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Making the theoretical practical: Engaging undergraduate students in research methods

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I am currently an undergraduate student in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London. The Department’s UG program offers students the opportunity to study social aspects of health and medicine in a multi-disciplinary context with close collaboration between the social sciences, life sciences and biomedicine. In addition, a great emphasis is put on methods training to equip students to carry out their own empirical research projects.

Already in first year, the Research Practice and Design Studio course taught us theories and practices required for qualitative and quantitative research. However, in our undergraduate bubble, these late Tuesday afternoon sessions seemed somewhat distant from conducting actual research. In order to address this perceived disconnect, our course instructor, Dr Laurie Corna decided to adopt a problem-based learning approach that allowed us students to be positioned as emerging researchers whilst learning theoretically about a range of issues central to quantitative and qualitative research designs.

A new research methods course was designed around a series of case-based learning activities that culminated in students conducting their own mixed-methods research. Students’ assignments for the course involved working in teams of two on applying and executing various aspects of the research process in relation to the predefined topic “Physical activity in the city of London”.[1] That is, we learned how to articulate research questions, identify ethical problems, write a research proposal and develop related interview topic guides as well as survey questionnaires. Once we had conducted our research, we were tasked to present our findings in the form of a poster during a “Research Showcase” and create a final report on the research project. Through such an interactive approach to teaching and learning, we were provided with practical exposure to conducting research, dissemination and presenting skills relevant within and beyond the classroom. Moreover, since the Research Showcase was student led and responded to feedback from previous first-year students, it fostered greater engagement between students and their teachers.

As undergraduate students, we found that conducting our own research project early on in our education was a unique experience, providing an opportunity for us to practically apply theoretical knowledge. Also, we considered it really important to not only learn to gather data, but also to disseminate them since we were aware that this is a core skill needed in academia and beyond (i.e. when working in NGO or government sectors). In particular, the Research Showcase taught us to present, explain and discuss our research findings. Yet, what was missing was a “real” conference feel and, thus, we decided with Dr. Corna to apply for funding from the College Teaching Fund to organize, together with the new first-year cohort, a professional and public Research Showcase.

 

Planning the Research Showcase

As second-year students, we were in a unique position to assist in the development of such a professional and public Research Showcase as we had first-hand experience of organizing a similar event on a smaller scale. Dr Corna and her colleagues placed us at the center and allowed us to assist with the planning and execution of the event. For example, I was involved from the initial project development stage, which provided the opportunity to understand the mechanics of writing a successful grant proposal. Later in the year, I was joined by another second-year student along with volunteers from the new first-year cohort in order to shape and organize a Showcase that reflected our and our fellow students’ interests.

The heart of this project formed the collaboration between the student organizers, lecturers and students on the research course. Through regular meetings, students from different year groups were able to interact and share ideas with input from academics, providing a reminder of the budgetary constraints to our often over-the-top plans. Meeting regularly allowed for discussions on the intricate planning details from inviting prominent keynote speakers to organizing logistics and coming up with interactive activities for the day. Moreover, to create an interactive learning environment between first-year students and Showcase organizers, a Facebook group was set up and updated with information about the Showcase and advice on conducting research. This was in addition to second-year students providing examples related to our research projects from the previous year and co-teaching a session on poster preparation and presentation.

 

The Research Showcase

Our Showcase took place on 18th March 2016, bringing together students and academics from across the faculty for an afternoon of interdisciplinary presentations, discussions and exchanges. The Showcase began with a panel event on “Urban Health” featuring prominent academics including Professor Anthea Tinker, discussing her work on how London must adapt to meet the needs of an ageing city; Dr Stephani Hatch from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience presenting her research on urban mental health in South London and Dr Jenny Mindell from University College London’s Transport Institute speaking about the relationship of travel modes, health and community severance. These presentations allowed students to see how research is presented professionally in academia and what its impacts on the real world can be.

Following the panel and lively discussion, the poster presentation began with students presenting their posters to a college-wide audience. On the one hand, this gave students the opportunity to discuss their experiences of conducting research and forge connections with academics from across departments. At the same time, their posters and presentations were marked by department staff based on criteria such as content, key poster elements, clarity of presentation, and structure as well as ability to answer questions and presentation style which added to the buzz and excitement. Once all posters were discussed and marked, presenters and the audience shared a meal together, systematically evaluated the event and finally participated in an interactive Global Health quiz that had been developed by the Showcase organizers using the online platform ‘kahoot’ with prizes for the winners.

 

The student evaluations showed that students particularly appreciated the opportunity to engage with academics and researchers; someone wrote that it was exciting to be ” able to engage with researchers and see how the research we did was similar and relevant to the research they’re doing in the real world. Also the involvement of other members of the staff from the faculty was interesting in terms of them providing different views on the issues we looked at”. Others highlighted the positive experience of learning about methods not only in a theoretical way, but rather through actual practice or, in the words of one of the students: “being able to put the skills we learnt into practice and then being able to discuss our work with researchers who gave their own opinions and perspectives”. Importantly, it was also highlighted how the event fostered a sense of achievement and community through a pleasant and buzzing atmosphere. A student noted: “great atmosphere, really social and relaxed and it ensured you actually put your skills to use and not to waste”. However, others would have liked even more involvement of teaching and research faculty in the event stating that it would be great had there been more people involved from other departments “to share different perspectives on the topic”. All in all, the Showcase felt like a great achievement that combined, theory and practical skills with community building and enjoyment.

 

Hannah Mohammad is a final year BSc Global Health & Social Medicine Student at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, King’s College London. Her research interest focuses on the social determinants of health and the ways in which these impact on refugee health, infectious diseases and health technologies. Her final year thesis is on the politics of primary healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers. She is Co-President of the King’s College London Global Health Society.

The “Experiments with pedagogy” series is edited by Hanna Kienzler.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all the first-year Global Health & Social Medicine undergraduate students for being active participants throughout the process of planning and delivering the research Showcase. Particularly so to the four student volunteers who helped in organising the Showcase; Deborah Fabiyi, Robert Smith, Emily Allchin and Diane Tuan. I would also like to thank my fellow second-year research assistant Saida Sheriff and a special thank you to Laurie Corna and Hanna Kienzler for supporting us throughout the project, and Laurie for delivering the research module and creating the Showcase. Funding for carrying out the event was received from the College Teaching Fund (King’s College London).

 

[1] The decision to delimit the research field was due to the fact that it enabled Dr Corna to get group-based ‘ethics approval’.


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