Creating time and space for reflection in undergraduate research methods

Adrian Lam offers insights on how keeping a weekly application diary helps enhance students’ reflections on the power and limits of research methods

Adrian Man-Ho Lam's avatar
The University of Hong Kong
19 Aug 2021
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Advice on why introducing time for reflection deepens undergraduates understanding of research methods

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Research methods are among the most intellectually demanding areas of higher education. Academics teaching this subject often encounter a challenge when trying to guide students in understanding and articulating the underlying importance and value of research methods. Many students are reluctant to engage with the subject, while others treat the course as a series of isolated facts and mechanical skills.

One way to arouse students’ interest and motivation in learning research methods is to invite them to keep a weekly application diary throughout the semester. This exercise allows them to think about how research concepts could be reflected by and incorporated into their daily life. Students can also direct their critical reflections towards various methods learned in class.

Research methods applied in life

Invite students to write about how some methods could be useful in their own life, or how some research ideas apply to their life encounters. This goes beyond simply summarising or explaining the research methods and ideas, by asking students to appreciate how empirical methods can shed light on questions and issues that confront human society and individuals in their daily lives.

For example, when learning about causal inference, students are introduced to the fundamental problem that the counterfactual can never be observed. A student linked this with his decision to stay in Hong Kong rather than going overseas for his undergraduate studies. While he sometimes doubted whether he had made the right decision, he understood that he had to move on because he had no way to compare the outcomes of the alternative choice. It was not possible to conduct research on these separate choices to observe the factual and counterfactual results.

Research applied to thematic tasks

Assign thematic tasks for students that embed research elements into real-life contexts. While the tasks may sound familiar to students, they offer opportunities to further understand the underlying intuition and logic as well as purposes and limitations of research methods.

For instance, students can be asked to do research on what constitutes the best CVs and highlight some general observations, followed by rewriting their own CVs and outlining the changes they have made based on the research. This gives them a taste of the entire research process, digging into literature, synthesising observations, formulating insights and reporting their analysis.

Alternatively, invite students to find some free time on campus to pause in a comfortable location and observe carefully what is happening in front of them. Task them with finding something surprising in this highly familiar environment. Students are often rushing about and seldom have time to slow down and observe carefully. This task requires them to put field research methods into real practice. The aim is to teach students to immerse themselves in their surroundings and understand the importance of observing and listening, rather than simply seeing and hearing. These are research skills and mentalities that cannot be taught and learned without intimate and first-hand experience.

Reflection in many forms

Unlike traditional assignments with many constraints, students are encouraged to be creative and expressive throughout their diary entries, using tables, drawings, diagrams, pictures and comics. While the chief criterion is to be thoughtful, students can present the ideas and thoughts by whatever means they think best. This is an important way to encourage students’ ownership and voice in their learning.

Since sense-making is always subconscious, active reflection is needed for mental models and knowledge awareness to become explicit. This exercise allows students to observe, crystallise and document the different parts of the research methods learning journey and how they fit together. It helps them evaluate what was done well and what could be improved by adjusting actions strategically.

To enhance the exercise, tutors can ask students to share their entries during tutorials. This non-threatening social environment supports both personal reflexivity and mutual reflection. Co-explorations of the issues can further expand perspectives and possibilities in understanding and applying the wide range of methods.

Students’ individual sharing of entries provides tutors with useful insights into students’ conceptions, motivations and anxieties as novice researchers at a much earlier stage. Further guidance and support can be provided to students who feel shy or reluctant to raise their concerns.

Without incorporating a component of reflection into the class, students cannot be aware of their positions, thoughts, feelings and changes in relation to research methods, learning trajectory and to the larger learning community.

Adrian Man-Ho Lam is a course tutor in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.


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