PSP Course Makes Research “Experience” FunBy Jill Anderson
While a class focused on methods of learning and conducting research may not sound as exciting as one exploring an education issue, students enrolled in Professor Robert Selman‘s Research Experience in Prevention Science and Practice will tell you otherwise.
“It was the kind of class that you knew when you went to it you’d have fun and come out having learned a lot,” says Tracy Taylor, Ed.M.’10. “I wanted to become more familiar with the research process from start to finish and I knew this course would give me that opportunity to put my toe in the water.”
Research being considered rigorous? Maybe. But fun? According to Selman, the course — a yearlong apprenticeship that provides opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience by participating in ongoing faculty research and evaluation projects at several child- and adolescent-focused prevention and intervention sites – makes research “lovable, or at least understandable. The key to the design of this course is the idea of an experience, a journey.”
Learning how to conduct research is at the crux of the Prevention Science and Practice (PSP) course. After all, master’s students who enroll in PSP can choose a research strand as the focus of their studies. But, Selman points out, many students arrive at HGSE with little to no research experience at all. “Who really knows how to do these things?” he says.
The reality is that even if students have taken statistics or scientific methods courses, few actually know the ins and outs of conducting hands-on, on-the-ground research in academia, especially in the realm of applied psychology studies where one is dealing with real children and youth. In the design of this course, Selman and Senior Teaching Fellow Joy Landwehr, Ed.M.’06, created a cooperative experiential teaching model that’s rarely been seen in higher education.
In fact, this type of course is so unique that the Society for Research in Child Development invited Selman and Landwehr to educate others about the model at the 2011 Biennial Meeting in Montreal.
“There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for our teaching model and several participants requested follow-ups with us so that they can implement some of our case studies and teaching tools in their own undergraduate- and graduate-level classrooms,” Landwehr says. “Many wanted to know how we involved other faculty in our program in this process. We truly believe in the effectiveness of embedding students within a ‘research experience’ and plan to continue promoting this model in the future.”
What makes this course so unusual is that students learn to conduct research by actually doing real work – not just from reading a book. Students meet bimonthly in a “core” class where they discuss research and learn from each other. While students learn the nuts and bolts of conducting research, including ethics, authorship, the art of asking good research questions, software training, the writing of research proposals, and the conducting of blind peer reviews, they work for eight hours a week alongside a faculty member who is running a research project in the community. Much like medical school residency programs, students are matched with faculty members conducting research in areas of interest to the students. The first half of the year they work within the site’s priorities, the second half they leverage the site resources to answer their own research questions.
Ultimately, the idea is that students should do something that they want to do — not necessarily something that is going to impress faculty, Landwehr says. “In fact, they often find it is their peer reviews that matter most.”
The course also teaches the students how to discuss their research through a series of presentations at the end of the year. “We want them to be more comfortable and able to talk about research so that others can understand what they are doing,” Selman says.
So far, the course, now in its third year, is a hit among students.
Blake Noel, a former teacher in Chicago public schools, enrolled in PSP’s research strand this year without knowing much about research at all. “I came here as novice as can be. It was starting from zero and I was nervous,” Noel says.
However, having to actually do research as part of the course made students more committed from the beginning, he says. “They are having us learn by doing,” Noel says. “I would argue it’s much better than listening to someone else talk about doing it.” Now, after several months, he has become so hooked on research that he plans to make it his career.
For Taylor, the course taught her what it means to do research. In fact, after the course concluded, Taylor continued to do her research examining the implementation of a language arts curriculum in a New Hampshire school. Her resulting research is under review at a journal. “The course turned out to be so incredibly rewarding,” she says.
While occasionally a student has decided that research isn’t for them, Landwehr insists that it’s all par for course. “It’s an experience they have had. Even if they don’t choose this as a path, it will follow them into their careers,” she says.