Student Research in the time of Covid

Research methods chapter 7 from Complete Companion series

Everything is different this year; group work is not possible, students may be self-isolating, whole year groups may be learning remotely, and the levels of stress and anxiety are high. It’s tempting to take what seems like the easy route, old-fashioned teaching from the front of the class with students making notes and answering exam questions. But I hold fast to the (evidence-based) belief that students learn so much better if they think for themselves, applying what they’re learning to their real-life experiences. This is particularly true for Research Methods knowledge, which can be horribly dry and abstract if it’s not applied. And there are ways to do this, even with social distancing and remote learning!

Knowledge and understanding of research methods, practical research skills and mathematical skills … should be developed through … ethical practical research activities, involving:

  • designing research
  • conducting research
  • analysing and interpreting data

(AQA A level spec)

Ethical Practical Research methods from Complete Companion series

During Year 12 I give students tasks to practise each aspect. I reinforce the need to consider ethical issues throughout, and I am their Ethics Committee, checking all aspects of research before they carry it out.

Designing research

There is often a 12-mark ‘Design a Study’ question in Paper 2, and examiners can tell which students have real, personal experience of carrying out their own research, as they are able to imagine and describe procedures and potential obstacles much more convincingly. So, while it is useful to practise a variety of these questions, and there are some helpful worked examples on Kerboodle, nothing beats designing research which you then try out and find where the problems are.

Conducting research

Experiments – During the Memory topic, students can design an experiment to test the effect of changing one variable on word recall. I give them this task to plan in groups and choose the best to carry out as a class or Psychology Society activity. Collaborative planning can be carried out via email or video conferencing. This is a highly structured activity, showing students all the aspects that they need to consider planning an experiment.

Observations – When we have covered behaviourism, we take a trip to our local zoo for a sixth form conference. They learn to collect data in a lab and around the zoo, comparing the behaviours of two species. This trip has been postponed for this year due to lockdown. We also give them task of observing their peers in the student concourse or study centre. This does not require close contact. If they are self-isolating they could observe a smaller sample in their household and still practise time or event sampling, although descriptive statistics would be more limited. I have also used a video of children playing (there are several on YouTube which give specific consent from parents for the video to be used for educational purposes) to practise the process:

Watch → suggest research question → hypothesis → choose behavioural categories → choose sampling method → carry out observation

This enables some basic descriptive statistics to be carried out, and leads nicely into a discussion of inter-rater reliability, and how this could be calculated and improved.

Self-report research techniques from Complete Companion series

Self-report – Questionnaires lend themselves very well to remote learning. Students can use scales from the free International Personality Item Pool (IPIP), correlating scores for two personality scales, based on research questions derived from existing research. It is quite straightforward to collect samples by creating online questionnaires via SurveyMonkey, which even does some basic analysis of the data for you. Interviews can also be carried out via video call or with household members, although I think it is best to stick to structured interviews with closed questions as it takes a lot of training and practice to become a good interviewer.

The whole research process

In the summer term, after exams, our students carry out individual research projects, in which they experience the whole process from start to finish. They even use inferential statistical testing (using, meeting it for the first time within the context of enthusiastically wanting to test their own data. They write the project up as an academic paper, with all the appropriate sections including an abstract and at least three references. They use to organise and format references.

During Easter 2020 I redesigned this project to make it work with remote learning. This guidebook has evolved from cross-fertilisation of resources gleaned online, so thank you very much if you recognise any parts of it! The mark scheme is taken from the IB project, and successful students use it right from the beginning to see what to aim for. Most students opted for questionnaire-based research, but a few adventurous youngsters carried out individual or group experiments via Zoom calls with their peers. One even carried out interview research with his friends’ parents, devising a way of coding answers and categorising parenting styles. However, the questionnaire research was simplest and most effective. As their contacts were stuck at home and bored too, some collected over 100 responses by posting an Instagram story linking to their survey! This became quite competitive, with positive, productive social interactions being an unforeseen side-benefit.

I gave ongoing guidance via Google Classroom, and I made two videos explaining how to carry out statistical analysis for correlational or experimental data. This was much easier than having to teach it live, and students could watch on repeat and pause to follow the instructions – definitely an improvement, and something I learned from lockdown. We were fortunate to have regular Zoom meetings with students, and I used these to check-in and answer general questions, then put all students into individual break-out rooms for consultation. Again, this worked better than talking in a classroom, as students felt more able to ask their ‘stupid’ questions without their peers overhearing. It also worked well with blended learning, when some students were in the classroom and others joining via Zoom. I also benefited from the flexible, consultation-style teaching, as it gave me time to rest and try to recover from long Covid, while knowing that my students were progressing in their learning.

This project encouraged independent learning and many students really thrived, some unexpectedly. Others took some chivvying as usual, but every student submitted a project and many were extremely high quality, with impressive analysis in the Discussion section. Previous students have told me that the project was a very useful thing to talk about in interviews, especially if they had not done an EPQ, as it developed many of the same skills. The best students, and those who complete their write-up early, are then encouraged to prepare a short presentation for Psych Soc at the beginning of Year 13, or a brief written synopsis for a school publication. This reinforces their learning and hopefully inspires future students to want to study Psychology, as they see the infectious enthusiasm of student researchers – the sort of infection we want to encourage!

Author: Rachel Moody – Head of Psychology, King Edward VI School, Southampton

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