About textbooks that suck and books that shine: review of a textbook on research methods

A few days ago I was ghost-writing an assignment for a college student in her first year of study. The assignment was heavily based on the textbook “Research Design” by John Creswell and was basically an essay with an aim to demonstrate comprehension of the concepts in the book.

Oh boy. I understand why my client did not want to write that paper. I would say that every normal student would not want to write that assignment, and would not enjoy reading the book. Because the book was not written for college freshmen. Well, frankly speaking, I don’t know who it was written for.

OK, here’s an example of a definition that author gives in the book:

“A theory in quantitative research is an interrelated set of constructs (or variables) formed into propositions, or hypotheses, that specify the relationship among the variables (typically in terms of magnitude or direction)”.

Wow. That told me a lot about theory and quantitative research. Don’t get me wrong. Maybe scientists understand such language, and it’s the proper “scientific” way to write books, but on the other hand, scientists do not need a book that explains what is a research and how to do it. It seems like this definition may only help people who already think in such “scientific” abstract ways.

But we are talking about college freshmen here. They are not thinking about theory as a set of variables that specify interrelationship between the variables (whatever that means). They think about friends, weekend plans, travel, grades - some real, tangible things. People in that age do not think about the world in terms of abstractions. To understand something new, people need it explained with the help of physical representations of things that are already familiar to them. It’s like you start teaching math to a kid by explaining to him how to calculate roots of numbers. That will not work. First, you need to show one pencil, then another pencil, and here we go, together we have two pencils (additions). Then we put three pencils in one bag, and three pencils in the other, and how many pencils will we have in two bags (multiplication). Then you move to division, then later to square numbers and so on. But every new concept you need to explain based on what is tangible and understood - pencil, fingers, trees and so on.

Creswell’s book starts right away explaining things with abstractions, and there are very little actual examples from real life. So he explains qualitative and quantitative research using definitions with the same abstract generalizations, not citing a single example (In the second section of the book there are examples of documents, but it’s already too late because the reader has already got completely frustrated by the first section).

With a book like that, how do you expect kids to be actually interested in research? How do you expect them to be inspired, to want to research something? Having just started their college studies kids do not know much about formal scientific research, so how can we explain what is it and why it is an exciting thing to do?

You could start with things like research helps us to understand things about life. That most of the things we know about how things work, is a result of research. Copernicus discovered that Earth rotates around the Sun in the result of research - he studied the sky with this and that method (now, here you can ask: do you think it’s qualitative or quantitative)? Why can we do heart surgery today? Research (example). Why can we use electricity? Thanks to research (example). We come up with new devices, understand more about our bodies and the world around us, all thanks to some people who were really interested in things and researched them.

I am not a book writer, it’s not my job to come up with these things, but it’s evident to me that if you want to get people interested in something, you need to speak to them in their language. And the language is not a snobbish abstraction over abstraction, it is explaining new things using what they know.

The book was discussing a difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Not a single example of any such research. Come on, you are writing a book about research, and you don’t give us any interesting, exciting research in any category? Give us anything! At least one!

OK, even I can come up with some. The first thing that comes to my mind as an example of quantitative research. We want to find out if testosterone is correlated with aggression. What research can we come up with to check that? Statistical analysis of people - do convicts for violent crimes have higher testosterone levels? Experiments: lower the level of testosterone in mice and see what happens to their behavior. Then elevate to higher levels and compare. And so on and so on. Qualitative research. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wanted to find out what makes people happy so they asked volunteers via special pagers in random times during their days what they were doing and how they were feeling. By analyzing this huge pool of data and grouping their responses to these open-ended questions (here we can introduce this term, but see how it’s natural here in this context) he suggested a theory that people are most happy when they are in the state of flow. How this (qualitative) research differs from previous (quantitative) in its design?

You give real life example of research and get people understand in simple terms, that all life can be about research. That students in high school or college can make research just by observing their classmates, by conducting experiments, by doing lots of exciting things.

And what do they have to do instead? Read you super-boring book that has no life in it. It has only the abstraction to the power of ten. Of course, in any respectable book, you need to introduce the terms “variables”, “hypotheses” and such things. But give examples! For example, in previous case, the level of testosterone would be an independent variable, and rate and intensity of aggression - dependent. Make the science more human! Otherwise, it seems that the author just likes the sound of his own voice, talking to himself about all this stuff, and poor students, just to pass this course, will have to memorize those robotic definitions and forget them after the exam right away.

