Teaching Basic Research Skills in Online Workshops

The typical workshop at ViaX focuses on a substantive issue. In my case, for example, I teach classes on China’s Belt & Road Initiative and US-China Relations. But students also benefit from general improvement in their academics skills, from data collection to writing.


Teaching research skills in online workshops presents a set of specific challenges. Because students do not have personal interactions with the instructor, imparting tacit knowledge is harder. Although virtual communications are generally quite smooth, they are still not yet comparable to human interactions.


In what follows, I identify three problems in teaching basic research skills and offer a few ideas for how to deal with these.


  1. Online workshops make live demonstration of practices and conventions harder. Prepare adequate resources in advance.


One key challenge with online workshops is that they make live demonstration of a practice or convention harder. For example, showing how academic referencing works is more challenging in an online workshop because the instructor cannot take advantage of the physical space.


To deal with this issue, I identify resources for students in advance. In the class, I then go through the materials, which students (should) have read in advance. I have found this practice to greatly facilitate the teaching of skills, as the students are already familiar with the material and can ask questions. For example, I request students to study a certain referencing style, such as APA, and then (i) demonstrate in a virtual workshop how it is used and (ii) check if students have any questions.


  1. Online workshops are not suitable for a lively back-and-forth between instructor and students. Leave enough time for questions.


In online workshops, the inevitable distance between the instructor and the students requires a different approach to answering questions about practice. Students cannot react to the instructor as quickly, and the instructor cannot as easily identify struggling students for additional help.


To deal with this issue, I try to leave enough time for questions at regular intervals. If the class is small, a good practice is to go through the virtual roster and ask each student to raise questions. This practice avoids the awkwardness of cold-calling, yet ensures that students pay attention and can easily ask questions.


  1. Online workshops require extra effort to ensure peer learning. Include group activities and discussion.


In a regular class, students quickly begin to interact with each other and use each other as a learning resource. In an online workshop, achieving this interaction requires creativity because students are not in the same physical space.
To deal with this issue, I devote quite a bit of time to interactive exercises that require the students to engage with each other. These exercises help students connect and, where appropriate, continue the conversation after the class.


About the Author

Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Washington DC, USA). He is the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP). He serves as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education, a a Beijing-based learning and education company.


Johannes Urpelainen works as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education. The views presented in this blog are the author’s alone.