By Ian Kinchin
Looking at university web sites, it is clear that many institutions are offering “unique” student experiences for identical reasons. In particular a research-informed teaching and learning environment. The convergence on this particular selling point is quite striking despite the lack of clarity on what this means or what the evidence is for this being the best way forward. It seems that universities are all heading along the same road without questioning whether there are alternative perspectives.
I find the comments made nearly 50 years ago by West (1966: 767) particularly interesting in this regard, suggesting an alternative model for university teaching. He states:
“Most teachers understand the importance of developing the students’ capacity for critical thinking and self-education, but most of us are too busy telling them what we know to get around to showing them how we learn. Possibly they would gain more from watching us learn than from watching us teach.”
Imagine a university without a “teaching curriculum”, but a “learning curriculum” in which the students study the activities of particular researchers in order to piece together the nature of their chosen subject. Clearly students would need some guidance and the researchers would have to be encouraged to make their practice transparent to facilitate study. But wouldn’t this make teaching and research the same activity so that “links” between the two wouldn’t need to be contrived. Undoubtedly there would be problems to be overcome, but doesn’t this sound like an interesting prospect?
The present situation (where teaching and research are seen as two often conflicting activities) is confusing to all, and in particular to those stakeholders who are supposed to benefit from a research-teaching nexus: the students. Student-constructed research narratives into the issue are quite revealing. Cleary (2013: 19) makes the observation that universities tend to be “self-proclaimed research-led teaching centres”, with no real way of evaluating the veracity of the claim, or even what the claim means. Whilst some academics appear to be using their students in a one-way relationship, “My PhD students are making my research … they are generating all of my data.” (Cleary, 2013: 25), others see it as an increasingly reciprocal arrangement as students move from undergraduate to postgraduate studies, “I collaborate with students … they have more part to play within my research and I in theirs” (Hall, 2013: 85), whilst others see a clear relationship between their teaching and research at all levels, “I learn through teaching… [it] is actually quite important to me in terms of my own research.” (Abrahamsson, 2013: 94).
The link between teaching and research is not universally acknowledged with some academics feeling that undergraduates are not theoretical enough (Abrahamsson, 2013: 94), or that they lack the knowledge to influence what you are doing (Wickenden, 2013: 71). This diversity of view may, in part, be accounted for by disciplinary differences, though the students found that opposing views could exist even within a single department. Evidently the picture is not clear. How do teaching and research complement each other? Wouldn’t it be easier if they were just the same thing?
- Abrahamsson, B-E. (2013) Acquiring and sharing knowledge: Exploring the links between research and teaching in Social Science and Public Policy. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 92 – 101.
- Cleary, S. (2013) Perceptions of collaboration in research and teaching in a School of Biomedical Sciences. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 19 – 28.
- Hall, R. (2013) Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery: From university intention to student perception. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 83 – 91.
- Wickenden, J. (2013) Investigating research-teaching links in an undergraduate School of Medicine: Ownership as a means of rebalancing student objectives. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 61 – 74.
- This collection of student-authored papers is available online at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/244483439_student_perspectives_on_research-rich_teaching
- West, K. M. (1966). The case against teaching. Journal of Medical Education, 41(8), 766–771. Available online at: http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/abstract/1966/08000/the_case_against_teaching.3.aspx
Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, https://profkinchinblog.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.