Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego

stompocopter

We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling

 

supervising

After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.

journey

I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.

Planning my first article from my PhD research on societal impact

I am currently trying to prepare for my first progression viva which is in June, by getting my methodology chapter into shape for submission in may. However, I’m also keen not to take my eye off the ball and lose focus on the rest of my PhD, so have given myself the task of preparing my first article for submission. (I have published an article from my UG research on colonial discourse and one on dissemination, but this will be the first article to come out of my PhD research).

After carrying out my initial scoping workshop to look at experiences and opinions around research impact, particularly societal impact, I wondered if the research design and findings of the workshop might make for an interesting article on using participatory research to inform the development of methods for a larger research project.

I have outlined my initial plan below, with a couple of links to journals I am considering as potential places to publish.

Title: Using an action research approach to explore researcher experiences and opinions of societal impact

  • Background to my research

Context of research into societal impact

Impact definitions

Overall PhD aims and research questions

How the scoping workshop fits in to overall research

  • Carrying out the workshop

Research design

Practical issues

  • What did I learn?

Data gathered

Analysis

  • Next steps

Using the data to inform interview questions

Possible journals

Educational Action Research – my work fits the Education subject area, and the journal has an emphasis on looking at different research methods and designs. Gold Open Access option (£1700), co-edited by Pat Thompson, a big name in my field.

Higher Learning Research Communications – International journal, completely open access, broad scope of articles related to higher education including teaching and learning but also best practice and faculty experiences. – I have a feeling this journal might be more realistic for my current stage.

I have sent this off to a couple of very helpful colleagues for some initial feedback, as I think it is always worth getting another opinion to help you think about angles for a new article, or consider outlets you wouldn’t have thought of.

 

As always, any comments very welcome!

The results of my PhD scoping workshop on social impact

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

As part of my wider Phd research into researcher perspectives on societal impact, I held an initial scoping workshop a couple of weeks ago to further develop my understanding and gather data to inform the writing of my interview questions to be used in later case studies. I found it really useful, so thought I would share with you how and why  I did it. As always, comments very welcome!

Participatory or action research

The idea was to draw upon a participant action research approach, as this approach allows for an emphasis on participant experience and understanding that is integral to my research questions and aims.

This workshop design allows the researcher and participants to work together with two broad aims: to understand the participant’s world, and to learn how to change aspects or carry them out more successfully. In this case, these broad aims were to understand more fully the impact debate and the issues surrounding it, and to learn how to change and improve the understanding, communication and assessment of social impact.

Aims of the workshop

The initial scoping workshop addresses two key sets of aims. Firstly, it directly addresses my research aims as detailed above in the introduction. By holding the workshop and analysing the data gathered I further my own understanding of the impact debate whilst also creating a space in which participants can discuss and explore their impact experiences and opinions.

In addition to this, the workshop addresses some specific aims relating to research design:

• To identify key issues and concerns surrounding social impact for researchers.
• To aid the informed development of a set of questions to be used during the data gathering stage of the case studies.

Structure of the workshop

Although participatory action research is always going to be approached in different ways depending on the context of the subject and participants, there have been attempts to suggest structure templates as a basis to design workshops around. I adapted an eight-step structure (Heron and Reason 2006) into a more compact five-step one to suit the amount of time I had available and to focus more on the participant input than my own research journey. I did however keep a short section in to explain my research aims and to illustrate how the workshop fits into my research journey, as this information is important when ensuring that participants are well informed about how the data gathered will be used.

• Welcome and introductions
• Short presentation on the context of my research and where the workshop fits in as part of my research journey
• Group discussions around what social impact means to the participants and feedback
• Group discussion around which areas of social impact the participants feel need further understanding and feedback
• Summary, next steps for the research and thank you

Data analysis

The majority of the data collected during the workshop was in the form of mind maps and notes written on flipchart paper during group exercises. For analysis of this I have taken direction from a qualitative analysis approach often used for coding different types of data (Bryman 2012). The stages of analysis include the following:

• Transcribe and code at an early stage
• Initial read through of documents, no note taking
• Second read through with marginal notes including key words
• Review the emerging codes

After typing up all the comments from the flipchart sheets, I followed the above stages, resulting in a list of key ideas and questions around each discussion point. I have then summarised these into the following themes:

Exercise 1 – What do we need to consider when
defining social impact?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Working with industry
• Effects on practice/services
• Data/publication access

Exercise 2 – What are some of the issues and Qs which could
help us understand social impact better?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Overlap with academic/economic impact
• Defining impact

Many of the issues arising from the two discussions overlapped, indicating that a lot of the key issues surrounding social impact are not seen by the participants as being sufficiently understood.

