Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions

This 20 mark methods in context question came up in the 2018 A-level sociology 7192/1 paper, below is the full question and some thoughts about how you might go about answering it!

 

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions

Hints for answering

The item mentions many different types of exclusion, you should address them all and contrast the usefulness of participant observation for researching different types. E.G….

  1. Permanent (although you are really directed away from this
  2. Fixed (1/20 pupils)
  3. Pupils excluded from lessons (‘no reliable data’)
  4. Self-exclusion for truanting
  5. Self-exclusion by ‘switching off’.

You’re also directed to discuss particular types of students – those with special educational needs and those from traveller backgrounds for example.

The paragraph on the method directs you to discuss the role you would take amongst other things. NB the method is participant observation in general, so you could contrast overt and covert.

Here are some of the points you could develop:

  • Overt participant observation as a learning support assistant is probably the only way you could do this – useful for gaining insight into pupils being excluded from lessons and those self-excluding by switching off, but not for truancy.
  • If you took that role you could get close to SEN students – some of the students more likely to be excluded, but less so for traveller children.
  • An SEN learning support assistant could view more than one teacher/ classroom over the course of a few weeks, so reasonable representativeness.
  • You could check for teacher bias agains certain students in terms of why they get excluded – but this might be difficult IF you are actively trying to support learners in your role.
  • Also, your presence might improve behaviour and lesson the likelihood of exclusion.
  • Practically you’re limited to one school.
  • To be ethical you would have to tell management your true purpose for wanting to join in as an assistant, maybe investigating teachers with the highest exclusion rate, but you would have to not tell them for validity purposes, which would be unethical.
  • Practically you would still have to be trained as an LA.
  • Exclusions are rare, so you might be hanging around a long time waiting for one to happen.
  • You could embed yourself within a group of traveller or SEN children to get their take on school, which might give you insight, but this is not practical for adults.
  • Ultimately you’d have to combine it with Unstructured Interviews to really find out why exclusions take place, which is possible if you’re overt, not covert.

Not an exhaustive list, just a few ideas…. NB you would have to use more methods concepts.

Sources 

https://filestore.aqa.org.uk/sample-papers-and-mark-schemes/2018/june/AQA-71921-QP-JUN18.PDF

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AQA AS Level Sociology: Education with Methods in Context 2018: How I Would’ve Answered It.

Just a few quick thoughts on what I thought about this paper and how I would have answered some of the questions…

Q01: Define the term social solidarity…

‘Nice simple start:

Social solidarity is…

‘instilling a sense of belonging to wider society, a sense of commitment to the importance of working towards society’s goals and a feeling that the society is more important than the individual’, as I’ve said in this post on ‘Durkheim’s Perspective on Education

Q02 – using one example briefly explain how boys’ behaviour in school may make it difficult to do well in the education system…

Also fairly easy… you simply need to contrast how ‘laddish subcultures’ conflict with elements of the formal curriculum…. e.g. status gained for bunking lessons, compared to the requirement to attend.

Q03 – Outline three examples of how the education system could be seen as fair to everyone.

Initially seems to be one of those ‘grimace’ type questions… but you could probably get there by drawing on mainly functionalist ideas such as

  • National Curriculum means all children do the same subjects
  • Meritocracy through standardised exams
  • School uniforms>?
  • Equality and diversity programmes.

Obviously you need to say a bit more to get the + 1s for all of the above.

Q04 Outline and explain two ways in which social class may affect subject choice

To start you off two lead points might be…

  • Cultural capital of middle class parents … higher career aspirations, more likely to do science subjects
  • Teacher labelling and stereotyping might mean lower class students are steered into easier BTEC type subjects (because, objectively, they are easier).

Your problem is…. how do you pad out the middle bit?!?

You basically just need to invert this essay plan I knocked up on ‘in-school factors’

Standard essay…. cultural differences, each evaluated then evaluating using the relative importance of in school factors.

