Methods Training: a Gateway to Experiential Learning

Students often dislike methods courses, but methods training can be an exciting gateway to experiential learning when integrated into substantive political science courses.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard both faculty and students lament the unpopularity of methods courses. Students take the courses because they have to, and faculty get evaluations that, in a nut shell, say ‘great teaching, too bad about the content.’ Meanwhile, there’s growing enthusiasm for experiential learning and acknowledgement of the value it plays in enriching understanding, strengthening problem solving and “heightening intellectual curiosity”.

As a methods enthusiast with a passion for fieldwork, I sought to marry methods training and experiential learning in a substantive course on the politics of development. I describe this in a recently published Politics article, “Bringing the field into the classroom: Methods and experiential learning in the ‘Politics of Development’“. I developed the course around one central assignment – Skype and telephone interviews of development practitioners and scholars in different parts of the world. A series of smaller assignments helped students practice these skills before their ‘big’ interviews, which, in turn, later served as the basis for research papers. Students learned to interview, transcribe, code, and integrate primary data into papers.

Making the distant relatable is a key challenge in education, whether that distance is temporalgeographical, or constructed by dominant narratives. Teaching in a small university in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, making ‘the politics of development’ seem less distant to a classroom entirely raised in North America was a challenge. Reflecting on my own experiences of interview-based fieldwork, I decided to try to offer my students a ‘taste’ of fieldwork, all without leaving our small town.

To be sure, conducting Skype interviews offers but a faint reflection of the full fieldwork experience. Nonetheless, it involved learning and using practical methodological techniques to gather new information and coping with logistical challenges (recording software, time zones, accents, dodgy phone cards) and operating in a cross-cultural context. Although interviews are a brief exchange, in contrast with course readings, they are an interactive experience. They are also unique. As a result, the classroom became not just a place to discuss assigned readings (knowledge we all had in common) but also a place of discovery, where students shared these specific, unique experiences. They naturally made comparisons between arguments in the texts we read, and the experiences of their interviewees. In doing so, I found it particularly interesting to see how students assessed and reconsidered expertise – should we give more credit to someone working in the field, or to an author? What about someone who does both? Does place of origin influence expertise? How do we balance the specific knowledge of someone who works in one village, with someone who has worked in multiple countries? These questions facilitated a discussion about development, and the structure of academia. Where did we fit? Were we replicating or challenging the global dynamics of ‘development’? What kinds of responsibility come with research? To whom?

As experiential learning becomes more widespread, and conversations about methods teaching, and research transparency become increasingly urgent, it is useful to think about the intersection of these areas of teaching, research and practice. Although tackling this combination of issues and skills in a single term comes with logistical challenges, as I note at the end of my article, it can offer students insights into both methods and substance that may propel further inquiry into both.

Kristi Heather Kenyon

Kristi Heather Kenyon

Kristi Heather Kenyon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Winnipeg.


  1. Great blog – a good summary of the key ideas in the paper.

    And the whole process seemed a great way of plugging students into what is happening in the Third World

    Hope you can do something similar in Winnipeg.

  2. Methodology first, Methods second!

    Great blog on an important issue that for me, raises deeper concerns.
    Academic institutions tends to see methods as a necessary evil rather than the product of methodology. A researcher should be testing their understanding of a phenomenon in order to inform decision making rather than to justify some correlation. My concern is that too many seek a qualification rather than understanding. The institutional response is how we deliver that qualification at the lowest cost as opposed to how do we effectively deliver the understanding whilst minimising costs.
    This belief that maximising benefits for a given set of costs is exactly the same as minimising costs subject to a given set of benefits, is an old maxim from political economics that is not always true.
    My concern is that the following is not appreciated and influences both future academics and professional and should take a greater role in their development:
    The independence and professional objectivity;
    Clearly defined research objectives;
    The distinction between outcomes and outputs;
    The distinction between data and proxies;
    The distinction between data and information;
    The understanding that there are different types of methodologies answering different types of questions that require the use of different types of methods is lost on most students and rarely appreciated by institutional representatives.
    This is not an exhaustive list but an indication of a losdt discussion that is more likely to be forgotten as we focus on how to process data that academics crave without yielding the information that professionals need.

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