William O’BrochtaImage of man leaning on wall
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science
SoTL Seminar Participant in Spring 2019

How well can students in an introductory course write a scholarly research article? Early in my teaching career, I observed students in upper-level courses struggling to write literature reviews and theories primarily because they had no experience with these forms of writing. Many students also remarked that they only started to understand the work that political scientists do once they were asked to critically engage with and analyze political science research. Why not introduce students to the research process in an introductory course? Such exposure can help provide a solid research design foundation upon which future courses can build, allowing upper-level courses to focus on more advanced research skills. Additionally, helping students produce their own research is empowering and may motivate students to better understand the discipline.

I re-designed an Introduction to Comparative Politics course to teach undergraduate students research article writing skills. The course had three main features: evaluating published scholarship, workshops on research design, and writing a scaffolded research article. We proceeded in modules with students learning to analyze published research, ask research questions, write a literature review, construct a theory, develop a research design, and summarize the policy impact of their work. On a typical day, students came to class having read and reflected on the content and research design of published research. Half of the class time was devoted to teaching core substantive concepts; the rest of class was reserved for critically analyzing research designs. At the end of each module, students worked in groups to start the next part of their article.

I hypothesized that students would leave the course with increased confidence and ability to write a research article and that students would be able to perform most parts of the article writing process proficiently, despite no initial experience. I used a paired pre- and post-test design to evaluate whether student confidence and ability increased as a result of the course: students made significant gains in both areas. Further, I scored each student’s work against a rubric designed to evaluate articles published in an undergraduate political science journal. Student performance matched that of published student work on more than two-thirds of the rubric skills. These results support the idea that students with no prior experience can succeed at writing a high-quality research article.

Before starting this project, I thought a lot about course design and ways to improve student learning. Whenever I implemented a new idea in a course, I really did not know whether what I was doing was effective. One strength of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) field is that the emphasis is on critical reflection and evaluation of all pedagogical innovations. Evaluation methods take many forms, and SoTL scholars are open to work that thinks critically about teaching and learning in a manner appropriate for the course and the instructor’s resources. My design and intervention had methodological problems that were inherent in the timing of the course and the way it had previously been taught. I initially thought that these challenges meant that any research I did would be too mired in context to be meaningful; however, I learned that this is a universal challenge that should not discourage anyone from conducting research and sharing it widely. I also appreciated the fact that SoTL is accepting of interdisciplinary perspectives: the SoTL field in political science is small, but research on teaching and learning has broader appeal that transcends disciplinary boundaries. For this reason, I encourage those interested in SoTL to reach across disciplines. This is a welcoming community for anyone at any level who is interested in effective teaching.