Connecting data to subjects that inspire students
Author: Mark Brown, University of Manchester
Date: 16 September 2011
Type of case study: Teaching
Course title: Introductory Quantitative Methods Pilot project: Increasing the use of large social surveys in undergrad dissertations
Course type: Quantitative research methods
Level: Postgraduate; Undergraduate
Mark Brown has used a number of UK Data Service datasets, along with the teaching dataset resources developed for such data as the Labour Force Survey and Health Survey for England, in his Introductory Quantitative Methods class at the University of Manchester. However rather than using the data simply to illustrate concepts, Dr Brown has incorporated the framework of UK Data Service and the openness and availability of its social science data to illustrate the thinking behind such methods to his students, for many of whom his quantitative course is their first.
"I’m a great believer in letting UK Data Service resources speak for themselves,’ says Brown, ‘Students need to start [by] connecting the topics and questions that interest them with the range of social science data that’s available." This, more than specific statistical techniques, is the basis of his course, which is aimed at 2nd year undergraduates in the Sociology programme and postgraduates from throughout the School of Social Science who are quantitative novices. After students negotiate the logic behind the methods, Brown moves them to SPSS to work hands on with many of the datasets they have seen, now with a new understanding for what those numbers represent.
Though the response to this approach was overwhelmingly positive, Brown was still distressed to find that many of these students who responded so well during the course did not end up following up and using quantitative methods in their dissertations. In fact, he notes, few students in the School of Social Sciences used quantitative methods in their final year thesis, despite the wealth of material available.
To combat this, in 2006 he applied for and was awarded an ESRC grant to develop innovation in quantitative teaching and used this to put on a series of half-day courses that complemented the required introductory course. Instead of focusing on concept or process, these courses emphasised the practicalities and common difficulties of real data use, specifically in the context of a dissertation, such as registering to access data and where to look for complementary datasets. It was designed to "get over the gap," he says, "where students might have the skills but no idea how to [use them]."
This initiative has also been a success and has now developed into a credit-bearing course that follows along from the introductory course late in a student’s second year, exactly around the time they will begin seriously thinking about their dissertation. As of 2011, it will become mandatory, and all Sociology students at Manchester will be take the full quantitative course layout, which Brown hopes will lead to new attitudes about and more usage of quantitative data in sociology.