What next?

I am now using the data gathered from the workshop to write a draft set of semi-structured interview questions to use during my case studies. Overall, it was a really useful experience and has definitely given me more confidence in my research design.

Pinning down my methodology – Part 3

Following a very useful, but somewhat intense supervision a few weeks ago, I have been focusing on stepping back from my very practical research design and workshop planning, and instead getting back to methodology basics. This has meant immersing myself in the maze of approaches and trying to pin down the philosophical theories which will be most appropriate to inform my research, following my previous posts on methodology part 1 and part 2.

Now, I’m going to be brave and admit that I have been struggling to get my head around the various concepts which will make up my methodology chapter – and I am sure I’m not the only one. If you, like me, do not have a background in educational research, then I am sure you might also feel a little baffled when confronted with a range of interlocking concepts and theories whose terms are continually developing and being debated.

That said, I feel I have made a mini-breakthrough this week in this area, and wanted to share my steps for getting there in case they might be of help to any fellow PGRs wading through the mire of educational methodology. So here goes.

Start from the beginning

I made the initial mistake of trying to develop my understanding of methodology theories through reading journal articles, as this is my usual go-to platform for learning and exploring. Silly me! Without the basic grounding in terms and debates, the articles did more harm than good, leaving my reeling with confusion and frustrated with myself.

On the advice of my supervisor I attended some EdD classes within my School, and was also able to access all the supporting materials for these classes on our online portal, meaning I could sit at home in my spare time and go through the lecture slides and reading material, which was amazingly useful. If your School runs an EdD class I would highly recommend asking if you can have access to at least the online materials, are they give a great overview of the basics in methodology.

Explore all avenues

Depending on your own personal learning style, it might also be worth exploring other platforms for finding information and learning these core concepts. For me, when I am trying to get my head around something new and complex, focusing only on linear reading does not do the trick – I need to mix it up a little, listen to people speak on the subject from their point of view. Live lectures are great for this, but this can also be supported by online resources – YouTube is brilliant for this! Some useful examples:

Complex research terminology simplified – very basic in the level of understanding it goes into, but perfect for getting your head around the different terms used in educational research methodology.

Graham Gibbs’ series on research methods – based on the social sciences, but covers many areas and concepts which cross over in Education too.

Using a combination of EdD materials, video tutorials and textbooks, I finally feel I have enough information to understanding the basics of what my methodology will look like:

Tadaaaaaaa!

Methodology outline

 

Apologies for the horrendous hand writing 🙂

So my next step, over the Christmas holidays, is to start getting my reasons down for choosing this avenue and finding some good sources to back up my decisions. Fingers crossed I will have a draft outline of this chapter to share with my supervisory team by January, exciting!

As always, comments, questions and feedback very welcome 🙂

EndNote: five reasons to use it to organise your academic research references

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

Starting my PhD

As many PhD students have done before me, I got all excited after my official PhD acceptance and signed up for a string of development courses to get me off to a good start. Luckily, I work and study at an institution that takes great pride in its staff development initiatives, so all the courses so far have been useful for at least one aspect of my work or research, or both.

EndNote: addressing my ignorance of referencing software

However, they were all blown out of the water this morning after attending a session on EndNote – which has honestly changed how I work forever. I like to think of myself as fast at picking up new software and processes quickly and am generally up to date with developments in offline and online tools related to academia. That said, I completely admit to having a big gap where my referencing tools should be. As an undergrad I had little interest in referencing, and simply laboured away in my Word documents like most of my class mates, and as an MA student, working full time, I simply didn’t feel like I had the time to invest in it.

EndNote: A whistle stop tour

What a mistake that was! It could have saved me sooooo much time. This morning two of our brilliant subject librarians showed us lots of clever ways to use EndNote to help organise our reading and make referencing/citing/bibliographies much easier and quicker. I thought, there must be plenty of people out there like me who love clever bits of software and tools but have just simply missed the boat on this for one reason or the other, so I thought I would give you a quick whistle stop tour of my Five Favourite Awesome Facts about EndNote:

It can import all my saved PDFs

I have a folder on my work computer marked Reading, into which I chuck all manner of articles, book chapters and comment pieces that I come across in PDF form, with all the intention of reading them later, saved as some string of keywords which meant a lot to me on the day but which will remain meaningless gobbledygook for ever more. In EndNote, I have selected the folder and imported it, and hey presto, the clever sod has indexed it all and populated the referencing information, as well as storing my PDFs in the library for me to view at anytime. Amazing!

