Model research with "the lifeboat problem"

James Clements, American University of Dubai 

The biggest challenge I face when teaching research methods to first-year students is that they tend to understand research only as "support" for an argument. In other words, they insert research into their papers to back up preconceived opinions, rather than use it to help them form their arguments in the first place.

To help them understand that research should precede the formation of an argument, I often begin the course with the following in-class group assignment, which also helps students get to know each other in the early stages of the course.

I break the class into groups of four or five, and present them with a very basic list of about twelve "types" of people: an elderly grandmother, a captain, a lifeguard, a nurse, teenage twins, and so on. I then ask each group to choose which eight individuals will make it onto a lifeboat.

I let them discuss it for ten minutes or so. Most often, the students ask no questions at all, and simply proceed to make their decisions based on the very limited information at hand. After they've made their choices, I then ask them to explain how they reached their decision. I follow this by asking them how their decisions would have changed if they'd had additional information: ie. one of the twins is pregnant, the captain was not responsible for the accident, and so on. It usually leads them to significantly change their decisions. In the remainder of the class, I ask them to reflect on the ways in which the game parallels the process of forming any moral argument: acquiring additional information changes the parameters of the conversation.

While the exercise is simple, I have found that it helps redefine students' understanding of the purpose of research early on in the course, and sets a precedent for the remainder of the semester.