Collaborative Learning in Research Methods Courses

Submitted by Trinity Freeman

As a graduate student in Human Development and Family Science (HDFS), I am challenged with the opportunity and responsibility of moving from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge.  In this shift, it is important that I learn how to effectively and accurately create new knowledge to contribute to my field.  In order to do so, I need to be proficient in the processes, methods, and ethics that surround research.  These skills are introduced and fostered in undergraduate and graduate level research methods courses.  As a student, I have found that research methods classes can be quite challenging.  There are so many steps to consider when critically analyzing or creating a study, that it can often be overwhelming.  It leaves us to question what is the best way to teach this information so students feel comfortable with the specific concepts of research, while also capturing the vastness and importance of these topics in our field.

In order to address this issue, an instructor at a public university in the western US introduced a new way of teaching twenty-five undergraduate students about the research process.  Students were to create their own research proposals in small collaborative groups.   Each group, consisting of four to five students, was given the opportunity to formulate their own research question and create a proposal to be presented at the end of the semester.  Before working on the proposal itself, the instructor lectured on topics such as the research process, APA writing styles, ethics, etc.  The students were also exposed to a presentation by a librarian who instructed on how to find literature using the library’s database.  In addition, the students were given a variety of homework assignments and readings to increase their knowledge of the research process and to effectively construct their proposals.

After the culmination of the project, students completed a survey to reflect on how the collaborative research proposal contributed to their understanding of research methods and how the faculty support influenced their satisfaction with the project.  Students were also asked to report on the group dynamics and whether it influenced satisfaction with the proposal experience.  The instructor found that overall the majority of students expressed greater understanding of the research proposal process and felt they could construct another proposal in the future.  The students also expressed that the availability and willingness of the instructor to work with them on these proposals was very important in the writing process.  Lastly, the majority of students had positive experiences in their collaborative groups.  Those students who did not report positive experiences (20%), stated that unbalanced group dynamics or lack of personal connection to their topic were barriers.

As a first-year graduate student enrolled in a research methods course, I have had the opportunity to work in a collaborative small group with three other students to create our own research proposal.  In many ways, I can relate to the experiences of these undergraduate students.  Here are a few advantages and disadvantages, from my perspective, of this collaborative learning method.


  • Delegation – As similarly expressed by students in this article, a research proposal is a long and somewhat daunting task.  I was appreciative of the fact that I was not doing this alone.  We were able to split tasks to manage our time better and complete work more efficiently.
  • Understanding the process – It is much easier for me to understand how research is conducted by actually doing it and not just reading or talking about it.  Working in collaborative groups made it possible for us to put into action the concepts we have learned in class.
  • Pool of ideas – Working with others allows for more in depth and meaningful brainstorming.  We were able to come up with very innovative ideas by talking with one another and using the knowledge of each group member.


  • Selecting a research topic – Each member of my collaborative learning group had a unique research interest, which made it a bit challenging to hone in on one research topic.  It may be beneficial for the instructor to group students based on their research interests.
  • Scheduling – Writing a research proposal takes a substantial amount of time. Scheduling for group members to meet outside of class can be difficult and complicate the process.  Additional time is class is needed for group work.
  • Shared responsibility – Even though working together as a team helped quite a bit with time management, because we had our own tasks, there were some parts of the research process that I was not as involved in.  Therefore, I was not evenly exposed to all aspects of the proposal process.  Instructors could possibly allow individual submission of ‘mini’ assignments that coincide with each part, so that every student gets an opportunity to conduct a full research proposal.

Although concepts in research methods classes can be tricky to grasp, I as well as the students in this study, have found that collaborative learning can be effective in teaching students these concepts and provides a deeper understanding of the research process.

For more information:

Walsh, B.A., & Weiser, D. A. (2015). Teaching undergraduate research in human development and family studies: Piloting a collaborative method. Family Science Review, 20(1), 32-47.

Image credit: College WisCEL by college.library CC BY 2.0




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