Research assignments: Teaching the production of knowledge

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Ryan Enos
Ryan Enos, Associate Professor of Government, assigns an original research project—students define a question, design a study, collect data, and present their results—in his undergraduate and graduate political science courses. “It’s an opportunity to gain first hand experience conducting behavioral experiments, and to navigate all the necessary steps, questions, and challenges.”

The benefits: Engaging in research facilitates the study of the production of knowledge—how it is created, replicated, and validated. According to Enos, “part of being a democratic citizen is being able to evaluate knowledge and understand what goes into it.”

The challenges: Particularly at the undergraduate level, students’ exposure to (and mastery of) research methodology varies widely. Enos addresses this by suggesting that students pose a question and design a study that can be answered with whatever level of analysis makes them comfortable.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Check in early and often. Enos and his TF team organize formal (section meetings) and informal (email, course site discussion) channels for students to share their research design early in the process, iterate their methodology, and ensure it meets ethical standards. TFs evaluate whether study designs meet course-level IRB approval or if special approval is necessary.
  • Web-based tools make it easier than ever. The infrastructure to support student research includes tools like Qualtrics for Harvard (survey tool), Amazon Mechanical Turk (subject recruitment), and the Harvard Digital Lab for the Social Sciences (DLABSS), a free online experiment and survey community for social science developed by Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS).
  • Don’t lose sight of the human support infrastructure. “There’s this tendency to shy away from talking to people in this process.” Enos reminds students that they can take advantage of human resources like the Harvard librarian subject experts or the Qualtrics phone support staff.

Bottom line: Students experience research “in the greatest depth” by collecting and reporting their own data. “They interact with its challenges and see the thrill of creating original knowledge as a worthwhile undertaking on its own.” Some students have pursued their research beyond Enos’s course—in their theses, their graduate work, and even on the basketball court.