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College research methodology courses: revisiting general instructional goals and objectives.

A number of graduate (masters-level) students from a wide variety of academic disciplines have viewed a required introductory research methodology course negatively. These students often do not retain much of the previously learned material, thus limiting their success of subsequent research and statistics courses. The purpose of this article is to briefly 1) describe the current lack of research interest and involvement among masters-level students and 2) propose three recommendations for faculty in order to reevaluate general instructional goals and objectives. The incorporation of these recommendations may facilitate student learning, and maximize student retention of previously learned materials in the introductory research methodology course.


The purpose of an introductory research methodology course is for students to become familiar with research mainly at "how-to" skills and application level, and the textbook authors generally do not mystify students with heavy theoretical and statistical jargon (Gay et al., 2009). There are some similarities in this introductory research course across academic disciplines: Research is taught as a professional tool to improve practice; both quantitative and qualitative research are taught; and research assignments include designing and implementing a research project or proposal (Unrau and Beck, 2004). Before taking a formal research methodology course, a number of graduate students nationwide have demonstrated a lack of interest and involvement in research activities (Bard et al., 2000). Because introductory research methodology is a required course in some graduate programs, a small number of masters-level students have expressed a deep interest by conducting thesis research as their culminating academic activity, while most students have simply completed a set of required coursework, followed by a written comprehensive examination for graduation (Lei, 2008a).

Previous research studies have shown that research design, statistics, and computer skills are often inadequately taught (Royalty and Reising, 1986; Wampold, 1986), thus creating a low interest and a negative impact on attitudes toward research. These negative attitudes have greatly reduced the amount of time and effort students are willing to expend on learning research methodology and have limited the selection of more advanced courses, such as research and statistics courses beyond minimum requirements set by the graduate college (Papanastasiou, 2005; Lei, 2008a).

College research methodology faculty from a wide variety of disciplines must develop and maintain learner interest throughout the course of study in order to capture the attention of students. The interest of students is vital if optimal attainment is to accrue (Ediger, 1994). This article offers three recommendations for faculty who have taught or will teach introductory research methodology courses. The incorporation of these recommendations may enhance student learning, and promote student retention of previously learned research materials.


Instructional Goals

Regardless of course format (face-to-face, distance education, or hybrid) and course length (semester-long or condensed/ time-shortened class), research methodology instructors must use measurable stated goals and objectives in teaching-learning situations (Ediger, 1994). Instructors write these course goals and objectives for the purpose of effective teaching and assessment, which may range from simple learning of facts to higher-level thinking and performance skills. Students who are told what they should accomplish at the conclusion of an introductory research course know exactly what they must focus on, have tangible goals and objectives to strive for, and are better able to judge how successful they have learned and retained new materials (Gronlund, 2000; McAshan, 1979; Stiggins, 2001).

Goal theory researchers generally agree that mastery goals are more productive than performance goals, and approach goals are more productive than avoidance goals (Brophy, 2005). Mastery goals focus on the increasing students' level of research competence by acquiring the knowledge and skills that the task develops, while performance goals focus on the demonstration of research competence relative to others (Elliot, 1999). Distraction from a research task focusing toward peer competition is counterproductive from an instructor's perspective (Brophy, 2005). Scores on quizzes, tests, and various research assignments should not be reported to students as percentiles, quartile deviations, class mean values, as well as standard deviations above and below the mean values because some students have a natural tendency to compare scores with their peers. Instead, scores should be reported as percentages, so that students can aim at the highest possible percentages each time. A similar conclusion is suggested by goal theory studies (Croizet et al., 2004; Schmader and Johns, 2003),indicating that a social comparison focus is not only cognitive distracting for task engagement, but likely to be associated with anxiety, worry, and other negative emotions.

Students who express performance-approach goals are also likely to hold performance-avoid goals (Midgley et al. 1998), and these students' performance-approach goals are likely to shift to performance-avoidance goals if they experience difficulties in meeting research task demands (Brophy, 2005). Performance goals emphasizing social comparisons would imply a selfish and competitive focus that conflicts with the concepts of collaborative learning, learning community, or positive classroom climate (Brophy,2005). This phenomenon may reveal that performance-goal oriented students are more self-centered than mastery-goal oriented students due to more emphasis on social status, and wanting to work independently or collaborating only with in-group peers, rather than with a full range of their peers (Levy et al., 2004).

A potential solution is to de-emphasize the term performance goal for goals that include a social comparison component; another potential solution is to completely remove the term performance goals (Brophy, 2005). Grant and Dweck (2003) state that one might start to distinguish among mastery, ability, and outcome goals. Ability goals validate one's ability by doing well on tests or other assessment criteria, whereas outcome goals stress more on successfully meeting assessment criteria than on learning (Grant and Dweck, 2003). Collectively, these three goals orient students more toward research achievement and productivity than toward peer comparison and competition during the research-learning process.