It has an EndNote version of post-it-notes

I’m a sucker for a post it note – look at the new lovely owl ones I got recently as a present from my mum – beautiful! I like to use them to note down thoughts I have when reading books etc on the bus. So, I was super chuffed to see that EndNote has this function built in so I can make comments on the pdfs that are stored in my EndNote library, therefore enabling me to save all my pointless scribbles in a very orderly fashion. Yippee.

Access

I am forever realising that an article I need is either saved on my work pc when I am at home, or that I have left a useful book in my other bag, so the fact that I can save my whole pdf library in EndNote and access it from work or from home whenever I like, is a godsend.

Manual input

As my research focuses a lot on social media and online dissemination of research, a good proportion of my reading is made up of blog posts and websites, as well as traditional academic journals and books. Luckily, EndNote has the option to let me enter an item manually and populate whichever of the many reference fields I feel is appropriate, meaning I can save all these non-traditional references alongside my traditional ones, lovely.

It’s free!

As my University support EndNote, I get access to the full offline version for free, and lovely training sessions to help me use it too. From chatting to other researchers I think most UK universities tend to offer a similar perk to their students, but if yours doesn’t, then you can always have a bash at using the free web based version, although I’m not sure if it has all the same features.

Preparing for my first supervisory meeting – narrowing the focus of my PhD research

mapping my PhD thesis

mapping my PhD thesis

Finding a research focus

With my first supervisory meeting looming, this week I decided to try and start thinking of the focus my research is going to take. I had nightmares of turning up and my supervisor saying ‘well that all sounds very broad – which bit do you think you will look at?’ and me just having an inner panic and tripping over my words like a disorganised fool.

Having a flexible research plan to allow for change

Whilst this will no doubt happen anyway, I am trying to minimise the chances by having a somewhat clear plan in my head of what my research could look like. Importantly, I say could, because, as I was discussing with my mentor today, whatever I plan to focus on now, it will change and shift over the next 5 years A LOT, so having too rigid a structure will only make it more stressful and impractical.

Statistics and case studies – mixed methods research

Something I imagine my supervisor will certainly ask is how I actually plan to carry out my research. How will I collect the information that all my waffling will be based upon? When I explained my ideas around gathering some statistics about downloads and testing the results on real life case studies, (which sounded like common sense to me), my mentor helpfully explained that this would be called a mixed methods approach, and that there is a lot of research out there done in this way for me to look at and learn from. So far so good.

To get this all into context i drew the map above, which I will be taking along to me supervisory meeting to run past my PhD supervisor. Hopefully she won’t think it is complete nonsense, and will have some suggestions around how to approach it and what changes need to be made along the way.

Get in touch

I would love to hear about other people’s experiences of their first supervisory meetings or using mixed methods approaches – feel free to comment below, or tweet me @megan_beech or email at meganbeech10@gmail.com

Linking social impact research to practice

Naturally, as my work and my research are very closely linked, I look to my research as a way of informing my work and improving the support and advice that I can offer. For me, researching in the area of social impact is all about looking for new ways to create meaningful social impact and helping researchers to do so: I want my research to be practically useful to other researchers, thus creating some social impact of it’s own.

A support network for academic researchers

I think embedding this kind of impact support into university culture is really important; as  Ian M Carter points out in his DESCRIBE essay:

Making non-academic impact a part of research applies as much to the support structures as to the researchers and what they do’.

Basically, in order for researchers to be able to create meaningful impact, they need the required knowledge, guidance and tools. I believe it is important that the knowledge, guidance and tools are a product of rigorous academic research to ensure they are fit for the job, and it is this research that I intend to carry out.

Creating impact as part of your research journey

Ian also talks about the importance of making impact activities part of the research journey, something which I discussed in an earlier blog post. This really can’t be emphasised enough, as the earlier you embed research dissemination activities into your work, the more of an impact you will see over time and the more opportunities you will find for impact along the way, rather than just attempting them as an afterthought.

A flexible research impact toolkit

When designing my social impact toolkit I want to do it alongside the research journey, so that researchers can pick and choose their activities along the way and really work towards building cumulative impact as their work progresses. As Ian points out:

‘Institutions should be looking to embed expertise into their routine processes and activities, so that they are fit for purpose, for delivering high quality research and enabling its appropriate translation into practical benefit, not just responding to a particular (albeit very important) assessment process.’

Whilst a lot of ongoing impact discussions have been born out of the need to respond to REF2014 requirements, it is now time for us to make the activities that are useful and bring good returns, routine in our research. The most effective way to do this is to have a strong system of internal support that enables researchers and adapts to their needs.