Bridging the gap between theory and practice in the study of Politics and International Relations

Asma Ali Farah and Daniela Lai

Department of Politics and International Relations

We have been working as teaching assistants for a compulsory first year module: Introduction to Research Methods in Politics and International Relations. This course initiates students to the research process, and particularly to the different methods of collecting and analysing data. Students often find the course very challenging, because it requires them to grasp complex research techniques without conducting research first-hand. Just like learning how to drive, research methods can only be understood by combining sound theoretical knowledge with practical application of these abstract concepts. Therefore, it is more sensible to implement a teaching strategy that engages students in the research process, by designing seminar activities that help them experience research methods first-hand. In this case study, we would like to place particular emphasis on two activities that we designed for the course: a focus group simulation and an experiment. Drawing on both art and science, these activities allowed us to exemplify very different methods of research that are relevant for political researchers. These activities will become part of the online resources for the new edition of the research methods textbook ‘Political Research: Methods and Practical Skills’, edited by Professor Sandra Halperin and Dr. Oliver Heath, academics at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway. This is the core textbook for our course, and therefore future lecturers and seminar tutors will be able to implement the exercises we designed and revised based on the feedback received from students and our experience.


Focus groups

Focus groups have become increasingly popular in political research in recent years. They are particularly helpful in understanding how opinions and ideas are constructed through social interactions. Textbooks and readings can only give a partial understanding of their use, and this is why we decided to use role-play in order to make the students see for themselves the advantages and limitations of focus groups. The theme of the focus group session was a piece of research on Zimbabwean conceptions of the relationships between Zimbabwe and Britain, based on a recent article by Dr Julia Gallagher from our department. The students were already familiar with the article, as it formed part of the required readings for the previous week.

Based on personal preference, a student could choose a character that fell in one of the following 3 categories: a) focus group participant, b) interviewer, c) note-taker.

All students received a description of the overall scenario, as well as of the characters and their goals/intentions and were instructed to behave according to their character's role. We hoped to achieve several goals with this approach:

a) we wished to make the study of research methods more stimulating and enjoyable, where students could learn whilst performing at the same time,

b) we wished to encourage a more empowering and independent way of learning, where the experience of the focus group would depend on how the students exercised their creativity and worked together,

c) we wished students to experience the more intimate aspects of running focus groups, such as managing power imbalances, disagreements and diversion from the topic, 

d) we also wished students to develop empathy, explore different values, and become aware of their assumptions about others when playing their character.


The experiment

While the focus group simulation made use of art through role play, the second major activity that we designed required a much more scientific approach. Experimental methods are usually associated with other disciplines, but are also used in political research. Students that are not accustomed to the logic of scientific experiments might find it difficult to understand how, for instance, they can be used to research voting preferences or political activism.

Therefore, instead of discussing experimental methods in a conventional seminar setting, we designed an experiment that we delivered to the students during our weekly sessions. Up-to-date research was used as the basis of the experiment: in a departmental seminar on public attitudes towards foreign aid in the UK, US, France and Germany, on 25th  November 2014, Dr Jennifer van Heerde-Hudson showed us that support for foreign aid among the public has been steadily declining, and that the reasons for this are still not entirely clear. The experiment was therefore aimed at testing the influence of news on the formation of opinions on foreign aid.

The experiment consisted of having the students read pieces of news that were randomly assigned to different seminar groups: some received positive news stories on foreign aid, some negative ones, while the control groups received news on unrelated topics. The students were administered a short questionnaire measuring their attitudes towards foreign aid before and after the experimental treatment, with the aim of measuring possible changes in attitudes based on it. After the procedure, the students were given a hand-out explaining the rationale and organisation of the experiment, and were given the opportunity to ask questions on how it was carried out. Rather than processing the results ourselves, in the following seminar sessions the students coded the questionnaires themselves.

Thanks to this, they effectively gained first-hand knowledge of how we proceed from formulating research questions, to collecting data and putting together a dataset. We then used the dataset to teach quantitative methods to the students during Spring term, and the students carried out an analysis on the collected data, learning the outcomes of the experiment. Rather than exposing students to unfamiliar datasets, we wanted them to have an understanding of how these are produced and where the numbers come from. As many students on this course were unaccustomed to statistical approaches, we thought that this would be a gentle transition to unfamiliar grounds.


Benefits of the seminar activities

The seminar activities that we designed - most notably the focus group simulation and the experiment – were specifically targeted at showing the students how the theoretical knowledge they gain through the lectures and readings can be applied in practice. Students have commented on these aspects in their evaluation forms. One student noted that: ‘The experiment run by Daniela and Asma was extremely interesting, because it served as a sort of example of what this course is about and of how to use in practice what we study in theory’ .

Another element that made our activities effective is that they are based on the participation of each and every student in the class. The students were the key actors in the seminar activities as they experienced the use of research methods first-hand, while tutors offered guidance and support. Within the focus group simulation, the students were assigned individual and specific roles to fulfil: the success of the session was based on their full participation and this increased their sense of responsibility and ownership of the learning process. Students were also involved in providing feedback on how to further improve the focus group simulation, thereby making this a co-constructed exercise. The experiment went a step further, by effectively involving the students in a small (but complete) research project. Once the experiment was carried out, they became fully responsible for coding the questionnaires using a prepared coding sheet. Following this, they learned quantitative methods by means of finding out the results of the experiment, which yielded interesting results that seemed to partially confirm our hypotheses. Students’ engagement with the research process could not have been greater.


See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page