Q06: A methods in context question on the strengths and limitations of using official statistics to investigate how successful a school is…

Actually well done the AQA, this is a good Methods in Context question

Q05: Applying material from item A and your knowledge, evaluate the view that ethnic differences in educational achievement are a result of factors outside the education system (20)

Simply use practical, theoretical ethical as a base… just some of the points you might make…

  • Practical – every school required to collect them, in the same way, good for comparisons, HOWEVER, different schools might be failing because of different reasons, stats may not tell you this.
  • Practical – don’t have to go into schools
  • Theoretical – validity problems – as mentioned in the item…. there is no depth of insight.
  • The item mentions how stats can’t measure things such as pupil happiness, or a sense of community, you might discuss why these can’t be measured
  • Theoretical – good representativeness.
  • Ethical – you could discuss how much harm league tables have done.

All in all, quite a good exam paper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Methods in Context Questions: A Full Mark Answer from the AQA

An example of a full mark answer to a methods in context question from the AQA.

Methods in Context

Below I provide an example full mark answer to a methods in context question taken from the AQA’s 2016 Specimen A-level sociology paper 7192 (1) and provide some running commentary on this model answer.

NB – I also outline why the AQA has (IMO) miss-marked this exemplar… I don’t think it should get full marks, because IT DOES NOT do what the mark scheme says it should do to get 20/20.

However… it’s still a good answer…

Methods in Context Questions:

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.

Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them.

Methods in Context

The Question:

Read Item C below and answer the question that follows.

Item C

Investigating the influence of the family on pupils’ education

Families have an important influence on pupils’ education. For example, the family’s income may be able to pay for educational materials and experiences as well as for comfortable conditions in which to study. Similarly, parents’ own education, their child-rearing and socialisation practices, and their speech codes and cultural background can influence children’s’ attitudes to school and their ability to succeed. In all these respects, there are significant class and ethnic differences in family life and they help to explain differences in the educational experiences of different pupils.

One way of studying the influence of the family on pupils’ education is to use structured interviews. These are a good way of gathering basic data quickly. Structured interviews also allow researchers to establish patterns and make comparisons. However, they may be less useful when dealing with sensitive or private issues.

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to investigate the influence of the family on pupils’ education (20).

Mark Scheme (top band only: 17-20)

Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and sound understanding of a range of relevant material on structured interviews.

Appropriate material will be applied accurately and with sensitivity to the investigation of the specific issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education.

Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to research issues and characteristics relating to the influence of the family on pupils’ education. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:

  • the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg individual pupils, parents, other relatives, teachers (eg class and ethnic differences among parents; teachers’ professionalism or attitudes towards pupils’ families)
  • the research contexts and settings, eg pupils’ homes, school premises, school gates
  • the sensitivity of researching influence of the family on pupils’ education, eg families’ material circumstances or child-rearing practices; eligibility for free school meals; stigmatisation; policy and resource implications for schools; parental consent).

Evaluation of the usefulness of structured interviews will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation. Appropriate conclusions will be drawn.

Indicative Content for the strengths and limitations of the method

Strengths and limitations of structured interviews, as applied to the particular issue in education, may include: time, cost, access, hypothesis-testing, quantitative data, factual data, correlation, reliability, sample size, representativeness, generalisability, inflexibility, superficiality, lack of validity, interviewer bias, social desirability effect, status differences, misunderstanding, ethical issues.

Student response

KT’s comments in bold and red beneath each paragraph…

Structured interviews are usually closed-ended interviews which produce reliable, quantitative data. They are relatively quick to carry out and require little training. If the school agrees to the research taking place the researcher would be able to get a large sample of pupils. However, these interviews, although preferred by positivists, are limiting because the questions are fixed. The quantitative nature of the interviews means they are ideal for examining cause and effect such as whether parent attending parents’ evening has an impact on the pupils’ education.

This is a good general introductory paragraph about structured interviews, but it’s really only a mark band level 3 response: because you could replace the phrases ‘school’ and ‘pupils’ with (for example) ‘hospitals’ and ‘patients’ and it would be saying the same thing. The same is true with the final sentence. You could say that about ‘eating 5 pieces of fruit a day’ has an impact on ‘patient recovery rates’.

This is a good example of a paragraph where the candidate may think they’ve said something at level 4 or 5, but really it’s down at level 3!

