How to effectively prepare post-graduate students to become autonomous and confident in developing their own research project? Combining a blog-post, a project outline and peer-feedback in the formative assignment equips students with key graduate attributes focusing on communication, structure, coherence, and self-assessment, as well as creates a feeling of community within the course.
MY428/528 Qualitative Text and Discourse Analysis is a post-graduate course that has proven popular with students from across the School. In its first year (2018/19), it was taken by students from the departments of Sociology, Gender, Law, Anthropology, Methodology, Geography, Media and Communications, Accounting, and the European Institute.
The course is an initiation into research which focuses on the acquisition of qualitative text/discourse analysis and related research design skills, through 4000 word research project including a pilot analysis that students often use as a basis for their Msc/PhD dissertation. The course is based on an active learning and ‘learning by doing’ approach. The first part is an introduction and hands-on application of specific analytical methods to qualitative data. The second part places the in-depth analysis of texts in the broader context of research methodology and the construction of a research project.
The formative assignment is submitted between the first and second part of the module (reading week). It focuses on the topic that the student will develop in their summative assignment and comprises two elements. The first element is a 500 word long blog post to be uploaded on a Moodle blog created for the course. The aim of the blog post is to develop students’ communication skills. The objective is to convince the rest of the class that the research problem is a relevant question that needs to be asked, as well as to improve clarity and accessibility beyond the specialist audience. Blog posts should comprise 6 dimensions in (Relevance, Contextualisation, Originality, Puzzle/Paradox, Textual/Discursive dimensions, Research question) and students are incentivised to make their post more appealing by using images and catchy titles.
The second element of the formative assignment is a project outline that aims to guide students in critically assessing the structure and coherence of their project. The objective is to ensure students understand the complementary role played by the different sections of a research project and how to make sure all these sections are theoretically, methodologically and empirically aligned to pursue an identified goal. Students are asked to fill in a one-page synthetic template in a “make-or-break” table that prevents them from hiding their uncertainties regarding their methodological choices behind long sentences and paragraphs.
Detailed instructions regarding expectations are communicated via the course guide and in the lecture (30min) two weeks before the deadline. Besides receiving individual feedback from the teacher, students receive peer feedback in a dedicated seminar two weeks after submission. To guide the seminar, students are given criteria that they should be looking for (adapted from the criteria of evaluation given prior to submission) and exchange roles every 20 minutes (between giving and behind given feedback).
I developed this exercise as I felt postgraduate students were paradoxically not guided enough in addressing major issues recurring in research projects that I had assessed (i.e. how to demonstrate the relevance of a topic to a non-specialist audience and structure more coherently the different dimensions of the project) while at the same time not given the chance to outgrow their undergraduate student identity and become confident to speak in their own voice. I wanted to enable students to acquire the skills they needed to speak as junior researchers and share the knowledge they create to a multidisciplinary audience (rather than speaking as only students writing a paper for their teachers). Also, I wanted to give students the feeling that they were not isolated in their research struggle and that they could be proud of the progress they made so far, by experiencing first-hand the collective issues and achievements of the cohort.
The realisation by students that they could develop projects at the postgraduate level that would interest and engage their peers represented a shift in the learning environment with a greater level of participation in class. As I implemented this formative assignment the first year I taught this module I cannot establish a direct comparison with previous years but the levels of communication, structure and coherence present in submissions for this course marked an improvement over other research-based assignments that I had graded so far.
Below are a couple of student testimonials regarding the project:
“I’ve found that many research-based courses focus almost entirely on the research process in the abstract. Professor Alejandro shines a light on two element of the process that tend to be overlooked: communication and practice. Who is our audience? Who are we trying to persuade? What are the appropriate mediums to disseminate our research? Writing the blog post gave us the opportunity to strengthen and diversify our communicative skills in an encouraging, but also interdisciplinary environment. I have no doubt that I have become a better, more persuasive, more accessible researcher because of it. Additionally, drafting a project outline reminded me that research is an iterative process, and it is important and helpful to revise our question and design at multiple points throughout the process. Coming from a different educational background, I truly understood the advantages of having a formative assessment: we were given the opportunity to practice, mess up, revise, and ultimately grow as students and researchers.”
Phoebe Bui (MY428 student – 2018/2019)
"I found the MY428 formative assignment to be challenging but ultimately very beneficial toward structuring my project and developing transferable skills as a researcher. The blog post made me communicate my ideas in a concise way to appeal to others who do not necessarily share my research interests and reading my fellow students’ blog posts expanded my horizon of the range of social phenomena we can investigate using text/discourse analysis. The research design template was a useful tool to map out the project even in its initial uncertain stages and when I updated the template at a later stage of my project, I was happy to see that my ideas had developed over time (e.g., I was able to identify and define key analytical concepts much more clearly). Finally, the peer feedback exercise showed me that I had taken certain knowledge for granted due to familiarity with my own project and its context, improving how I communicate my project to make it clear for my potential audience."
Nicolette Foo (MY428 student – 2018/2019)
I will reconvene the formative assignment next year, refining the instructions to reflect the lessons learned from the first year.
My advice to others who want to do a similar intervention would be to develop an awareness of its objective from the very beginning of the course, and to foster and develop an interest and enthusiasm for it by embedding its central message throughout all the teaching (rather than simply around the time of assignment submission). By encouraging students to internalise these objectives throughout the course, the assignment appears less as an ad hoc ‘task’ to complete and more as a natural milestone where students can assess for themselves what they have acquired in their learning path.