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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

Strategies for Overcoming Problems in Teaching Social Science Methods: A Comparative Case Study

Comparative Perspective
Stoyan Panov
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Stoyan Panov
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Elina Sannehag
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Despite the importance of methods for scientific inquiry and the students’ academic development and future career, research on the teaching of methodological skills in the field of social sciences is still relatively limited. In particular, there is a limited understanding of whether the challenges experienced by the instructors of quantitative and qualitative methods are similar or different. The current project addresses this gap in research by discussing the experienced problems as well as the strategies to overcome these problems in two methods-courses. The first course has a qualitative, legal focus, and it provides a general introduction to fundamental and cross-cutting techniques and methods of legal research and interpretation with an emphasis on interpretation of international law. The course aims to provide students with understanding of the process of assigning meaning to texts with some legal objective such as defining what legal terms mean, determining rights and obligations, etc. The core of this part of the course deals with rules and methods of interpretation (e.g. formalistic, textualist, evolving or dynamic interpretation) as well as the difference in interpretation of international documents over time. The object of interpretation of legal texts and its function in legal systems are provided as well as a careful examination to the interpretative communities tasked with the role of attributing meaning of legally binding texts. The second course is a quantitatively oriented course in sociological survey design. The purpose of the course is to teach students about the possibilities and challenges of conducting surveys. The course has a strong focus on learning by doing, and the students will learn to analyze survey data with help of a statistical software (PSPP). In addition, the students are required to design and implement their own survey, and analyze the obtained data. In both courses, a large majority of the students are undergraduate governance students in their final 4th year of an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences program.
The purpose of this reflective comparative case study is to identify challenges in teaching methods, and in particular, discuss the extent to which the instructors’ experiences are similar or different in the two courses. Further, by relying on the practices from the two courses, as well as by consulting previous research on these topics, we discuss the strategies to solve the problems in particular when it comes to the following aspects: (1) syllabus design, (2) aspects of organizing a methods-course around a particular topical theme, (3) best practices of grading in order to facilitate learning and motivation. The project relies heavily on the instructors’ experiences. As students in both courses will give feedback in form of an anonymous evaluation, we will also include insights from the course evaluations of the both courses.
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