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leiter

Dr. Debra Leiter
Assistant Professor

Department: Political Science
EUReka Course: Political Science 221, Introduction to Comparative Polics and Research
See Dr. Leiter's Syllabus.

Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching a Eureka Course


Do:

1. Get students enthusiastic about their own project
The students that performed best on the project were those who were most enthusiastic about the subject they were studying. These students not only performed better, but they were also the most likely to come speak to me about the project outside of class, do additional work and analyses, and were most interested in the project.


2. Balance flexibility and constraint
When designing the research project, I developed a relatively constrained set of expectations for the project. Students were all using the same data set, had to develop certain types of theories and empirically testable hypotheses, etc. These constraints (which some students did find frustrating) did allow for a much more focused set of projects, as it set very clear expectations and helped students to understand how the stages of the research process hung together. Given these constraints, students still had a wide range of projects that they could pursue using the data set I had chosen. This allowed students a fair range of flexibility on their actual research question, even though the process that they were using to complete the project was essentially identical. A personal moment of success was when I heard one student remark on how different the research projects were from one another.

Essentially, the balance point is allowing students to be enthusiastic about their research questions, but grounding them with consistent expectations to ensure the quality of their product.

3. Have a ‘class’ project example
To help students understand each stage in the research project, I developed a class research project that I used as my example for each step in the research design. I purposely chose a project that I knew could be approached from multiple perspectives, which allowed me to use the project to illustrate the different ways they could answer their own research questions. (I also chose a project where I knew my proposed theory would not be totally supported, to reassure students that null findings are perfectly fine) Moreover, for each assignment, I presented an example of the assignment using the class project. Students found this to be very helpful, particularly as they were able to see the project growing and changing from phase to phase. (The one danger with an example assignment is that students think this is the only way to complete an assignment, so for some of the assignments, I completed the project using a few different approaches).


4. Have the sections build on each other
My strategy for implementing a research element to my course was to devote every Friday of my MWF class to the next stage of the research project. Students had assignments throughout the course that built on the previous one. This helped students to see the connection between the disparate sections of research. It also, according to my students, makes them feel less concerned about the overall project, since it’s broken down into connected pieces.


5. Remember how this will affect your grading schedule
While the research assignments described above are relatively straightforward to grade, two things were different from a standard course. First, I found that I needed to provide much more thorough comments on these assignments than usual, since each assignment included an update from the previous. Moreover, given this building process, I needed to turn around my grades much more quickly than usual. As long as you build in time for this, you will see clear improvement and development over time, and grading the final assignment will be much easier. One thing that definitely helped was having students submit all their assignments online (I used the blackboard assignment tool). It was easy to flip back and forth from my previous comments and their previous efforts to the current assignment, and made grading much easier.


6. Try to link the research projects to the course substance
One challenge of a Eureka course is making sure students connect the research project they are doing with the substance of the course. I tried several strategies to try to help students see the connection. I focused on research design of the substantive material I presented (using the same framework and terminology from the research lectures). I also used the substantive conceits in my research lectures. One thing I would definitely do differently is to encourage students to talk about how their research projects speak to the substantive matter at hand.


7. Offer alternatives for my advanced students – but make sure they can do it
While I did not end up needing it this time around, one issue with an intro class is that you have students with very different experience and skills coming into your course. I developed a process through which students with previous research experience could complete more complex analyses or use alternative data sets than the assigned one. However, to do so, students had to complete a short, ungraded data analysis test. This gives more advanced students the opportunity to pursue more advanced analyses, but also prevents students from biting off more than they can chew and getting frustrated or lost.


8. Consider alternatives to a research paper.
Given the research market today, there are many ways that we are expected to present our research: presentations, posters, blog posts, etc. Students really enjoyed developing a research poster in my class, based on student comments, and more than one said they better understood how the elements of the research design and results hung together when they put it together as a visual picture.


9. Focus on process over outcomes
For me, the primary goal of the research element of my course was that students had a solid understanding of the process of research – moving from a question to an empirically tested answer. Stressing this to students helped them deal with one of the great frustrations of research: null findings.


10. Bring your own research in
The best example of research is always your own. Don’t be afraid to share your research with your students. Not only do you know it and love it (no matter what reviewer 2 says), but it helps students understand what your subject really is about. This also helps students, who might be interested in working with you in the future (after all, you are giving them initial research training) see if they are interested in your work. I also find sharing the successes and tribulations of the research field is useful. Tell students about conference experiences, the reviewing process, etc. Knowing what research entails helps students to see what they need to do to make their own research, and any professionalization they learn along the way can only be to their benefit.


11. Get a lab
I was able to use one of the computer labs on campus for the quantative analytical parts of the research process, and this was incredibly helpful. After a short lecture/demonstration, I had the students work on the project in the lab, and was able to go around and help students with their project. It gave me the chance to give immediate feedback or help when students hit barriers.


Don't:

1. Try to pack too much into the class
This is perhaps a problem in every course, but adding a research element to an existing course means making some cuts. Know, going in, that you are giving up a little bit of substance for maximizing the impact of having students actually practice the substance of learning. As long as you remember that, slimming down the course content will be less painful.


2. Forget the importance of collaboration
One thing I will definitely add in future classes is more time for the students to work together on their projects. Students are very shy about this at first, in my observation, so setting up some institutions to encourage them to talk about their projects will really be beneficial.


3. Ignore the way new technology can be used to help students learn and do research
One puzzle I faced in my class was how, as a quantitative researcher, I could teach my students to do the type of computer programming and statistical analyses generally required to do research in quantitative comparative politics. However, with the massive spike in interest in online data analysis, you can find ways of having students do the types of analyses you want without their needing prior computational skills. Look around for these types of resources – you will be surprised at what you can find.