June 11, 2019

Learning by doing: Students gained a deeper understanding when this prof brought her research into the classroom

Aude-Claire Fourot (political science) equipped her students with the tools and skills to run a research project examining services for newcomers in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Students in Aude-Claire Fourot’s French-language POL 497 course don’t just read about research on Canadian immigration policy; they conduct it. 

“I am always looking for ways to make my courses experiential—I am very passionate about that as a form of learning—and for ways to bring my research into the classroom,” says the associate professor of political science.

This past spring, she was able to do both by having her students explore gaps and strengths in services for newcomers to Canada in Vancouver, Ottawa and Winnipeg—mirroring a similar project she conducted in Greater Moncton.

The result was an extraordinarily successful learning experience.

The right tools for the job

In place of mid-terms and essays, Fourot assigned a research project that required students to survey immigrant and refugee service providers, interview the recipients of those services, and then present their findings.

“They needed to conduct an inventory of actors to find all the relevant parties, put survey questions in a survey tool, develop interview questions, lead the interviews, analyze the data, and then create a poster to communicate their results.” 

The posters were presented at a community forum hosted by SFU’s Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs (OFFA). 

For students like Cory Henderson, the project felt quite intimidating at first.

“[Fourot] expected us to be able to conduct a semi-independent project. It was overwhelming at times, but the materials she gave us empowered us to be able to do it.”

For example, Fourot supplied a group contract that prompted students to identify the tasks associated with the project, assign deadlines to each, and agree who would be responsible to lead them.

She also ensured that students had the opportunity to develop key research skills, such as conducting interviews and analyzing data, by inviting SFU service units like the Student Learning Commons, the Research Commons, and the Teaching and Learning Centre to run workshops in class. 

POL 497 students posed in front of their research posters with Aude-Claire Fourot (far left) and the TLC's Sonja Embree (far right) at the closing event hosted by OFFA.

An insider’s understanding of research

The experience, notes Henderson, helped her understand the course concepts in a more intimate and meaningful way.

As well, she adds, leading a research project helped her to develop a more critical approach to reading academic articles.  

“I think having the chance to design our own research process helps me analyze research more critically now—I wish I’d had this opportunity sooner in my degree.” 

Her thoughts are echoed by fellow student Jennifer Linde.

“Doing this project changed how I read research. I used to just skip the methodology section, but now I pay attention to it. I want to understand what they did and how they did it.” 

Even more impactful for Linde was the experience of creating a product with a real-world application.

“At first, I felt like I wasn’t qualified to contribute to research. I think we all did. But at the final event where all the community partners were there and we were all sitting back and looking at the projects we had managed to pull off, we were thinking, like wow, maybe we can do research that can help something.” 

Taking a chance

The most challenging part of sending students into the world, notes Fourot, is the element of risk.

“You control fewer things than in your class when you engage students in this kind of project. It’s risky for you, and also them. Students have never done this before and they are not at ease with the uncertainty of research.”

Her biggest piece of advice? Get help.

“There are so many different parts to training and supporting students to conduct a research project, but there are also a lot of resources at the university to help you. For example, my department paid for the production of the research posters, and OFFA was also an instrumental support, providing gift cards for the research participants and hosting the final presentation. That kind of help makes all the difference.”

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