However, when asking parents about how they bring up their children there could be many problems. Most parents will not want to be thought of as bad parents who do not care about their child. These parents will want to show that they are supportive of their child. The formality of a structured interview will increase parents’ fear and this means that parents may give socially desirable answers, especially as they are face-to-face with the interviewer. They may see the interviewer as a teacher in disguise and this will further encourage choosing answers that may not reflect the true situation of their involvement in their child’s education.

This is a solid ‘mark band level 5’ paragraph – the method applied specifically to the topic under investigation.

Another problem with unstructured interviews is they are inflexible. Closed questions with limited responses will only give the options chosen by the researcher and so may miss vital aspects of home life that could have an impact on a child’s achievement such as temporary housing or domestic abuse. This is likely if the parents are working class and the sociologist is middle class and does not have experience of working class life or know the concerns or worries facing working-class families.

Not quite as solid as the first paragraph, but it does pick up on aspects of home life, so should be at least level 4.

Working-class parents may have lower levels of education and speak in restricted speech code. This means they may not understand a question or they may say something the sociologist does not understand. In a structured interview the sociologist cannot ask for clarification of what has been said. The same problem applies if the parent and the sociologist are of a different ethnic background, in this case there may also be a language barrier if the parent does not speak English or it is not their first language.

Seems like a solid level 5 paragraph again.

Many deprived pupils may have a sense of shame or stigma attached to them. Many do not claim free school meals for this reason and if they are asked about this they may not want to tell the truth. They may lie and they are more likely to lie when they do not feel relaxed or comfortable. This is much more likely in a structured interview as there is no chance to gain rapport. Since the interviewer is present there is an increased risk of social desirable answers. There may be an ethical issue of harm linked to the research due to the nature of the topic and the questions that the interviewer may ask about personal circumstances linked to the pupil’s home background.

The link to free school meals at the beginning should just about clarify this a level 5 response.

A problem with structured interviews with pupils is that most of them will be under 18. This means that they are unable to give their consent and this will cause some ethical concerns. Parents will be unlikely to give their consent because they will feel a sense of shame or they just may not want their child to be part of the research which asked them to give personal details about the parent-child relationship.

This should classify as a standard ‘level 4 response’, about pupils in general.

Structured interviews could be used with teachers to assess their views of the impact of home background. Teachers would be more likely to take part in a structured interview as they are less time consuming. As the questions would be related to children’s home backgrounds teachers may not be able to answer all the questions if they did not have all the details of a pupil’s home situation. Teachers may also give answers that suggest that achievement is linked to factors at home rather than in the school as this takes some of the pressure away from their responsibility.

A clear level 5 response… teachers not knowing about home background… one of the clearest level 5 responses in the whole essay.

Examiner commentary

The answer shows a wide range of application. Many of the points are linked explicitly to the issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education. The answer covers a range of characteristics of research subjects; parents, pupils and teachers. There is some consideration of the school as a research setting. There are a number of points that consider the sensitivity of researching this subject and the problematic nature of the presence of the interviewer when carrying out this research.

20/20 marks awarded

KT’s commentary…

This is a solid answer, HOWEVER… I don’t see how it can get 20/20 because IT DOES NOT DRAW APPROPRIATE CONCLUSIONS. Hence as far as I can see the AQA should have awarded it a maximum of 16/20.

There’s another example of a methods in context essay here! And for more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice!

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

How to Answer Methods in Context Questions: A Model Answer from the AQA

‘Methods in Context’ questions appear on A Level Sociology Paper 1 (Education with Theory and Methods) and AS Sociology Paper 1 (Education with Methods in Context).

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.

Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them. Thankfully the AQA has recently released some of these, with examiner commentary, and below I’ve reproduced a top band 18/20 answer to one particular methods in context question!

NB – I’ve take this directly from the AQA’s feedback to the 2017 AS sociology exam series (specific source below), but I’ve repositioned the comments on each paragraph to make them more accessible (at the end of each paragraph, rather than at the end of the whole essay.

The specific question below appeared on the June 2017 AS Sociology Paper 1 – the whole paper is now publically available from the AQA’s web site.

Methods in Context

The Question:

Investigating working-class educational underachievement

Read Item B below and answer the question that follows.

