W11 Becoming… a researcher: What’s my focus?

This week we were encouraged to utilise experiential learning techniques as a way of preparing for our research project: immersing ourselves in the University and deciding what we are really interested in researching further. The session drew upon the work of the Experiential Learning CETL, University of Plymouth.


Before you decide exactly what or who you are going to research – make more field trips:

Choose locations; Visit; Observe; Reflect: What is happening? What am I interested in? What sort of research could I carry out here? For example – there was talk of really interesting stuff happening at the bus stop; but you could not carry out in-depth interviews or gather questionnaire data there because your participants might be leaping away on a bus at any moment.

Look and think:

  • What is going on?
  • Who is it designed for: Policy; Inspectors; Senior Management Team (SMT); Parents; Staff; Students; Business; Society?
  • How do I know?
  • Which aspect interests me?
  • How might I gather data?
  • What ethical considerations?
  • What permissions?
  • When will I do this?

Things to consider:

  • What is the University as a whole attempting to do?
  • How did they decide on that? Is this obvious?
  • What is the nature of the interaction between the staff and the students?
  • How do the students interact with each other?
  • How do staff interact with each other?
  • How is information communicated between students and staff?
  • How do staff feel about their jobs/University/students/SMT?
  • How do the students feel…?
  • How does the University ‘articulate’ with the surrounding community?

How will you really SEE what is going on?

Take a tape recorder: use a digital recorder to capture the informal conversations between people on your visits. Take pictures with your phone. GET PERMISSION FIRST!!  When writing up:

  • Contextualise your research: The University, student population, borough…
  • SWOT your methods.
  • Your pilot visit and other observations: what, why, when, where, who (for/by) & how
  • Develop your Observation pro forma.

 … And remember Wiifm (what’s in it for me):

When choosing a topic : Wiifm: what will you get from the project as well as the data? Things to think about include:

Improved subject knowledge; Improved research technique; Head start on next modules or courses; Contacts for a job; Topic for publication? For example – some of you were interested in the work of our Research Institutes – make them the subject of your research project in some way – and build links with the Institute of your choice as part of your project.

How will you gather data?

Visual strategies?

Image mediated dialogue

Collage production

Cabinet of curiosities

Give cameras – participants produce narratives…


Disrupts the easy answer

Less text – more analysis?

Writing or collaborative writing?

Set short writing task

Less text to analyse

How to disrupt:


Topic mediated writing

Image mediated writing

See: http://www.aldinhe.ac.uk/ojs/index.php?journal=jldhe&page=issue&op=current

We particularly focussed on the visual and collaborative writing methods of gaining data – they provoke us to be more creative and engaged in the process… But also these methods can disrupt the simple ‘performative’ answer from our participants. It encourages the more ‘truthful’ response. Of course this links to trust relationships and ethical statements of ‘at least do no harm’ and ensuring anonymity and right of withdrawal.

In looking at collaborative writing we drew on the work of Ken Gale and Helen Bowstead – and of our participants also becoming co-researchers in our work.

In our session we conducted a zigzag discussion that seeded some brief collaborative writing – and then discussed how we might analyse the writing generated. It was interesting that many of us liked being part of that process. We liked being asked to speak and write on a topic. There was a sense of being heard and of our voices counting for something – and that is something to remember when planning our own research.

We also discussed how to make participants feel comfortable: choosing an appropriate space where power is not all in the hands of the researcher.  Of modelling body language and reflecting back points so that the participants are encouraged to speak and say what they really want or need to say.


Test the ‘Questions’ you would have in mind when undertaking the study proper. Remember they have to be transcribed! Then interpreted… Then written up. We did then practise interviewing in class – so that we could test out our research ideas – and also some potential interview questions.

Follow up:

Action Research website – with links to BERA: http://www.jeanmcniff.com/index.html

Cornell University site: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/

Quantitative/qualitative research methods – quizzes & resources: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/nursing/sonet/rlos/ebp/qvq/index.html

See also the wikipedia – follow the links to references re methods: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualitative_research &  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantitative

HEA Literature Review site: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/research/litreviews

Free online tutorial to develop data analysis skills & general support: http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/analysethis/  & http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/resourcepages/doingresearch/doingresearch.html


Boyle, A., Maguire, S., Martin, S., Milsom, C., Nash, R., Rawlinson, S., Turner, A., Wurthmann, S.,Concie, S. Fieldwork is Good: the Student Perception and the Affective Domain. Journal of geography in higher education.1-19.

Brown,N. 2007. Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor, 1861, http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/25 (Accessed 16/04/2007)

Flanders NA (1970) Analyzing teaching behaviour. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Reading, Mass.

Hammersley & Atkinson (1995) – Ethnography, Principle in practice. Routledge.

Kirakowski, J. (2000). Questionnaires in Usability Engineering: A list of frequently asked questions [online]. Available: http://www.ucc.ie/hfrg/resources/qfaq1.html (accessed April 11 2007).

Mahoney, C(1997) Common qualitative methods in Frechtling et al. (Eds) User-friendly handbook for mixed method evaluations, Division of Research, evaluation and communication.


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