Many social science undergraduate students are required to take a courses in research methods and/or statistics. This is most likely the most dreaded class among students. The most common statements heard from students include:
- I’m not good with numbers
- I don’t understand the scientific method
- I hate doing research
- This will probably be a boring class
- I will never use the information outside this class again
Some professors have identified this trend as “research anxiety” which is the fear and uncertainty associated with authentic scientific methods (Einbinder, 2014). Student’s anxiety is also associated with prior negative experiences with mathematics, anxiety about learning highly technical information and fear of negative evaluation (Papanastasious & Zembylas, 2006). If this anxiety is familiar to you, you are not alone. A recent study found that over 80% of college students in social science majors have research and/or statistics anxiety (Siew, McCartney, & Vitevitch, 2019).
In my class, I strongly recommend that students overcome this fear by reframing the roles they play in the class. Students in a research methods class play two different roles: first, as a private investigator; second as a story teller.
The Researcher as a Private Investigator
Many of us have watched videos or read a book where the primary character is a private investigator (PI) trying to solve a crime. In the media, it is common to portray the PI as adventurous, persistent, curious, and clever. Private Investigators typically help find missing persons and perform research for legal, financial and/or criminal investigations. While some of these activities may be exciting and entertaining, we need to note that the PI is finding answers to complex questions about human behavior. That is exactly what we do in social science research, we formulate a question about human behavior (in our case it is about communication behavior) and set up a strategy for answering that question. Once the PI develops strategies for collecting data (or answering the question), they tend to have an idea (or prediction) of what they may find. Once they have all the information, they put the pieces together and develop conclusions. This is exactly what we do when we are in a research methods class. In a research methods class, you will follow the same steps of a PI when you learn how to answer questions about human behavior.
When you enter into a research methods class, you already have knowledge and skills that will help you succeed in this class. For example, it is common for the PI to research data bases; we also research data bases in the library. Part of the fact-finding process for a PI is to conduct interviews; we may also conduct interviews or give out surveys that ask questions about behaviors we are interested in exploring. The PI may conduct surveillance; we also do this in observational studies. The PI is expected to complete a final report. As a researcher, we too write a final report explaining our findings. This action leads us to our second role: The researcher as a story teller.
The Researcher as a Storyteller
Once all of the data and information is collected, we need to create a narrative that tells the story of our findings. This is a creative process that typically has a beginning, middle and ending; just like a best- selling novel. Our story has an opening scene. This is where we discuss the “problematic” or our question about human behavior. Then we move into the “journey”, here we describe the strategies that we used to answer the question. Next, we describe our findings. This is where we begin to humanize our numbers or findings. We answer the question of “what does this number tells us about the people who answered our survey or participated in the interview?” For example, communication scholars are interested in the kinds of communication behaviors that contribute to divorce. So, what do we do? We develop a research question; we develop a prediction of what we think might contribute to divorce; we develop strategies or questions about communication behaviors, especially conflict behaviors, which married couples may have engaged in, and we then make sense of their answers. These techniques have been used by many researchers in answering this question. The answer is really telling the story of divorce; in other word, they tell the story of communication factors that contributed to the divorce; end of the story! (Note: If you want to know the answer to the question above: I strongly suggest that you take our Family Communication Class.)
Viewing yourself as a Private Investigator and a Storyteller when enter research methods class has the potential to reduce your anxiety and significantly increasing your enjoyment of the class.
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By: Fran C. Dickson, Ph.D., professor, EKU Department of Communication