Snakes and Ladders of research for undergraduates

Recently I have been teaching a module about Qualitative research methods for second year undergraduates in human geography. As well as five one-hour lectures, the module includes three two-hour seminar sessions which are offered fortnightly. This year the timetabling was such that the first seminar was prior to the lectures. I decided that it would be important to precede the lecture material with a more general introduction to the research process itself. The students are currently thinking about their dissertation topic ideas in tutorials also being offered for another module so I felt that this would benefit them all in developing their ideas about how they go about doing their research. As you can imagine this is potentially quite a dry subject area and I am always interested in making teaching more interactive and engaging. I think that learning by doing techniques are generally more useful than a two-hour lecture, particularly for something as practice based as research for a dissertation.

Prior to the session I had come across an article in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education by Warburton and Madge (1994) in which the authors used a snakes and ladders game technique to get students to reflect on the research process that they had engaged in. I used this as a basis to actually get students to think about the research process before they started it and to think about the key components for being successful; namely being organised, well prepared and informed about good and bad research practices (I’m not keen on the terms good and bad which I explained to the students and this will need some thinking about).

How it worked

I printed off 100 numbers on A4 paper, some of which had pictures of snakes on and some that had ladders on (N.B. this took some thought because snakes couldn’t go to ladders and ladders couldn’t go to snakes). I explained that landing on a blank sheet represented progress in the research process, which can be up and down in terms of intensity. On the back of each sheet, depending on whether it was a snake or ladder, I put various practices relating to the research process. ‘Good’ practices (ladders) included organising meetings with supervisors in advance, designing and remembering ethics forms, booking research equipment in good time and backing up all data and key information. ‘Bad’ practices (snakes) included not checking batteries in equipment (i.e. recorders), leaving data collection too late, not starting writing until last minute and forgetting about ethics. I tried to place this on the numbers based on a logical progression of research.

On the day I split the students into groups and asked them to choose their player. I had a big blow up dice to introduce an element of fun and I asked the groups to draw maps of the progress of their player on A0 paper which I photographed and made available online as a resource for learning. I was lucky enough to have a team of three postgrads with me who laid out the numbers and during the game shared their research stories and experiences with the students in relation to the squares the students landed on.

Example of the progress of one of the play

Learning Outcomes and feedback

Throughout the players’ movements forwards and backwards through the research process I explained the importance of being organised and prepared but also showed that the research process is anything but linear. The better players landed on more ladders and finished on time, before the deadline. Those who landed on snakes and were consequently less organised, moved backwards and took much longer to complete. One player moved forwards at some stages and back at others. It was all chance but this element of the game did work. When players landed on snakes I asked the groups to discuss how they might have avoided this so that they were thinking around research practices in a practical and positive way.

I asked for feedback from the students at the end of the session using post-its, asking what worked well and what could be improved. Students gave feedback and said that the game had introduced them to parts of the research process they hadn’t thought of which was encouraging. They also predominantly liked the interactive nature of the game. Constructive criticism was focused more on how the game itself worked. The group was too big (I had 42 in the class that I split into groups of 4) so not all of the students felt involved (they also need prompting to take their own notes!) and the 100 squares was a bit over ambitious and meant the game was quite long and that 4 students were standing for a long time. In future I would allow other group members to become the player or organise more smaller groups so that all of the students feel more involved and therefore more engaged.

The game was far from perfect but the majority of the group seemed to enjoy it and learn from the movements of their players. I suspect that the game works better with smaller groups because this keeps more of them engaged and involved but it was worth a try and is something I hope to refine in future teaching.

References

WARBURTON J and MADGE C (1994) The snakes and ladders of research design. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 18, 2, 237-244

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “Snakes and Ladders of research for undergraduates

  1. I love this idea – and it can apply to so many topics. I am going to steal it!!! Thanks for sharing.

    So – if 100 squares is too many, how many would you have next time around?

    PS – there is a discussion going on Linkedin group ‘Higher Education Teaching and Learning’ about innovative ways to deliver content. I’ll post a link to your post, there.