Instructional Objectives

General instructional objectives have played a vital role in the process of instruction and assessment. They serve as guides for improving faculty teaching and provide guidelines for assessing student learning (Linn and Miller, 2009). The final step in the instructional process is to determine the extent to which students have achieved the learning objectives (Lei, 2008b). What is taught is emphasized within each objective of instruction, so learning activities can match up with the objectives, as well as evaluation procedures with the stated objectives (Ediger, 1994). The instructor may use a checklist in order to count the number of objectives attained by each student (Ediger, 1994). One tool that can help research methodology instructors broaden their view of what students should learn and be able to do is a recent revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives (Ormrod, 2008). Bloom's taxonomy consists of six general cognitive processes that vary from simple to complex: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create (Ormrod, 2008). Research on active learning reveals that the more opportunities students have to use information actively (e.g. discuss, question, formulate, predict, demonstrate, clarify, create, explain, evaluate, and write), the better that information is learned and retained by students (Meyers and Jones, 1993). This can be accomplished by using quizzes, tests, research reports, research projects, student presentations, portfolios, reflective journals, class work, homework assignments, student self-evaluations, and other types of assessments that are specially designed to measure the intended learning outcomes (Linn and Miller, 2009).

Besides focusing on cognitive domain as major instructional objectives, research methodology instructors should also focus on affective domain. Affective traits, such as attendance, participation, research interest, appreciation, course value, and attitude toward research have played a vital role in influencing human learning, motivation, and achievement (Ormrod, 2008). As instructors set general course goals and objectives for students, students are more likely to be optimistic about what they can accomplish if they feel cheerful than depressed (Ormrod, 2008). While learning how to perform a research task, students simultaneously learn whether they like doing it (Lei,2008b; Ormrod, 2008). Learning is easier when students truly enjoy what they are doing, and successful attempts at learning often bring in feelings of excitement, pleasure, and pride (Carver and Scheier, 1990; Harter, 1999; McLeod and Adams, 1989; Ormrod, 2008). Some students exhibit a high cognitive domain, but can simultaneously exhibit a low affective domain such as poor attendance, low participation, and negative attitude toward research during the course of study. For this reason, affective traits ought to be incorporated as part of the research course syllabus and overall student grade.

Order and Content of Course Presentation

It may not be necessary to cover all chapters in great detail from a research methods textbook over the course of study. What is important, in terms of presentation order, is that students should fully master research based upon nominal and ordinal (non-parametric) measurement scales before mastering interval and ratio (parametric) scales (Reid and Mason, 2008). Traditionally, some instructors have over-emphasized quantitative research using descriptive and inferential statistics to analyze data, while other practical types of research tend to be overlooked or under-emphasized due to time constraints. Moreover, the content of research topics should be changed from the current practice, with substantially greater emphasis on the principles and applications of qualitative, mixed-methods, and action research than the present time. Students, in turn, will learn various types of research and understand when to use which type of research with a proper explanation.

As a consequence of this approach, students will gain a broader perspective; they will become more confident in their research abilities and better able to handle more challenging topics when these are introduced (Reid and Mason, 2008). Thus, students will also be better prepared to take subsequent research and statistics courses once they have built a strong research and theoretical statistics foundation.


Academic programs can expect that masters-level students taking an introductory research methodology class will significantly increase confidence in performing research tasks over the course of study regardless of course format and length (Unran and Beck, 2004). Despite the fact that this introductory research course is taught by academics within certain disciplines, the overall instructional goal and objective are to promote students' attainment of a degree of expertise in research through the acquisition of knowledge and by involvement in the research process (Gay et al., 2009). Since research expectations across professions are more similar than they are different, faculty teaching introductory research courses in academic programs can expand their instructional network by tapping into ideas and experiences of colleagues in similar disciplines (Unrau and Beck, 2004).

Research methodology instructors ought to include instructional goals and objectives at varying degrees of complexity and sophistication. Instructors should also focus on what students should learn, not on what in structors should teach (Gronlund, 2004). Therefore, instructors may refocus their general course goals and objectives on what is the best interest to students. In other words, instructors ought to precisely describe the necessary knowledge and skills they want students to obtain at the completion of instruction and the entire research methodology course. If implementing general instructional goals and objectives correctly, students will truly enjoy the process of learning various types of research, and be able to apply knowledge and skills acquired in the research course to both academic and practical situations.


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Simon A. Lei, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Nevada.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Simon A. Lei at leis2@unlv.
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Author:Lei, Simon A.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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