Research-based teaching using a collaborative learning approach

November 25, 2019

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

Manja KlemencicManja Klemenčič, Lecturer on Sociology, has scaled a small research-based seminar course for sociology concentrators to one of Harvard College’s newest general education courses, Higher Education: Students, Institutions, and Controversies. While the previous iteration asked students to conduct an individual research project, the new version emphasizes the importance of group work and collaboration. “Students will learn how to conduct social science research and practice working as a research group exploring issues close to their student experiences.” Projects will culminate in a symposium presentation about student research findings and will be showcased on the platform Harvard Undergraduate Research into Higher Education.

The benefits: Scaling the previously successful course allows more students at the College the opportunity to engage in social science research and explore topics on higher education which are part of their student experiences. A collaborative learning approach helps to retain the personalized style of teaching Klemenčič practices in her classes and scale it up: instead of meeting with individual students to help with solo projects, the instructional staff meets with and offers feedback to student research groups.

The challenges: In research-based teaching, it can be difficult to strike a balance between teaching content and methods. While students in the seminar version enrolled with an interest in sociology and some exposure to social science research methods, general education courses are available to a broader range of students with varying experiences. Klemenčič created a “research methods for course projects” guide that students can consult when they need additional assistance or clarity. Research methods training is integrated into sections and consultations are offered to research groups.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Sequence the assignments and build in reflection. The capstone research project consists of several smaller assignments designed and sequenced to provide scaffolding for the groups to complete the project on time. Some of the assignments are individual, such as parts of the literature review, pilot testing of methods and the final reflective essay on the collaborative research process. The groups develop a research work plan with division of responsibilities. Klemenčič stays deeply involved in the process and makes it mandatory for teams to meet with her before beginning to ensure that they are on the right track. After going through an extensive literature review, students define the research methods before they begin fieldwork. Regular reporting on the research progress allows students to learn from and be inspired across research groups.
  • Engage with partners. Through Klemenčič’s outreach to the Harvard College leadership team, students have other “informal mentors” to rely on for support during the semester. Mentors can help research groups through the early stages, clarifying the topic or recommending readings for the literature review, or suggesting data sources.
  • Make research findings public. At the end of the semester, students have an opportunity to present their research process and findings. The research forum is an outreach event for which members from the Harvard community, who have helped students with their research or who may be interested in their findings, are invited to attend.

Bottom line: Klemenčič’s research-based teaching enables students to gain deeper understanding, not only of higher education, but also hone their judgment of the reliability of social science research findings. “Regardless of discipline, students should learn and be able to apply social science research. They should have opportunities to become producers of knowledge not only the audience for other peoples’ research.”