultimately naïve, scientific aspirations of eighteenth century enlightenment. Such naivety is expressed in research methods courses in several ways. Here are three.

  1. We live in an age of measurement in which if something cannot be measured it has no legitimacy (Biesta, 2011, passim). Research methods courses in HE promote such reductionist positivism by effecting a demarcation between what can and what cannot be legitimately said.
  2. Through the language and powerful discourses of techno-management, such courses extend managerial control right into the business and substance of learning. They police learning and effect a mathematical calculus that can be measured scientifically and precisely (Foucault, 1966).
  3. In modern society there is a tendency to reduce all thought to a mathematical apparatus capable of easy manipulation. (Horkheimer, 1944). Research Methods courses promote precisely such calculation.

Having said that I would lay aside all of my arguments, if I could find any benefit at all for such courses. We got along without them before and relied on systematic rigorous scholarly endeavour. I vote we go back to that.


Gert Biesta (2011) Good Education in an age of measurement: Ethics, Policy, Democracy

Mark Earley (2014) A synthesis of the literature on research methods education, Teaching in Higher Education, 19:3,242-253.

Max Horkheimer (1944) The Eclipse of Reason, pp. 83-4.

Michel Foucault (1966) The Order of Things, p.69

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