ITEM B

On average, working-class pupils underachieve in education compared with those from middle-class backgrounds. Some sociologists believe that material deprivation is one factor that causes working-class underachievement. Other sociologists argue that values and attitudes in working-class homes may cause underachievement. School factors may also affect achievement.

Sociologists may use written questionnaires to study working-class educational underachievement. Using written questionnaires enables the researcher to reach a large number of pupils, parents and teachers. Also, those who complete the questionnaire can usually remain anonymous. However, not all those who receive a questionnaire will complete it.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using written questionnaires to investigate working-class educational underachievement.

The Mark Scheme (Top Band Only: 17-20)

Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and good understanding of a range of relevant material on written questionnaires.

Appropriate material will be applied accurately to the investigation of the specific issue of working-class educational underachievement.

Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using written questionnaires to research issues and characteristics relating to working-class educational underachievement. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:

  • the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg pupils, teachers, parents, (self-esteem; literacy skills; attitude to school)
  • the research contexts and settings (eg school; classroom; home environment).
  • the sensitivity of researching working-class underachievement (eg schools’ market position; negative publicity; vulnerability of participants; parental consent; teacher reluctance).

Evaluation of the usefulness of written questionnaires will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation and may draw appropriate conclusions

Student Answer – Awarded 18/20 (AS standard!)

Picture version:

Page 1

Page 2

Text Version:

Paragraphs as in actual student response, numbers added for clarity.

Examiner comments appear in red after each paragraph.

ONE – Written questionnaires are a type of survey where questions are standardised and distributed to large numbers of people. This is useful in an educational setting because it means they can be given to numerous students in numerous schools, something which is very important when investigating working class pupils as there are many regions which are predominantly working class.

First paragraph – general advantages of written questionnaires – standardised and large distribution. Attempt to link to topic

TWO – One major advantage of using questionnaires is that they pose relatively few practical issues. They are fairly cheap to create and distribute and they quick to fill out, especially if all questions are closed ended. This means that access is not usually an issue for the researcher as they will not disrupt lessons as much as other methods such as structured interviews, meaning that the researcher is more likely to received permission from the gatekeeper. Furhtermore, working class pupils are more likely to need to take on paid work and so the quick-nature of questinnaires which are not very time consuming means that they are useful for investigating working class underachievement.

Para 2 – advantage of Wc related to context of research in schools (gatekeepers).

THREE – However, when investigating working class pupils there may be the issue of cultural deprivation, particularly language issues. Berciler and Englemann argue that the language spoken by the working class is deficient, a particular issue when trying to interpret the questions on a written question questionnaire. When coupled with the fact that questionnaires are written in the elaborated code but working class pupils (and parents) tend to speak in the restricted code this can be a major problem in gaining accurate results; unlike with other methods, questions cannot be clarified

Para 3 – good link to topic and WQ re language and speech codes.

FOUR – As well as posing few practical issues, written questionnaires do not pose many ethical issues. This is because the respondent can remain anonymous if they so wish and they can also leave any intrusive or sensitive issues blank. When studying working class underachievement this is a particular advantage because some pupils may be embarrassed to discuss their home lives, particularly if they live in poverty.

Para 4 – ethical issues discussed – anonymity developed with reference to topic

FIVE – Even though there are relatively few ethical uses, the researcher must be aware of harm to respondents. For working class children there may be a stigma attached, and for sensitive issues such as home life, the use of questionnaires can still cause distress. Nevertheless, the fact that respondents are not obligated to respond means this ethical problem is easily overcome.

Para 5 – further developed with reference to topic

SIX – From the perspective of a positivist, written questionnaires are a useful way to investigate working class underachievement because the data produced when using standardised questions is quantitative and high in reliability. This makes questionnaires useful for investigating working class underachievement because it allows cause and effect relationships to be established, for example whether or the not the structure of the education system reproduces working class underachievement, or whether there is a correlation between family background and achievement. However, the nature of written questionnaires can be an issue if the researcher’s meaning is imposed onto the questionnaire so it is another  fact that must be taken into account

Para 6 – various positivist concepts – good on usefulness of WC – but not unique to topic

SEVEN – From the point of view of an interpretivist, written questionnaires are not useful when investigating working class underachievement because the data lacks validity. While questionnaires may be able to identify that factors such as material deprivation may influence the achievement of working class pupils, it does not get to the heart of the matter. Written questionnaires do not investigate the meanings that pupils may attach to the reasons they may underachieve, and do not let the respondent communicate their ideas freely. Because of this lack of validity interpretivists do not favour the use of written questionnaires to investigate working class underachievement.