    • Please do Ana, glad you like the sound of it! It was fun to run and I think the more engaged students did get something out of it. It helps to explain the learning outcomes to them as well and I did a follow up slide in the following lecture that re-enforced them.

      I think next time I would probably try more like 60 – 75 squares; probably 60. I used about 20 bad practices and 20 good so there were potentially too many blank squares which is when the students in the groups start to get a bit bored and you risk losing them.

      Thanks for posting a link to LinkedIn 😀 Is there a link to that discussion group? I’d like to take a look myself. Let me know if you use the game and what you use it for!

    • I’ll have to take a look at that LinkedIn group too: I don’t use LinkedIn enough (well, at all!) for networking etc, so maybe this is a good way to get into it more.

  2. That sounds really cool Anna! Thanks for sharing it, I think it could be used in lots of other contexts as an activity/lesson framework. I especially like the idea of asking people/groups what practical things could have been done to avoid the pitfalls represented by a snake.

    • Thanks Nathan! I thought it was cool at least 😀 I also got the idea from a project that was run at Lancaster University using the game. Dr Will Medd, Dr Rebecca Whittle and Dr Marion Walker did some research on disaster recovery after flooding in the UK and use it to show how people’s recoveries from floods are a series of steps forward and back and that differ for different people. They use it as a public engagement and teaching tool. They have a paper about it in the geography journal Area.

      Let me know if you ever decide to use it. I can offer advice on design and would love to hear what other contexts it may be used in.

      • I will do! I think it’s great that you got the teams to write up what the progress was like as well, I’m a big fan of documenting outputs from sessions with pictures.

  3. Pingback: Playing Games and Learning « Nathan Ryder

  4. More like Snakes and Nerds. *LOL* But seriously it was a good idea. I would join the group but I am not on Linkedin.

  5. I have received feedback from this module today. Sadly because it was from a bigger module including GIS it wasn’t mentioned too much, although one student did describe it as infantile and highly inappropriate for degree level 😦 Can’t please everyone! I did explain at the start of the session that the learning outcomes were most important so it is important to make this really clear at the start.

  6. Hi Anna – I was looking for a picture of Snakes and Ladders for a posting I am writing about the effect of small wins and setbacks on the inner work life of teams, how this affects their motivation and therefore delivery. This was the best picture of the game I could find. Please may I use it in my posting. I will put in a link to this posting of yours.

    Also

    This is such a cool game. I facilitate many workshops to launch projects and set strategy and I would love to steal this idea to create a game for learning about delivery in Self Managing Teams.
    All games can be described as infantile by people who need to get over themselves. What could be more infantile than two teams chasing after a ball trying to kick it into a netting box. At the same time, to get the learning from the negative feedback, I wonder how you can turn the same idea into a challenge for degree level players.

    All the best

    Hi Anna – I was looking for a picture of Snakes and Ladders for a posting I am writing about the effect of small wins and setbacks on the inner work life of teams, how this affects their motivation and therefore delivery. This was the best picture of the game I could find. Please may I use it in my posting. I will put in a link to this posting of yours.

    Also

    This is such a cool game. I facilitate many workshops to launch projects and set strategy and I would love to steal this idea to create a game for learning about delivery in Self Managing Teams.
    All games can be described as infantile by people who need to get over themselves. What could be more infantile than two teams chasing after a ball trying to kick it into a netting box. At the same time, to get the learning from the negative feedback, I wonder how you can turn the same idea into a challenge for degree level players.

    All the best

    Stephen

    • Hi Stephen

      So sorry for the slow reply. I’m happy for you to use the picture.

      I’m glad you like the game! I really enjoyed facilitating the session and for those that enjoyed it, it was worth the hard work putting it together 😀 Please do use the idea for your own work.

  7. I am really impressed along with your writing abilities
    and also with the structure to your weblog. Is
    this a paid subject or did you modify it
    your self? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s uncommon to see a nice blog like this one nowadays..

  8. Pingback: Delivery through small wins | StrategyWorks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s