Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Designing an online research activity for my seminar students

Yesterday's seminar with my final-year students was about progresses and processions in Elizabethan England. A lot's been written on this topic and I have a research interest in the geography of royal representation in early modern England, so I was really looking forward to the class.

But how to approach it? One of the problems with progresses is that they're transient events and leave few material traces.

At the same time I knew that everyone's mind would be on their essays, and that they also needed to develop research skills for both their coursework and dissertations. So I thought, why not design the class as a research activity? Here's what I did. 

I searched the V&A collections and found this fantastic damask napkin done in reverse point with Elizabeth's portrait and Ann Boleyn's coat of arms.  

We haven't looked at fabrics at all but have done some study of portraiture so it was both familiar and strange at the same time - inviting research but with some basis in previous study. The online record also gave information about how it was very similar to one which Thomas Gresham used when the Queen came in procession to dine with him and open the Royal Exchange in January 1571. This was a good connection with the class topic, so I decided to use this object for our research activity.

I asked everyone to bring a laptop to class, and made sure I could obtain a spare if anyone couldn't bring one. I wanted them to work in pairs to use the university's library databases and other online sources to research the objects, and to record their findings with some bibliographic software like Endnote.

These were the learning outcomes for the class:

1. Use online resources to research a topic  
2. Use tools to manage research process (eg. Endnote)  
3. Use the research outcomes to produce some writing on progresses and processions.

The plan
This was my plan, roughly speaking:

1. From previous conversations I guessed many students weren't good at using online resources to do initial object-based research, which is an important skill for final-year work. So I asked the students to work in pairs to find the object on the V&A online collections and do some initial research to clarify their understanding of the object. (For example, what was damask, how was it used, and why might it have been used in this way and in this context? Who was Gresham, and is there any significance in his commissioning a portrait of Elizabeth in a damask tablecloth?). 
2. I also guessed the students didn't know much about literature searches, beyond using the library catalogue or JSTOR or Google scholar. So I showed them how to use the library portal to identify relevant databases such as BHA and Historical Abstracts, and asked them to search for some secondary literature which addressed themes that had emerged from their object-based research.
3. I suspected that many students didn't know you could export references from databases into applications like Endnote and Delicious (I was right - they didn't). So the penultimate step was to get the students to sign up to a free online bibliographic tool and practice exporting and grouping some of the references they had found from their searches.
4. The final step was to spend ten minutes using the records they had generated to devise some kind of output, such as a gallery interpretation panel, or perhaps an essay question for which they could write the introductory paragraph. 

The class
What worked best was when the students signed up to Endnote Online, and realised you could export references into your own library, add other attachments, add notes, group your references, and search them. This was a revelation and I think it's probably the single most significant outcome. 

Showing everyone which databases they could use for object-based research and literature searches went okay but I realise that having an introduction to online resources and using them to research something specific was too much to do all at once. Splitting them up would have been better. I could spend ten minutes in two or three earlier classes to introduce different online resources, and then ask the students to practice using them after class. This would put them in a good position to bring them all together in the research activity. 

We didn't get to do any writing, not because we ran out of time, but because I chickened out. I got the feeling that they were struggling to see how it all related to the class topic - progresses and public processions in Elizabethan England - and so I spent the final twenty minutes giving a short talk about progresses, and why it's been a prominent topic in recent scholarship. Would it have been better to hold my nerve and do the writing? Yes, and it would probably be a better way of letting students figure out the relevance themselves, which is always a more powerful way of learning. 

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