11. Making Research Methods Engaging and Interactive for Politics Students

Research Methods are often a compulsory module for Politics and International Relations undergraduate students. Such courses can induce fear and panic, turning even the most capable students green in the face at the prospects of taking such courses and the perception that their grade point average will be lowered considerably as a result.

Having taught research methods related undergraduate courses in both the United Kingdom and in Hong Kong (SAR, China), I can attest to the so-called “dread-effect” that such courses can produce amongst students. Yet, with careful planning and an emphasis on applied student learning, students need not fear research methods courses. By following the advice I outline in this blog post, students can flourish and enjoy courses that teach a range of qualitative and quantitative methods that provide a range of important academic and employability skills.

As an early career academic who has recently completed a PhD, this article draws on my personal teaching experience in teaching both qualitative and quantitative research methods to political science students. This article provides five short (but not exhaustive tips) that both early career academics and PhD students can use to bring research methods courses to life and at the same time enhance the student learning experience.


Make lessons both engaging and interactive 

Terms such as the “Student Learning Experience” and “Interactive Teaching” are often treated as meaningless jargon in contemporary higher education. I argue that these are not mere buzz words devoid of substance, but rather fit into my own teaching philosophy that is centred on applied teaching. In short, research methods courses need to be as engaging and interactive as possible because they are central to many political science programmes. Research methods courses provide the essential ‘building blocks’ for many courses, providing students with the tools to design surveys and questionnaires, conduct a focus group and a literature review, alongside developing critical skills in data analysis. To borrow a term from the renowned American pollster Nate Silver, research methods enable us to decipher the signal from the noise in making patterns in interpreting data analysis and understanding more about important political phenomena in the world. The questions is therefore how can we make research methods lessons engaging and interactive for our students?

We need to adapt these courses to recent key political and economic events. Recent landmark political events such as the 2016 Brexit Vote, Trump’s 2016 Presidential Election victory and the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong spring to mind. In short, there are many exciting, contemporary examples of how global politics is changing rapidly. As academics however, we must integrate these landmark political events into our teaching materials and enable students to make direct connections with their own research interests from these events. Students will likely have pertinent questions about why the Brexit vote occurred and whether it was due to concerns over immigration, or a longer term decline of the working classes and dissatisfaction with the ‘establishment’. The central argument here is that without the power of qualitative and quantitative research methods, students would not be able to fully understand these important questions. It is therefore our job, as postgraduates who teach, to provide students with the pedagogical space to explore these important questions. The engaging teaching philosophy of the late great statistician Professor Hans Rosling comes to mind here and provides an inspiration to us all in how to make lessons come alive!


Emphasise the future career benefits (academic and non-academic) that Research Methods can provide

From  my experiences, students will often ask why they have to study research methods courses and how it benefits them. As postgraduates who teach, we should emphasise why research methods are highly relevant for students and their career development. There are a wide range of careers paths whereresearch methods will be key, and these may involve working for political polling companies such as YouGov, the civil service, or even as academics. I often receive emails from students who I have taught telling me about how research methods courses have been instrumental in helping them to obtain graduate level jobs. Furthermore, the usefulness and relevance of research methods courses can also be felt in final year undergraduate student projects, where students can draw on knowledge of qualitative and quantitative methodologies that have been acquired and learned on research methods courses.


Mix it up: Teach both qualitative and quantitative methods

It is important to provide students with the full learning experience and not short change them by placing more emphasis on quantitative as opposed to qualitative methods, or vice versa. From a personal perspective, course syllabuses should be mixed and allow for an equal balance between qualitative and quantitative methodologies. For example, the first part of a course syllabus should focus on more qualitative methodologies, such as the design and implementation of surveys and how to conduct focus groups, alongside the formulation of research questions and where they come from. The latter part of a course syllabus should then focus on quantitative methodologies, such as data analysis, thus enabling students to understand how to interpret data from a non-mathematical and applied perspective. This allows students to have a wide range of methodologies at their disposal, alongside an understanding of which research methods are most appropriate in being applied to different research questions when they come to their final year dissertation.


