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Research Methodology: An Innovative Approach to a Venerable Course

As Originally Published by CTS, Volume3 Issue 6

By: Dr. Palmer Morrel-Samuels

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This paper outlines a number of innovations that we have recently implemented in the Research Methodology Course at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. Consistent with the goals of evidence-based medicine, evidence-based public health, intrinsic motivation, and phase 4 (T4) translational research, we have placed the emphasis on enhancing the students' desire to learn-and more specifically on their desire to learn rigorous methods for conducting useful research that delivers practical benefi ts in a straightforward manner. A dozen innovations, along with some preliminary outcomes, are outlined in detail. Clin Trans Sci 2010; Volume 3: 309-311

The introductory class in research methodology has been taught for many years at University of Michigan's School of Public Health, and recently, a number of innovations have been introduced that have changed the course substantially. It has always been a challenging class for the instructors, in part because the students are so diverse academically; for example, this year our enrollment includes two physicians, 20 first-year MPH-graduate students, halfa- dozen second-year MPH students, and an undergraduate in the accelerated BA-MPH program. Having taught the course recently as a team, we have now handed responsibility back to a single teacher (the first author) and have collaboratively redesigned the curriculum to expand some of the innovations that were instituted over the years by the second author. The end result is a combination of a few traditions and a number of innovations that place the class squarely at the intersection of two important theories: evidencebased medicine (and the related discipline of evidence-based public health) and intrinsic motivation. And, as a recent article in Clinical and Translational Science points out, the eff ective education of new researchers is of critical interest to members of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) community.

Although few advocates are aware of the fact, the original concept of evidence-based medicine grew out of important work in adult education; indeed, many writers 2 trace the development of evidence-based medicine back to efforts at Yale Medical school, where a working group sought to make medical students committed life-long learners who were willing to evaluate new sources of evidence and adopt new methodologies derived from emerging research in peer-reviewed journals. 3 Accordingly, evidence-based medicine (and the related fi elds of evidencebased nursing, evidence-based public policy, evidence-based rehabilitation, and evidence-based management, to name but a few) can trace its roots back to research on intrinsic motivation 4 and work in education with adult learners.

Our emphasis is on intrinsic motivation-the notion that intangible rewards such as the pleasures of intellectual challenge and a sense of growing mastery, may sometimes eclipse conventional "extrinsic" rewards such as monetary gain and letter grades, as a recent paper in Science shows. The new focus of the class has interesting implications for CTSA programs because our emphasis is on helping students learn to think critically and creatively through classroom tasks that encourage utilization of the cognitive skills necessary to translate research into practice. Students in the class are now encouraged, even required, to consider how issues outside of the topic they are specifically studying can help them think about, and provide, new perspectives on their own research. This skill is vital for phase 4 (T4) translational research, where we evaluate "real world" outcomes (i.e. application of research to community practice) because translational research requires considerations beyond scientific method so that outcomes can address cultural and contextual issues. Most research training, however, does not help students consider practical implications of their work. Our course comprises predominantly Master's in Public Health students who are often the front lines in translating research to community programs. Accordingly, we have designed the course so that it prepares students to generate practical translational research whose outcomes can provide straightforward guidance for community-based health promotion programs.

It is arguably true that our current approach to the class is entering some new territory. As we describe below, even though the class has not yet run its full course, we are already seeing some surprising outcomes that are consistent with the mission of our nation's CTSA programs and the goals of evidence-based medicine. In the interests of passing along the essential components of our practice to other educators who share our interest in research methodology, here is a partial list of the innovations.

  1. We de-emphasize grades and put all our emphasis on enhancing desire to learn : Students are told on the first day of class that the goal is not to enhance or preserve their grade point average (GPA), but rather to enhance and preserve their desire to learn . And specifically, enhancing their desire to learn practical and interesting things about the research in public health that will make the world a better place. It is an odd thing to tell students: The goal is not-strictly speaking-to expand their body of knowledge in research methodology per se , or to get the top grade, but rather to expand their desire to learn about research methodology both during the class and well after its final meeting at the end of the semester.
  2. Each class starts with a brief paideia session : During the first 5 or 10 minutes of every class, we start with an intellectual appetizer that reminds students how pleasant and gratifying it is to learn something new. Often, these are open discussions where the instructor points out a subtle but fascinating aspect of a painting, piece of music, photograph, folktale, or piece of literature. For example, in recent paideia sessions (a tradition from Reed College based on the Greek term for education, where the students give classes on a wide variety of ostensibly irrelevant topics) we analyzed Renoir's Umbrellas, a photograph of lions drinking at a watering hole, a Chinese folktale about an expert who knew the secrets of differentiating genuine jade from imitations, and a passage from the Knight's Tale in the Canterbury Tales. The key to these intellectual appetizers, of course, is that they seem irrelevant, but actually have direct bearing on the task at hand. For example, before we covered Stevens' wonderful work on four types of measurement scales, we analyzed a pair of poems by of which builds up to a crescendo where the poet claims "Measurement began our might." About half way through the semester, students began sharing responsibility for these Paideia sessions, where their general assignment is to tell a story that describes how they learned something new and unexpected. Recent topics from students have included, How I learned to drive a stick shift , How I learned to dance "improv" after years of formal ballet training, and How I learned about the durability of rumors- even obviously erroneous ones that I started myself.

. . .Continue to read original article (PDF).

Dr. Palmer Morrel-Samuels is a Research Psychologist with extensive training and experience in Statistical Analysis and Assessment Design. He has done a considerable amount of research and applied work on communication, testified to the U.S. congress on employee motivation and its linkage to objective performance metrics, published several articles on survey design in Harvard Business Review, among others, and wrote several patents to assist in the administration and analysis of workplace assessments. Dr. Morrel-Samuels currently teaches graduate courses on survey design and research methodology at the University of Michigan.

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