Enhancing postgraduate students' engagement in research

Polly Dalton, Ryan McKay, and Dawn Watling, Department of Psychology

College Team Teaching Prize 2016

The team developed the MSc unit ‘Topics in Psychological Science’ into a popular and successful component of our MSc programmes, which aimed to develop students’ ability to present scientific information clearly and accurately, to participate in group discussions regarding research findings, and to demonstrate that they are able to interpret and evaluate original research findings in a critical manner.

In the 2013-14 academic year the MSc programme grew in numbers and it was recognised that the previous course teaching and assessment were no longer the most appropriate for students. Therefore, the course was revamped and the new format was implemented for the 2014-15 academic year.


Course design and assessment

We have devised three key innovations to develop and assess the learning aims and outcomes of the course:


1)      Podcasts (summative assessment): The last two classes of the five-week course used to be devoted to student presentations which students found somewhat tedious. We devised a new coursework assignment that would still allow the students to develop and practice the requisite skills. We asked students to prepare a ten-minute ‘podcast’ in which they would describe and evaluate a recent piece of research. This new requirement has proven extremely popular. Students enjoy the challenge of critiquing a piece of research in a format with contemporary relevance. Their submissions thus far have really entered into the spirit of the assignment, with students adding various touches such as naming their ‘regular’ podcast show and incorporating ‘interviews’ with the authors of relevant research. The challenge of recording, editing and uploading the podcasts has also developed the students’ problem solving skills, as well as providing them with additional IT skills that have relevance for future employability. Aside from the success of the assignment itself, having students record and upload their presentations rather than give them in class has freed up four hours of valuable class time, which we have devoted to a second innovative activity (see item 2 below).


2)      Topical debates (formative assessment): We use this time to stage a series of debates on current controversial issues in psychological science. Students sign up to one or two debate topics (the exact number depends on the size of the cohort), and are provided with relevant readings to acquaint themselves with the topics. The propositions we have debated so far are as follows: i) Studies in psychology should be pre-registered; ii) The mind can be studied independently of the brain; iii) The use of deception should be banished from psychological research; and iv) Evolutionary psychology is a flawed enterprise. Although students have some choice of which topics to sign up to, we have taken the approach of randomly assigning students to teams – and teams to positions – shortly before each debate begins. This encourages students to prepare both sides of an argument. Students have found this aspect particularly useful, and have readily engaged with the challenge of arguing a position that is perhaps contrary to their own initial personal position. Once teams and positions are assigned, students are given approximately 20 minutes of class time to plan their team strategies, and then the debate begins (we have followed standard debating format, alternating speakers between teams, with respective speakers presenting their cases and rebutting the arguments of the opposition). Before each debate begins we survey the audience as to their position on the motion in question, and at the conclusion of each debate we repeat this survey. The winning team is the team that manages to change the minds of most audience members, and prizes (chocolates) are awarded for winners. The debate format has proven more engaging than the previous student presentations format, both for students presenting and for students observing.  The format allows the development of speaking and argumentative skills in a fun and informal manner, and students enjoy the team and competitive aspects.


 3)      Research seminar abstracts (summative assessment): Alongside the class work described above, the course aims to develop student skills in digesting and critically appraising psychological research as it is encountered outside the classroom. For this reason, we have incorporated two novel components into the course. First, in one of the course sessions students are presented with a series of short articles from the journal Psychological Science, from which the official abstracts have been removed. Students are required to read each brief article and to produce their own abstracts for each. We then compare and contrast these abstracts with the official abstracts. Second, one of the requirements of the course is that students attend ten departmental research seminars of their own choosing and write a summary of each research talk in the style of a published abstract from a journal article, containing brief details of the research question, methods, results and conclusions. These tasks encourage students to actively practice their listening and comprehension skills both inside and outside the classroom. Students submit their portfolio of abstracts for assessment.

These three key assessment methods (formative and summative) encourage students to engage with research findings.

The diversity of assessments was designed with the diverse student cohort on the course in mind but also in terms of the development of employability skills (e.g., podcasts and topical debates). For instance, the recorded podcasts allow students who are not native English speakers to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding verbally without needing to do this ‘live’, the debates are within groups and allow individuals to make points from a team perspective or individually, while the research seminar abstracts assess individual written communication about ongoing research.



Students have commented in the following ways:


  • Simply amazing. The first course that actually made me feel in a Masters course and not in high school.

  • Help me to structure my debate since it is my first time to debate in English.

  • Discussion and debate were really helpful to improve speak up skills.

  • …debate make the course more wonderful.

  • The debate sessions and discussion in classes are really helpful and very interesting.

  • The podcast assignment is creative and stimulating, it is one of my favorite assignments and I hope we have more of this going on.

  • I really liked the debates – could have had more time to debate as I think we all had a lot to say!!

  • really enjoy this unit. Enjoy debate sessions very much. We learnt a lot from debate and have much fun.


We can also see how this course enhanced the student experience overall on the master’s course:


  • There was such a variety of assignments that I completed at RHUL - I created a podcast, presented a poster, gave oral presentations, wrote critical analyses, summarized seminars, participated in debates...I feel like nothing can be thrown at me now that I am not prepared for!


See other case studies on our Assessment and Feedback page