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