That's why we, custom academic writers, have our jobs - because there are lots of courses and books that just suck, and no normal kid wants to waste their time on them. I remember such textbooks, I had lots of them in my childhood. They were just listing some terms or data, some classifications, with no examples, no communication with the student, no effort to see the world via the student’s eyes. I thought that now the times have changed, the society has evolved, we know more about the science of learning, but still too many people that write textbooks are just in their own world and have no empathy towards their readers.

It turns out, many textbook writers need to learn to teach. Learn from the best. Look at these wonderful courses on Coursera about psychology - Social psychology (already unpublished) and Intro to Psychology. Each concept is explained through real-life situations, experiments, examples, and self-experiments to test your own perceptions and biases. They present psychology as such a fascinating subject! Of course, these are introductory courses, they are not for professionals. Maybe professional courses would be presented in a more dry language, but they are the courses that make people want to become psychologists!

And maybe Creswell’s book is so dry and boring because it is already for researchers, but then why the heck is it given to college freshmen as an intro to the research activity? This book will make you think that any type of research is only for bores and nerds who cannot speak human language. Who would like to become a researcher after that?

Look at how this Coursera course on Physiology (prepared by teachers from Duke) explains complex terms. They introduce the term homeostasis, and right away give you an example that you can relate to. An example of a person who comes out into a cold weather from a warm house without putting on anything warm, it’s freezing outside, snow and all. What happens to the person? What mechanisms will his body implement to maintain body temperature? Now every time I think of homeostasis, I have a mental picture of a guy in a T-shirt standing outside his house on a snowy night and shivering. And then an engaging question: why do we shiver when we have a fever? Instantly physiology becomes an exciting exploration into the mysteries of our body.

Let’s take another inspiring example. A book of Robert Sapolsky “Behave” about (as you can guess) our behavior - what causes it in terms of neurobiology, genetics, evolution, environment, etc. This book is full of terms like action potential, synaptic connections, paraventicular nucleus, neuropeptides and lots of others, but each one of them is explained in such a simple language, that a baby can understand. And lots of examples. And tons of referrals to some fascinating neurophysiological, behavioral, psychological research in discussing every concept. After such book, you become not only smarter, you become more curious about life, world and yourself. You become observant of your own behavior and behavior of others. You become inspired.

Take another book - The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonial. This book is actually based on the course taught in the Standford University. Every topic contains some interesting stories about the related research (you might think research - interesting? Yes! It can be fascinating! They gather people, give them different tasks, and see what happens to their behavior, impulse control, attention and other things. You can find out surprising things about our mind just by reading such research), questions to stimulate your mind, assignments for you to practice after each chapter. This book makes you think, inspires, and even transforms you - if you put a little bit of effort and follow through with the assignments. Thoroughly scientific and smart, interesting book!

And now, getting back to the book of Creswell. Chapter 4 describes writing strategies and ethical considerations, and there is an outline of two types of proposals - qualitative constructivist/interpretivist format, and qualitative transformative format. All the sections in the proposal are the same, and the difference between these two formats is that in “transformative format, the inquirer identifies specific transformative issue being explored in the study (e.g. oppression, discrimination) and mentions the anticipated changes that the research study will likely bring” (p.117). Not a single example of what transformative studies have been conducted over the years, HOW did they actually study oppression, what effects these studies brought (to society? To the oppressed? To the author?). And constructivist/interpretivist format is the same, only it’s not about the transformative issue. Some other issue. It probably should be important to dedicate a research to, only not transformative. Of course, not a single example of what this issue might be, what research studies have been conducted in this format. So I have no idea what this constructivist qualitative research is. I tried to search the web, and all the references are made to this same lame book. I wonder if the writer knows himself what he writes about, aside from terms and classifications. A book about research without examples of actual research that people carry out. It’s a book written for the sake of writing a book, not for the sake of explaining anything.

That’s why I think that dry, boring and overly-abstract books that do not speak the language of their readers, should be banned.

Yes, they can be there in the library on some shelf (probably covered with an inch of dust), but please do not assign them to college freshmen students as the main course textbook. You will kill the kids’ interest in life and any remaining enthusiasm about science. I believe it’s better to have no course on the subject at all than something that creates immediate and inevitable aversion towards the subject. Let’s teach in a way that is actually useful.

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