Academic speed dating

Subject: English. Course title: Research skills and academic methods. Level: BA, first semester. Course size: 25.

Motivation for the activity

Part of the methodology course is online where the students search for sources for their essays. It proved hard for students to broaden keywords (if they get too few hits) or to narrow down keywords (if they get too many). During the activity I used to walk about the classroom and make myself available, but I found it hard to make time for all students when they needed my help.

Central learning outcomes

To be able to identify central concepts and ideas in a research question and to use these concepts in a systematic literature search.

Description of the activity

As a preparation, the students bring their proposed research question (for an essay for another course – this course is a process course, so we collaborate on the content side with other courses in the semester).

Students sit down opposite each other so that each has a 'date'. They each get 2 min. to read each other's research question and to give feedback. The feedback should result in two search-/keywords and one suggestion of a database in, based on the content of the research question. Subsequently one row moves one seat to the right and the exercise is repeated until all students have dated everybody on the opposite row.  If 2 minutes seem too short, you may divide the group in two (12 + 12) and let them ’date’ twice, the first round concentrating on one research question, and the second on the other.

In this instance (see the photo/video) the inner row remained seated, while the outer row moved one seat to the right every two minutes. The (extra) student at the end would spend the two minutes going behind the row to jump in at the other end.

After 25 minutes, the students got ½ an hour to search for literature, based on the suggestions raised.

As a course requirement, students make accounts in the databases consulted, to save any sources found (or use refworks). As the teacher I am the time keeper and circulate during the last ½ hour.

In the second half of the seminar we follow up by discussing how to write a 'literature review' based on the sources found.

Homework for next session is to fill in a form with their list of sources. This counts as a part of their Guidelines for beginning your master's thesisportfolio exam.


First and foremost students learn to engage with each other's work-in-progress and to give feedback – to be active peers. The exercise sharpens the students' analytic sense because they have to break down research questions into their components: Specific keywords and concepts, and to reflect on which academic (sub-)discipline the topic is part of, and hence which database to search from (sociological, philosophical, historical?).

The activity inspires their own searches, and I overheard them during break continue discussions on how to approach topics. When they hit the wall in their own literature searches, they would have new suggestions and combinations to draw from.

Speed dating may seem a little 'gimmicky', but due to the time constraint the students plunged right into the collaboration – there was no time to hesitate and wait for others to take charge. I am confident that academic speed dating will prove useful in many contexts, if you delimit the task for something immediately useful. Last but not least, the students found it fun and rewarding! (as emphasised in many evaluations).

Sara Dybris McQuaid

Associate professor

Short video with speed dating

Here is a short video from the course for English BA first semester 2011.

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