10 How to turn TALK into a critical success factor in undergraduate social science research

Dr Jane Rand, York St John University

sticks-thThis post is about talk in the undergraduate classroom; specifically it’s about how talk can support undergraduate social science students to develop their understanding of research and their understanding of themselves as researchers.

Compared to students of the natural sciences or science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), undergraduate social science research students might be considered to be at a disadvantage. STEM students typically experience an apprenticing pedagogy; in the natural sciences, for example, laboratory-based activities are common through each year of undergraduate study. These learning environments provide both structure and community, from which beginning researchers are able to develop their identities as research community members (Balster et al., 2010: 177). These communities include (Thiry & Laursen, 2011):

  • the students,
  • more experienced students as research mentors, and
  • academic staff as research supervisors.

After progressive development from a mode of close supervision at the beginning of their undergraduate experience, through enquiry that is guided (both by supervisors and also mentors), to modes of near-independence (Spronken-Smith et al., 2008; Sabatini, 1997), the pedagogical approach is designed to enable students to adopt the ‘traits, habits and temperament of scientific researchers’ (Thiry & Laursen, 2011: 771). But this type of apprenticing is less common in the social sciences. One reason is cost – lab-based testing and experimentation lends itself to scale – the same cannot be said for approaches common to the social sciences such as detailed field research (Todd, Bannister & Clegg, 2004; Ishiyama, 2002).

Laboratories enable a community of practice-based pedagogy.



In his seminal work on communities of practice, Wenger identifies practice as ‘doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do’ (1998: 47; emphasis added). He argues that practice depends on the interaction between doing and reifying: ‘making, designing, representing…encoding and describing as well as perceiving, interpreting…decoding and recasting’ (59).

So how can we create a community of practice-based pedagogy in social science, where approaches can be diverse and, in isolation, positions can appear to be opposed?

Introducing TALK

Social science research practices can include theory-testing (deductive) approaches and also theory-building (inductive) approaches, as well as both of these in combination; they can be considered on a continuum. Practices in the natural sciences are similarly multiple and varied; so what does “the laboratory” actually offer? The natural science laboratory is a space in which tests and experiments are conducted and practised, and from which theories are developed; it is a vehicle for developing knowledge and understanding. The conduct and practice of social science research is conceptualisation: “the mental process[es] by which fuzzy and imprecise constructs are defined in concrete and precise terms” (Bhattacherjee, 2012: 43). One way in which we articulate (developing) conceptualisations is through talk.



In my own research into social science undergraduates’ experience(s) as researchers (Rand, 2016), I designed an activity at two points during a third year dissertation module for students: Thinking of yourself as a researcher, list 3 words that describe how you feel; their responses revealed negative affective states (nervous, worried, anxious). It’s not uncommon to feel “stuck” during undergraduate research (Todd, Bannister & Cleg, 2004) but Ahmed (2014) warns that the impressions created by emotions can underpin students’ “towardness” or “awayness” if treated uncritically. So, not only do we need TALK, we need CRITICAL TALK.

Unsurprisingly, I found that talk is powerful in:

i) traditional classroom settings in activities such as small group discussions that reflect on progress or share results, and

ii) traditional tutorial-based learning environments, which often enable a more critical dialogue between tutor and student.

What I also found was that talk is more powerful when it can support the recognition and re-framing of emotional reactions; I found this through using Action Learning Sets. Action learning sets enabled social science undergraduate research students to realise a distinct mode of apprenticing that facilitated emotional re-framing. It was distinct because the peers were similarly peripheral to the community of social science research, unlike apprenticeship in the natural sciences that typically depends upon more experienced students acting as research mentors. In social science, action learning sets enabled students to create beginning researchers communities of practice.

The vehicle of an action learning set enabled students to:

  • support each other in the recognition of emotional reactions to their research experience(s), community
  • re-frame them,
  • and from this commit to a “towardness” in relation to their identities as researchers.

This mode of apprenticeship relied not upon benefitting from others’ more advanced practice, but on becoming more practiced, and advancing conceptualisation through “doing [conceptualisation] in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning’ (Wenger, 1998: 47; emphasis added).



I’m interested to hear from colleagues who are already adopting similar approaches, or from those who would like incorporate action learning into their practice. I’m also interested in collecting and curating social science undergraduate student voices. Please get in touch via email: j.rand@yorksj.ac.uk



Ahmed, S. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Balster, N., C. Pfund, R. Rediske, and J. Brancha. 2010. “Entering Research: A Course That Creates Community and Structure for Beginning Undergraduate Researchers in the STEM Disciplines.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 9: 108-118.

Bhattacherjee, A. (2012) Social Sciences Research: Principles, Methods, and Practices. Textbooks Collection. Book 3. Available from: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=oa_textbooks

Ishiyama, J. 2002. “Does early participation in undergraduate research benefit social science and humanities students?” College Student Journal 36 (3): 380 – 386. Available online at: http://reserachgate.net/publication/237386612

Rand, J. 2016. Researching Undergraduate Social Science Research. Teaching in Higher Education [under review]

Sabatini, D.A. .1997. “Teaching and Research Synergism: the Undergraduate Research Experience.” Journal of professional issues in engineering education and practice 123 (3): 98-102.

Spronken-Smith, R., R. Walker, B. O’Steen, J. Batchelor, H. Matthews, and T. Angelo. 2008 Inquiry-based Learning Report. Prepared for New Zealand Ministry of Education. Available online at: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/project/inquiry-based-learning/resources/books/inquiry-based-learning-report

Thiry, H. and S.L. Laursen. 2011. “The role of Student-Adviser Interactions in Apprenticing Undergraduate Researchers into a Scientific Community of Practice.” Journal of Science Education Technology 20 (6): 771-784.

Todd, M., P. Banister, and S. Clegg. 2004. “Independent inquiry and the undergraduate dissertation: perceptions and experiences of final-year social science students.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 29 (3): 335-355.

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Dr Jane Rand, Head of Department in the Faculty of Education & Theology, York St John University