Introducing students to politics through real data
Author: Rob Johns, University of Essex
Date: 23 September 2011
Type of case study: Teaching
Course title: Political Explanation
Course type: Quantitative research methods; Substantive
Level: Postgraduate; Undergraduate
Rob Johns has been teaching quantitative research methods to politics students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels for the past four years, first at the University of Strathclyde and now at the University of Essex. In his classes, he uses the British Social Attitudes Survey and British Election Survey from the UK Data Service, sometimes in conjunction with the students’ own self-generated data. The idea, he says, is to get students to connect personally with the data.
"If you just contrive datasets, then nobody has any emotional investment in the whole thing," he explains, "[i]t’s so much better to be using real and up-to-date data." For Johns, the social attitudes surveys provided the range of data necessary to teach a variety of statistical concepts and offered material to engage students with looks at current political and social issues through the data. Though he initially encountered these datasets in his own research, he says they are almost perfectly set-up for introductory teaching with good labelling and a minimum of confounding factors like a heterogeneous sample that would make analysis more difficult.
"When I was a student, I didn’t like the teaching method where you were just shown some output and how to interpret it, or where every week it was a different data set and you did not get a chance to really work with and understand the data," says Johns. The social attitudes datasets allow Johns to bring a more hands-on approach to data in his classes and his students have responded. Even though his courses focus more on process than the substantive data topics, students introduced to these surveys in his class have gone on to use them in dissertations, and all students have been introduced to the resources of the UK Data Service and the UK Data Archive.
He is now looking to pilot a new batch of UK Data Service datasets for his postgraduates in the coming 2011-2012 academic year, including the European and World Values Surveys, and is interested in bringing an in even wider variety of data in the future. He is an advocate for a wider sharing of teachers’ experiences and teaching materials. "I use almost exclusively survey data, because that’s what I know, and I suspect many other [teachers] do the same," he says, "[a] database where I could have a list of identified teaching datasets, where I also could contribute to, would be very useful."