Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Web Exclusive

Reimagining Research Courses for Online Education
By Nafees Alam, PhD

Research tends to be the course sequence of social science to which students least look forward. Makes sense. Most social science students aim to be practitioners, not researchers. Knowing this, many programs and professors presume lower student satisfaction in research courses compared with other courses. However, this needn’t necessarily be the case. While true, most social science students don’t often love research, it may not be because they aren’t interested in the subject matter, but rather that the subject matter isn’t being taught interestingly.

Online research courses are generally designed to be taught asynchronously, though there are exceptions in which synchronous sessions are scheduled no more than once per week. Course activities include four to five smaller milestone assignments (ie, logic model, client path flow chart, and brainstorm map), building up to two to three larger assignments (ie, single subject research study, secondary data analysis, and literature review), with attendance and participation being determined by once- to twice-per-week discussion boards. Discussion boards offer students the opportunity to build cohort interactivity, with professors often expecting one original post along with two classmate responses per student. For the most part, students are semi-self-paced given the nature of predominantly asynchronous coursework, putting greater emphasis on course design and development for the purpose of seamless delivery.

The process of initially designing a research course and developing the course to be specialized toward a nuanced group of students—for example, undergraduate vs graduate students and students’ majors) is of paramount importance in creating a course that yields optimal student satisfaction.

Designing and developing courses to incorporate a cumulative mindset toward scaffolding—the process of breaking lessons into manageable units, with the professor providing decreasing levels of support as students grasp new concepts and master new skills—each lesson can cumulatively scaffold, building into the next lesson, and each assignment can also cumulatively scaffold, building into the next assignment. It isn’t enough for students to know what they’re learning. In order to become true learners, they must be given the opportunity to do what they’ve learned, hence the reasoning behind cumulative scaffolding. All assignments should be the simplest versions of themselves at the beginning of the semester, cumulatively growing in complexity and scaffolding toward the end of the semester.

Simplicity is a contested concept among many professors. What is a professor’s responsibility? Is it to make simple concepts difficult to understand, or is it to make difficult concepts simple to understand? Does a professor find value in striving for their courses to be the hardest on campus, with only a few students passing? Or does a professor find value in striving for their course to be the easiest on campus, with only a few students failing? Exclusivity is often confused with quality; thus, many professors believe their courses are of greater quality when an exclusive group of students pass.

Taking a different approach may be a better option: designing, developing, and delivering research courses that are optimally accessible to a wide range of students to enjoy and excel. The first step is knowing our audience. Why are students here? Highly decorated tenured and tenure-track faculty have a tendency of viewing their students as future PhD candidates; thus, they design, develop, and deliver research courses that have an aura of exclusivity and elitism. Instead, approaching students in the context of where they are in the present rather than where they may be in the future can help make the subject of research more accessible. Intentionally demonstrating how research connects to practice can be more effective than does making connections to a theoretical framework, which tends to be more abstract.

Research courses generally tend to lean quantitative. A more equitable topic distribution between quantitative and qualitative subject matter—the latter of which can be more accessible and enjoyable for a large number of social science students that do not enjoy mathematics—could be beneficial. Shifting graded assignments from quizzes and tests to essays can help ease present-day student tensions and prepare students to be stronger professionals in their chosen fields in the future.

When teaching research concepts, it may be more meaningful to use real-world examples. The first research question we formed as babies after seeing our own feet flying in front of our faces is, “Is my foot edible?” Thus, the first hypothesis may be, “My foot is edible.” Thereafter, research is conducted by repeatedly trying to eat our feet through trial and error. As we realize that we cannot eat our feet, we may develop alternative hypotheses, such as, “Since my foot is not edible due to its size, my toes will be edible.” Our baby selves collect data trying to eat our feet, analyzed it to understand that no part of our bodies is edible, and then interpret by understanding that no part of anyone’s body is edible. Collection, analysis, and interpretation/dissemination are the three major relationships researchers have with data, and based on this example, we’ve all been researchers since birth.

The practical application to achieve greater accessibility and student satisfaction in research courses is demonstrating the connections between students’ everyday lives and research concepts. Lessons that are dry and nuanced toward an exclusive set of students further alienate students that are already apprehensive about research. It isn’t difficult to enliven these lessons to be more engaging and enjoyable.

While in-person research courses may appear easier to enliven, there isn’t much additional work involved in enhancing online research courses. YouTube can be used as a tool to teach undergraduate and graduate-level research in an engaging manner.

These minor adjustments to how programs and professors design, develop, and deliver their social science research courses can have positive effects, but they may not always be realistic. Higher education is as much a bureaucracy as any centuries-old institution, with many purists opting for the status quo and gatekeeping against progress and innovation.1 Certain practice-oriented programs, including social work, have larger external governing bodies (the Council on Social Work Education [CSWE] and NASW) that dictate how courses for the discipline are designed, developed, and delivered.

The question is, how much flexibility do we have? Are the existing NASW-consistent, CSWE-accredited course descriptions, course objectives, and interpretation of professional competencies (if applicable) flexible or rigid? A lack of flexibility can hinder, even halt, progress and innovation in higher education.2

The optimist says, “For every obstacle, there is a solution.” The pessimist, equally right, says, “For every solution, there is an obstacle.” Designing, developing, and delivering research courses that are more accessible and enjoyable for students can be achieved, though likely not to the degree to which research suddenly becomes most students’ favorite course sequence. Progress and innovation will always be kept in healthy check by consistency and the status quo. That being said, there are some small steps we can take to improve the design and delivery of research courses without stepping on the toes of gatekeeping decision-makers.

— Nafees Alam, PhD, is an award-winning professor who specializes in designing, developing, and delivering undergraduate and graduate-level social science research courses.


1. Westerheijden DF. Gatekeepers on Campus: Peer Review in Quality Assurance of
Higher Education Institutions. In: Forsberg E, Geschwind L, Levander S, Wermke W, eds. Peer Review in an Era of Evaluation: Understanding the Practice of Gatekeeping in Academia. Palgrave Macmillan; 2022:79.

2. Orr D, Weller M, Farrow R. How is digitalisation affecting the flexibility and
openness of higher education provision? Results of a global survey using a new conceptual model. J Interact Media Educ. 2019;2019(1):1-12.