Draw on online resources and materials for a hands on learning experience

 To make research methods courses more engaging and interactive for students, a wide variety of online resources can be deployed. For example, when teaching important techniques such as survey design, interactive and funny clips from classic programmes such as Yes Minister can be deployed- see an example here on how to avoid ‘Leading Questions’ that is used in my research methods course (“Political Research Methodology”, GPAD 2111B) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When providing an introduction to data analysis in political science, the British Election Study (BES) data analysis playground provides an excellent and online interactive tool for students to construct charts and make key patterns between important variables, such as the relationship between key socio-demographic factors such as age and voting behaviour in understanding generational differences in the landmark 2016 Brexit vote. Spurious correlations is another excellent online website for students to use. It further underlines the pitfalls of associating correlation with causation via the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool versus the number of films that Nicolas Cage appeared in by year! Can we really come to the conclusion that Cage’s films are that bad? Of course not… One further online source worth considering to consolidate Hong Kong students’ understanding of data analysis and surveys are online graphs and data visualisation from the Public Opinion Programme (POP) at the University of Hong Kong are utilised to further enhance students overall learning and provide a more local perspective of how surveys are conducted in the Hong Kong context for students.

It is also important when teaching research methods courses to use an online programme such as Moodle or Blackboard. Uploading frequent materials to a course homepage or a personal website further allows students to access materials both within and outside the classroom and provides a range of teaching materials at their disposal. An additional note is that when teaching data analysis topics such as multiple regression (econometrics) to political science students, it is important to create classroom handouts for students, in order to show them how to analyse difficult statistical techniques from a non-mathematical perspective. Furthermore, these handouts should contain annotated diagrams and not include mathematical formulae as this can be too complex for students, especially when the research methods course is an introductory one and the first time they encounter such materials. Again, as postgraduates who teach we must remember that students should be taught to walk before they can then run! The practical application of knowing how to (a) interpret a statistical technique and (b) when to apply the statistical technique is more important than knowing all the ins and outs of the mathematical formulae. Future graduate and advanced level study provides plenty of time for this.


Use a statistical software that is user friendly- Remember that students must be able to walk before they can run

Finally it is of paramount important as an postgraduate who teaches to think carefully about which type of statistical software to teach students. This is a similar process to language teaching where different grammar and syntax rules that must be paid attention to. A similar set of rules applies to teaching a new statistical software, particularly in regard to undergraduate students. When teaching a research methods based course, I seek to use a statistical software that is (a) user friendly, (b) transferable to future careers within and beyond academia and (c) applicable for the level of study (undergraduate or postgraduate level). In courses that I teach, I have tended to use statistical software’s such as SPSS and Excel, primarily due to both software’s filling the two criteria set out above. This being said, it is important to remember that a programme such as Excel may not be as user friendly for student’s and may also lack advanced statistical firepower that softwares such as Stata and R provide. When teaching undergraduates data analysis, I tend to use SPSS as the main statistical software, primarily as it is user friendly and easy to use, highly transferable and directly applicable for undergraduate students in their other modules and for their dissertations.

For postgraduate researchers and early career academics alike, it is important for us to think both carefully and critically about the type of statistical software that we will use in our research methods courses. The success of such a course often depends on this important aspect. Thus, I believe the three criteria above provide a general framework and allow us to choose an applicable software to adopt in the classroom environment. It is also crucial for us as researchers to share best practices in teaching research methods and such initiatives have been run by the Department of Sociology at Oxford University that I was fortunate to attend back as a PhD researcher. This allows us to learn from each other’s expertise and further reflect on and improve our research methods courses for the future.

In conclusion then, I believe that these five tips allow not only for a successful research methods course, but for an enhanced student experience for politics and international relations students. These tips should be of use for both early career academics and postgraduates who teach. With careful planning and an emphasis on applied student learning, students need not fear research methods courses and can even enjoy courses that teach a range of qualitative and quantitative methods that provide a range of important skills for students to learn and apply both within and beyond academia.


Dr. James F. Downes is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also an Affiliated Visiting Research Fellow (Honorary) at the Europe Asia Policy Centre for Comparative Research. He teaches courses in Comparative European and East Asian Politics, alongside Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods and is an Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He is currently developing new and innovative courses on the Rise of Populism in Europe alongside Public Opinion and Polling at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. @JamesFDownes