Skip to content

Blog post

When the poor relation comes to town! Education’s contribution to social science research methods

Melanie Nind

Maintaining global competitiveness in a fast-changing data landscape requires ongoing investment of resource

For some time the development of research capacity has been a concern amongst strategic leaders seeking to build the UK’s research profile. As a co-director of the ESRC’s National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM), I feel this concern on a daily basis. Maintaining global competitiveness in a fast-changing data landscape requires ongoing investment of resource. To this end, NCRM has been charged with delivering a training agenda focused on increasing researcher competence in advanced and innovative methods. The goal is to promote methodological excellence in order to tackle fundamentally challenging research problems. Methods training delivered by researchers working at the cutting-edge has been identified as the vehicle to achieve this goal. For us in BERA this poses two difficult questions: First, why hasn’t capacity building been seen as a challenge requiring a strong lead from education? And second, what can we in education offer?

I see (at least) two concurrent discourses going on here – one about doctoral education and one about training and capacity building. While the former is concerned with engagement in longer-term educational development (expressed in the work of the Doctoral Training Centres), the latter is geared towards delivery of short courses. This short course discourse includes backfilling or up-skilling to equip researchers with the ability to apply research methods needed for research demands encompassing new uses and types of data such as big data, linked administrative data, and biosocial social data. Methodologists are at the sharp end, perceived as being able to effectively respond to the methodological challenges, plus being able to quickly bring other researchers with them as new skills and competencies are developed. While we know that methodological competence is largely developed in situ (Hammersley 2012) within communities of practice, there is this other assumption that short face-to-face courses are key to passing skills on.

In this world of short course training and capacity building the discourse has often focused on problematizing learner deficits in skills or capacities – particularly in quantitative methods – the under-confident, under-trained, poorly skilled learner presents a problem. In solution-finding, the efforts have prioritised exploring effective modes of training delivery, often limited to a discussion of the merits of face-to-face versus online courses including the potential of MOOCs with their economies of scale. There is, too, a realisation that for quantitative methods, the solution may be more long-term, and the developing skills along the pipeline is in train with the Q-Step programme. There is nonetheless, a dearth of pedagogic discourse.

There is ample evidence of the absence of a pedagogic culture for research methods from various systematic reviews (Wagner et al. 2011; Earley  When Wagner et al. (2011) highlighted the gap, they defined it by the lack of debate, cross-citations within the literature, dialogue across disciplinary or methods contexts, and substantial research. This is not to say that there is no professional attention to the specifics of teaching and learning for particular research methods especially within particular disciplines (Kilburn, Nind & Wiles  ). It is more that published work tends to remain at the level of the narratives of specific examples, often uninformed by educational theory, and based only on the experience of a single teaching team with one or two cohorts of students.

I want us to explore what can happen if we open up spaces for pedagogic dialogue

My position is that as educational researchers, we should be offering more to the field to help us get beyond this under-developed pedagogic culture. The strategic leaders responding to the training and capacity building challenge may not have cast us as the logical people to be informing capacity building. Plausible reasons for this are (i) they may not see the problem as pedagogic in nature, and (ii) they may not see educational researchers as at the forefront of the development of methods. This should prompt us to reflect: Is the lack of attention to pedagogic competence partly our responsibility? Moreover, where are we contributing to developing advanced research methods? Things are shifting now with education contributing to NCRM a package of research on the Pedagogy of Methodological Learning and one on Quantitative Methods Pedagogy. Such pedagogic research is crucial for the development of pedagogic culture around research methods to grow; I want us to explore what can happen if we open up spaces for pedagogic dialogue and how much pedagogic researchers change the discourse and practice of training and capacity building in advanced research methods. What else can and should educational researchers be doing?

 [RL1] Earley, M. (2014) A synthesis of the literature on research methods education. Teaching in Higher Education. 19, 242 – 253. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2013.860105