Mainstreaming Quantitative Methods – Opportunities and Challenges
With the establishment of fifteen Q-Step Centres across the UK, teaching and learning in quantitative methods has entered a new and exciting phase. A step change in attitudes and practices is underway that will change the nature of social science teaching and also the kind of social science future graduates will do. The first step on any journey is the most important, but also possibly the easiest. In the next few years, the Q-Step Centres and quantitative methods teaching will face many challenges of pedagogy, resources, long term commitment and even opposition to the project itself. The first annual Cardiff Q-Step Centre Conference will begin to focus on some of these challenges and our speakers will discuss a range of issues – some controversial, that will face us.
The event took place on September 18th at Cardiff University in the Council Chamber, Main Building.
10:30 Welcome and Introduction. Professor Malcolm Williams, Director Cardiff Q-Step Centre.
10:45 Sharon Witherspoon, Director of Nuffield Foundation, Making numbers normal: is Q-Step enough?
11:15 Professor Patrick Sturgis, University of Southampton, Director, National Centre for Research Methods, Why should undergraduate social science students choose quantitative methods?
12:15 Keynote Address. Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal of University of Aberdeen, Some challenges for Mainstreaming Quantitative Methods Teaching.
14:45 Dr Geoff Payne, Newcastle University, Clapping with One Hand? Sociology’s response to the National Strategy for Quantitative Skills Consultation.
Mainstreaming Quantitative Methods – Opportunities and Challenges
by Dr Anna Pechurina, Lecturer in Sociology, Leeds Beckett University
The focus of the event was to discuss how the launch of the Q-step programme has contributed to the development of quantitative skills training within the UK Higher Education system and what challenges universities and lecturers might face in the future. Below is a reflection on some of the key points from the event, written from the perspective of a non Q-step University research methods lecturer, and how this conference and the work of the Cardiff Q-step centre has benefitted me and my teaching.
What opportunities has the launch of the Q-step programme offered to us?
The development of new quantitative methods modules and courses is one of the key objectives of the established network of Q-step centres. This also involves the generation of a substantial base of teaching materials and resources that potentially could be adopted by social science schools and departments where the design of a new course, or even re-design of an existing one, is not always possible. For instance, the Research Methods module in my teaching practice was normally a core module that catered for large mixed ability groups of students. While the lectures and the overall module structure were difficult to modify on an ad hoc basis, there was some flexibility within the seminars. This enabled me to gradually embed new material and new ways of working with quantitative data into the curriculum without making a considerable change to the course. Some examples of successful pedagogy practice shared with me by Q-step centre based colleagues include samples of teaching on datasets based on real data; seminar and in-class exercises, and slides and hand-outs, which integrate theoretical material and statistics; SPSS exercises, online and video sources, and some assessment options. The variety of these resources, in terms of their level and format, and the universal nature of many of them, meant they could easily be fitted into either Research Methods or substantive/theory-based modules across all social science disciplines, including sociology, politics, and criminology. Thus, the examples taken from specific and real datasets can be used in the methods module as part of the on-going class project or a base for a one-off teaching session on the substantive module, or as a way of teaching and assessing knowledge of SPSS. For instance, having taught on methods and a substantive module focussed on migration and diversity at the same time, I was able to build up the links between the activities that students undertook within those modules. The survey research topic taught in the Methods module was enhanced by the activities in the Migration module, where students were asked to analyse their neighbourhood’s ethnic and religious composition using the Census Data. The discussion at the conference in Cardiff highlighted the existing opportunities in respect to new resources and curriculum development, the adoption of which has become an observed and established practice. Importantly, the improvements in teaching practice happening within Social Science departments are also the result of connections established among the new generation of lecturers who continue to share their teaching and research practice, enabling the comparison of experiences and ultimately driving change forward. I am especially grateful for fruitful discussions with Dr Stephanie Fleischer of the University of Brighton and other colleagues from Teesside, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford Brookes and Cambridge, after which I was able to integrate project-based problem solving activities with methods of assessment such as in-class group online questionnaires, group-presentations and video lectures. Overall, I believe Q-step centres can serve as a good leading model for non Q-step universities, challenging them to set the bar higher and then helping them to do so.
Is the Q-Step programme enough to facilitate change?
All speakers and discussants agreed that despite the initiated changes and the progress thus far, challenges and resistances still remain. Some of the highlighted issues include but are not restricted to: weak quantitative skills teaching in schools, reluctance to change among non-quantitative oriented lecturers and researchers, structural issues within departments, a shortage of sufficiently trained teachers and mid-career professionals, and no proven record of the positive effect statistical skills have on career prospects. Despite being at the core of the programme, Research Methods modules’ development is not always prioritised by Universities, which means that extra effort is required in promoting proposed modifications and integrating them across departments. Furthermore, the dependence on students’ reactions when designing the course programme, the uneven distribution of statistical skills among students, and the isolation of research methods lecturers within the department, can all be discouraging and demotivating. As a result, methods research, innovation, and development are overshadowed by module administration, dealing with students’ complaints, and the continuous modification of seminar materials and assessments.
The importance of well-integrated teaching and research is another well recognised issue. Although empirical research is encouraged by the universities, the quality of the work conducted can be questioned. So, while newly designed seminar activities and real life examples can certainly make students more interested and engaged in quantitative methods there remains the serious challenge of ensuring the sufficient provision of comprehensive and well-integrated methodological training, rather than simply relying on an isolated course in software data analysis. Obviously, all of these different objectives and challenges cannot be met at once, but progress is possible and depends on careful strategic thinking and prioritisation of the most important tasks. For instance, modifications at the seminar level can be followed by the redesign of the overall delivery of the module (E.g. flipping lectures and seminars, delivering material in small 10-15 blocks, or using video-recorded lectures and podcasts).
To conclude: substantial change will require time, but it is encouraging that more people are playing a part in changing the situation.
Dr Anna Pechurina joined Leeds Beckett University in May 2013 moving from School of Social Sciences and Law at Teesside University. She undertook her doctoral studies at the Department of Sociology at University of Manchester. Her research interests are in the Post-Soviet international migration; diasporas and transnationalism; post-Socialist cultures and identities; social research methodology; mixed and creative methods. Her teaching interests come across social research methods (quantitative and qualitative); media and culture; social and cultural identity, and international migration.