Breaking it down, building it up: A research exercise for first-year media studies students

CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2(3) Fall 2014
Susan Potter, Yvonne Griggs and Dugald Williamson
University of New England (UNE), Australia


How can we introduce first-year students to the skills, procedures, complexities, and pleasures of research in a relatively new interdisciplinary field like media studies? We faced this question—condensed in this dossier’s main title ‘Beyond Google’—in developing the introductory media studies course that provides the example for this essay.

On its own, the phrase ‘research skills’ has the potential to be interpreted narrowly and reductively. We approached teaching research skills in our introductory media studies course in an enlarged humanistic sense, thinking of ‘humanistic’ as a placeholder for a bundle of thinking processes and skills, and related techniques of analysis, argument, interpretation, and inquiry. Across the course, learning activities and assessments were designed according to three main ideas or principles. First, as already indicated, research skills comprise interrelated cognitive thinking and research-related capacities, including the ability to read, analyze, describe, and articulate concepts through writing. As we’ll explain shortly, this idea led us to teach research skills by disaggregating them initially, in order to help students explore the role each plays, in its own right, and in turn how they work together. Second, what are often referred to as generic research procedures need to be integrated with disciplinary learning. In this regard, strategies for searching, documenting, and organizing sources support interpretation and analysis of what constitutes scholarly writing or argument, and show the value of these procedures for studying substantive topics in media studies. Third, developing opportunities for students to reflect and build on their existing media experience and know-how, while negotiating new concepts and approaches, provides a bridge into disciplinary ways of thinking and working.

We designed not only the assessments but also course learning activities in line with these principles. These activities provide students with a common ground for discussion, which is important when introducing a large and diverse cohort to media studies. They also establish a shared base that assists instructors to give focused and timely feedback on assessment queries and submissions. Reinforcing the learning curve of these activities, the researching media exercise that forms our example is a core feature of the course design. It is intended not merely to test outcomes, but to support a guided process through which students develop the ability to undertake increasingly self-directed research.

The third of four assessments in total, the researching media exercise is preceded by a short quiz and a media diary analysis. As the first assignment for students, nearly half of whom were transitioning from high school study, the quiz is a low stakes assessment designed to engage students and test their understanding and application of terms and concepts from the first few weeks of study (such as mediation, convergence, and globalization). The media diary analysis extends this knowledge and its application by requiring students to observe their own media consumption or engagement, and then analyze their experience using three concepts drawn from a list of eight. The research exercise—described in more detail below—is followed by a final short essay. For that essay, students have the choice of three questions based on different media forms (reality television, horror film, and news media). As students advance through the course, they move from applying some key concepts in order to observe and document their everyday media usage; to applying them in the process of summarizing and comparing how assigned readings interpret and use them to construct arguments; to analyzing the application of key concepts in an independently identified journal article, and the relevance of this article to their own essay argument.

Breaking it down and then building it up

The researching media assignment is a progressive but elastic exercise. On the one hand, it builds towards more complex combinations of research and analysis through a series of micro-steps including different kinds of description, comparison, and analysis. On the other hand, as will become clear, it introduces a series of additional steps designed to break (gradually) what tend to be common habits of undergraduate research and writing. In order to gain the necessary skills to prepare them for the assignment, students attend (or watch the podcast of) a library workshop on basic search strategies and searching databases. They also have access to an online study guide on researching media, which includes written material, structured activities, links to library information on identifying peer reviewed articles, and an external video resource from the University of Sydney on search strategies. A short video, produced by one of us and based on a similar exercise undertaken by a colleague in another School, models how to evaluate an academic article. As this range of resources indicates, we develop blended learning materials and activities to teach to a mixed cohort of on-campus and online students.

As a focus for the exercise, we deliberately revisited a concept taught early on in the course: genre. Rather than bringing the concept to bear on familiar experience, as in the media diary analysis, in this exercise students are asked to understand the application, extension, and reorientation of genre by another person in another context. The exercise comprises three parts. Part one asks students to summarize the key argument of an assigned extract from Rick Altman’s monograph Film/Genre (1999, 54-62). The most significant instruction for this and the second part of the exercise is the requirement that students write their responses in their own words, and avoid any direct or indirect quotations, a constraint designed to encourage students to process rather than paraphrase content.

Preparing students to explore complex concepts and methodologies has proved challenging. However, in the first trial of this exercise, the quality of the responses to part one indicated that, with support and direction, students were able to engage at a cognitive level with the ideas expressed in the Altman extract. Instead of simply identifying and listing salient points, students began to examine the implications of the points raised, couching their understanding of the concepts articulated in the text in their own language, which in turn suggested a deeper understanding of the concepts under review.

In the second part of the exercise, students are required to compare and contrast Altman’s argument and his use of the term ‘genre’ to the definition and discussion of ‘genre’ in the course textbook (Branston and Stafford 2010, 74-86). It’s important to note at this point that students are revisiting, in a different context for a different purpose, an extract of a chapter that they have already encountered in earlier teaching on genre. The comparative aspect of part two of the assignment is intended to help students undertake an exercise that focuses them on argumentation, while also expanding their understanding of the concept of genre and its diverse theorizations.

The exercise encourages students to see comparative analysis of accounts of genre as a meaningful part of the research process. In general, students were able to identify the differences between each text’s presentation of genre as a concept, and the most able students began to evaluate these ideas. The conceptually difficult extract by Altman provides a purposefully challenging contrast to the range of ideas for thinking about genre surveyed in Branston and Stafford. The introduction of the counter-intuitive argument of Altman complicates and extends students’ understanding of how genre may be theorized and—even at this early point in their academic careers—historicized.

Part three is intended to guide students in the kinds of research and writing tasks that we expect them to undertake as they prepare for their final essay assignment. We ask them to find a peer-reviewed journal article that will be relevant to their chosen essay question, each of which includes genre as a focus of analysis, alongside other matters such as narrative or cinematography. Students are required to document their search and selection process, describe how they have identified the article as peer reviewed, and cite the article in the required referencing style. They must then summarize the article’s conceptual approach and methodology and justify its relevance to their selected question. Many students demonstrated increased capacities to extract and comment upon salient points found in their research article, but some also commented upon the limitations of the article in relation to their chosen final essay question. The most able made informed statements about how their article would help them to analyze different media forms.

Cultivating researchers

In our view, the progressive activities and assessments encountered by students throughout this introductory-level course helped them to see themselves as active researchers. Via guided and meaningful research, they moved from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and ultimately to new areas of knowledge and understanding. This student-centered, humanistic approach to research was designed to foster intellectual curiosity and encourage lateral thinking in approaching media as objects of study. To measure the success of our approach in terms of assessable learning outcomes is difficult, but we believe that students finish the course with increased levels of confidence to make informed decisions about the materials and methods they encounter in media studies.


Altman, Rick. 1999. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing.

Branston, Gill and Roy Stafford. 2010. The Media Student’s Book. 5th ed. London: Routledge.


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