Working with students is such a gift. Their energy, ideas and eagerness can be refreshing and inspiring.
Managing students on a research project can also be feel like popping popcorn — struggling to find the right heat level to make the kernels sizzle and transform without burning or flying out of the pan.
I published a project last month at TrustingNews.org, looking at how newsrooms can use social media to build trust, and student research was a key part of it. The project was done through the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which is connected to the Missouri School of Journalism.
In a senior-level capstone class taught by Mike McKean, student teams are assigned to projects, and a team was assigned to me for the Spring 2016 and Fall 2016 semesters. (For me, the trust work directly followed 12 years of teaching at Mizzou, and I had previously worked with five of the six students assigned to me.)
The project had three distinct phases:
- Phase One: Setup (Spring 2016). This phase involved three students: Anna Brugmann, Katie Grunik and Hannah Smith.
- Determine how trust can be earned, both in and out of journalism
- Turn those trust factors into strategies for newsrooms to test
- Invite newsrooms to join the experiment
- Phase Two: Experiment (Summer 2016)
- Guide the newsrooms through selecting which strategies to test
- Give regular feedback on their posts and support their staffs
- Set up communication among newsroom partners so they can learn from each other
- Phase Three: Analysis (Fall 2016). This phase involved three students: Amanda Byler, Emily Rackers and Micheala Sosby.
- Assess how the experiments went for each newsroom, preparing a report for each about how their audience responded
- Compare the newsrooms to each other, determining what strategies were effective overall (or for certain types of newsrooms)
- Prepare a final report and website
I’m a collaborator by nature, and having students involved in the work made it so much more fun for me. I had just gone from years of teaching and working in a newsroom staffed by students to launching a consulting business and working in a home office. I was thrilled to have smart people to talk things through with. Without a doubt, the students made the project better and made me sharper.
They also sometimes slowed me down. They were juggling other classes and jobs, and their time commitment for my project was about 10 hours a week each. Figuring out how they could be most helpful and learn the most was complicated, and there were definitely times when doing the work myself would have gotten it done faster than guiding them through it, waiting for them to do it and managing what they came back with.
Here are some things I learned about involving student researchers in my work.
Create manageable deliverables
The hardest part about involving students in this long-term project was figuring out how to peel off pieces that they could feel ownership over. What could they offer substantial help on without slowing the project down? On what facets were their extra eyes and hands and brains most helpful? What pieces could they begin as their semesters were starting and wrap up nicely before finals? What exactly would they hand off to me at the end? What elements of the work did it not make sense for them to be involved in? Further subdividing was then necessary for each student’s individual work, of course. So basically, I needed a piece of the project (both at the beginning and at the end) that could be started and finished within 16 weeks AND could be divided into three equal parts for the three students.
Respect Students’ Needs
In my case, students were assigned to my project through their capstone class, and their professor had expectations separate from my own. It was important to get those requirements on the table as we figured out what their workload and deadlines would be. It was important for the students to be able to tell me that they needed to be done by a certain date so they had time to create their final reports and presentation, for example.
Collaborate and Lead
My natural approach is a collaborative one. I like the teams I work with to figure things out together because I know how much I prefer to work on projects I feel like I can help steer. But in some cases, clear direction is most helpful. When I wanted students to interview journalists about how they learn best, for example, I didn’t meet students with step-by-step instructions, nor did I come with a blank piece of paper. I made a list of suggested questions and they offered suggestions. Then they came up with people to interview mostly on their own. However, when it was time to download Facebook Insights for 14 newsrooms, format spreadsheets and answer key questions about each so they could be compared to each other, the directions needed to be so clear. Clarity and efficiency were more important than brainstorming.
Communication and Organization
For our project, we used weekly video chats and a Slack team. A weekly check-in was key for accountability, even if all they were doing was updating the rest of us on their progress. It was also a window for me into team dynamics. As a project manager, I wanted to be sure I understood what individuals were contributing and what they needed – from me and from their teammates. And Slack made it easy to link to all needed google docs, post deadlines, answer questions – and have all of it searchable.
Joy Mayer is a community engagement strategist based in Florida. She is a consulting fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute and the University of Florida. She spent 12 years as an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she created an engagement curriculum and a community outreach team in the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian and also taught web design and print design.