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Experiences, not answers: strengthening research muscles

Last week should have seen over 2,000 international education professionals come together at the annual Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) conference in Vancouver, Canada. Instead, the world is in lockdown.

The third and final theme of our planned conference workshop ‘Permission to pursue my passion: driving innovation through student voices’ was to focus on building your research muscles. Following the first two themes on finding commonalities and activating insights, we wanted to share practical tools from the professional research toolkit, giving non-researchers ideas for designing, facilitating and analysing student insights. 

Similarly, the current global crisis has prompted many industry professionals to share guides and supportive suggestions, particularly in relation to moving online. Although we conducted many of the student interviews in our project remotely (via Zoom, between Australia and Canada), and delivered findings to our audiences in multiple countries via webinar and video, this is not a guide about remote working.

The influx of well-intentioned advice can be overwhelming, but there are unique opportunities to learn and apply new approaches to our work, both digitally and face to face. In time, this may spark new insights, re-evaluation and ultimately, sustainable innovation as we learn what worked and what did not.

For now, here’s what we wanted to share – and what we hope to bring back to APAIE for the re-scheduled conference in 2021!

Theme 3: Strengthening your research muscles

As we navigate new norms and shifting attitudes, great research skills are more important than ever. You can build transferable research skills across many areas, including:

  • Creating, taking or clarifying a brief;
  • Specifying samples (who do you want to understand better, beyond simple demographic factors);
  • Designing observations, conversations and experiments;
  • Listening and facilitating discussions;
  • Synthesis and analysis of data;
  • Presentation and communication of findings.

Many regional and global research bodies run great foundation courses, conferences and webinars to build core skills, including AMSRS in Australia, MRS in the UK and ESOMAR worldwide. Other entities such as NewMR curate resources from experienced insights professionals around the world via webinars and blogs which are freely available.

If you want start understanding people better right now, here are three aspects of your research game you can work on without waiting for the world to change. Some of them could even be adapted to connect more deeply with students as they study remotely around the world.

1. Using visual tools to elicit deeper responses

This can be as simple as asking students to show you emojis on their phone to explain how something felt, or introducing a picture with different human figures on it to elaborate on an experience. You can also ask students to draw (e.g. best/worst experiences), plot events on timelines and map on diagrams along a given spectrum. With any of these, don’t stop at the drawing or mapping, but probe, probe, probe, and listen for the story behind it. This is where the gold is hiding!

2. Design questions to elicit experiences, not answers

It’s incredibly tempting to ask questions, hear answers and move on to the next question or topic. But how you ask questions and explore responses can make all the difference. Creating mini tasks, games and creative activities to do in a research interview can yield much deeper insights, making the extra preparation worth it.

3. Listen with patience, empathy and courage

Allow people time and space to tell us their stories, and to listen knowing that the insights and feedback we’re looking for are sitting within the broader, messier story of their lives. There are lots of resources to teach better listening, but you can start by learning to get comfortable with silence (they’re usually still thinking…), allowing storytelling tangents and probing in different ways (‘what was that like?’). By giving participants a warm, positive and genuine conversation you can contribute to a better student experience, not just evaluate it.

Why does it matter?

As many have noted, no one is running business as usual right now. Quick solutions will not be optimal or sustainable as the world hangs on tight to get through the social, economic and public health consequences of Covid-19. Our old assumptions and insights may also be long redundant once industries recover and re-shape themselves. When the new normal eventually emerges, however, our research skills need to be polished and ready to listen, understand and plan where to go next.