Para 7 – interpretivism and validity – not related to topic specifically (generic)

EIGHT – Ultimately, written questionnaires can be useful to investigate working class underachievement because the data is easy to analyse and compare, which may be useful as the data could be used over time to look at whether government policies put in place to reduce working class underachievement really work. Not only that but they are representative, so generalisations about the wider population can be made in a way that methods favoured by interpretivists cannot.

Para 8 – attempt to relate strengths of WQs to topic

Overall COMMENT – very strong on method with some (2/3) clear links to topic

MARK: 18/20

For more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.T

Sources:
AS
SOCIOLOGY
Paper 1 Education with Methods in Context
Tuesday 16 May 2017
AS
Sociology
7191/1 Education with Methods in Context
Final Mark scheme
7191
June 2017
Version/Stage: v1.0
AS
SOCIOLOGY
Feedback on the exam(s)
Student responses and commentaries: Paper 1 Education with Methods in Context
Published: Autumn 2017

Methods in Context Essay Template

A suggested template for the Methods in Context Question on one of the AQA’s 7191 (1)education and methods in context sample exam papers – the template should work for most Method in Context questions, but it won’t work for all of them (it’ll fit less well for secondary data MIC questions)

Question: 06 Read Item B below and answer the question that follows

Item B

Investigating pupils with behavioural difficulties

Some pupils experience behavioural difficulties and problems interacting with others. This can create a major obstacle to learning, for both themselves and their classmates. In some cases, they are taught in specialist schools or in pupil referral units separate from mainstream education. Often, their behavioural difficulties result from problems outside school and many pupils come from materially deprived and chaotic home backgrounds.

Some sociologists may study pupils with behavioural difficulties using covert participant observation. This method enables the researcher to witness directly the pupils’ behaviour and its context. It may also allow the researcher to build a relationship of trust with pupils and parents. However, the researcher may find it difficult to fit in and he or she may need to adopt a specialised role such as teacher or support worker.

Evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties (20)

Suggested Essay Plan

Cover Four things – Sampling/ Representativeness, Access, Validity, Ethics – In relation to the specific topic you are will be researching….

Discuss getting a sample/ Representativeness How might you gain a representative sample of the group you are studying? Are there any reasons why it might be difficult to get a representative sample?

Will the research method in the question make achieving a representative sample easier or more difficult?

What could you do to ensure representativeness?

 

 

 

Discuss gaining access to respondents Once you’ve decided on your sample, why might gaining access to respondents be a problem? (think of who you will be researching, and where you will be researching)

 

 

 

Will the choice of method make gaining access easier or more difficult?

 

 

 

 

What would you have to do to make sure you can gain access to this particular group?

 

 

 

 

Discuss validity/ empathy/ trust/ Insight Think of who you will be researching – are there any specific reasons why they may not wish to disclose information, or be unable to be disclose information?

 

 

 

Will the research method in the question make gaining trust easier or more difficult?

 

 

 

What could you do to make sure you get valid data from the people you will be researching?

 

 

 

Discuss Ethics Think of the specific topic you are researching in relation to who you will be researching – are there any specific ethical problems with researching these people?

 

 

Given these ethical problems, is the research method appropriate?

 

 

How can you make sure research is ethical?

 

 

Conclusion Based on all of the above is this a practical, theoretically sound and ethical method for this topic

 

NB – For the Topic you could discuss any of the following:

Who you might be researching

  • Pupils
  • Teachers
  • Parents
  • Support Staff

Where you might be researching pupils with behavioural difficulties

  • Classrooms
  • Staffrooms
  • Parents’ homes

 Specific characteristics of the subjects under investigation

  • Vulnerability
  • Stigmatisation
  • Parental consent

For the Method – You should consider all of TPEN: See here for the factors you should consider

Also relevant:

Participant Observation

Using Participant Observation to Research Education