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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Undergraduate experiences of the research/teaching nexus across the whole student lifecycle

by Tom Clark and Rita Hordósy

Within the landscapes of higher education, the integration of research and teaching is now seen as a crucial part of ‘the student experience’. Terms such as ‘research-led’ ‘research-intensive’, ‘research-oriented’, and ‘research-based’ are frequently used in the marketing strategies of HEIs to demonstrate the prestige, status and expertise of their teaching portfolios. It is tacitly taken for granted that research necessarily enhances the experience of learning. However, given the increases in the cost of university study, the continuing emphasis on ‘graduate outcomes’, and the popular and political denigration of expertise in a post-truth society, how contemporary students are responding to the emphasis on research remains a key point of concern.

Broadly speaking, the literature on what is termed ‘the research/teaching nexus’ (RTN) has focussed on four issues: the general lack of association between research outputs of staff and teaching evaluations; the differences that exist between and within HEIs in respect to the RTN; the attitudes of staff towards their different roles as researchers and/or teachers; and, the experiences of students, which are not necessarily positive. The vast majority of this empirical work has relied on research designs that are cross-sectional. Unfortunately, this means that the changing nature of the nexus as it is experienced by students across their degree has been largely unexplored. 

Taking a ‘whole student lifecycle’ approach, we have followed a diverse group of undergraduates within a ‘research-intensive learning environment’ as they made their way into, through, and beyond their programme of study (n=40). Interviewing them on three occasions throughout their studies, we sought to examine the dimensions through which students understood the relationship between research and teaching, and how these experiences are variously constrained and enabled.

Our findings suggest that the RTN is a dynamic process of development that is actively and affectively experienced by students across their degree programme. Multidimensional in nature, experiences of the RTN also changed over time. The key phases of development can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Phases of development in the research/teaching nexus

  Phase one Phase two Phase three
Focus of
disciplinary
knowledge
Broad Selecting Narrow
Relationship with
researchers
Distant Personable Close
Experience of
research
practice
Guided Problem-based Generative
Nature of
independent
learning
Answering Critical Discovering

However, because students also developed feelings and reactions to the nexus – and regardless of pedagogical practice or curriculum design – not all of the undergraduates we interviewed progressed through each phase in a uniform manner. The nexus could constrain as much as it enabled. These restraints were broadly concerned with a diminishing interest in the nature and utility of research; the lack of sufficient scaffolding around experiences of research and teaching; the perceived distance between students and researchers; and, issues related to participation, such as ethnic and/or class related identities. How students conceived and experienced the RTN was contingent on, and understood in respect to, other aspects of their lives. This included emergent individual interests, experiences of other students, developing career goals, and the wider contexts of higher education policy and practice within which participation takes place.

Taken together, our results highlight the need to problematize the normative presentation of research in terms of its relationship with learning and teaching. Research is not something that can be used with teaching to instantaneously produce better student experiences or graduate outcomes. In the context of an increasingly competitive global graduate labour market, there can be individual and collective benefits in connecting teaching with research, but these should not simply be assumed. Indeed, it remains important for HEIs to engage meaningfully with the RTN to understand how and why it is experienced in the way that it is, and, who might be excluded in the process. It should not be used as a cynical vehicle to justify academic research in the face of the rising costs of higher education level study. 

Dr Tom Clark is a Lecturer in Research Methods at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in all aspects of method and methodology, particularly with respect to learning and teaching. His other interests have variously focussed on the sociology of evil, student experiences of higher education, and football fandom. His textbook How to do your social science dissertation or research project will be published by Oxford University Press in the summer of 2019.

Dr Rita Hordósy is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. Her interests concern social justice issues in education, post-compulsory education trajectories, and comparing educational phenomena between national settings. She tweets as @rhordosy.


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How our teaching encourages naïve skepticism

by Jake Wright

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

A common problem instructors face at the introductory level is naïve skepticism. Such skepticism is not the result of some thoroughly considered view of truth, but rather a reflexive, unthinking rejection of universal truth. It can take the form of claims like, “Well, that may be true for you,” or “that’s just your opinion.” Of course, claims like this might be warranted for certain propositions, like whether a hamburger is delicious, but seem clearly out of place for clearly factual questions like whether humans cause climate change or whether increased access to guns leads to an increase in gun deaths. Such claims also might be warranted given a particular, well-developed skeptical view like scientific anti-realism, but these sorts of nuanced, well-supported views are not typically the sorts of views introductory students bring with them to class. Thus, a natural question one might ask is why students would do this, especially if the point of education is to gain knowledge.

In my forthcoming paper, “The truth, but not yet: Avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims,” I argue that there are a variety of reasons why students might be motivated to adopt naïve skepticism. Many of these reasons have to do with the students themselves. For example, they may be at a stage on Perry’s intellectual development framework that predisposes them to such claims, or they may have moral commitments to tolerance and diversity that seemingly obligates them to adopt a purely relativistic view of truth. 

Some reasons have to do with the claims that are themselves at issue. Research has shown that claims that are normative, controversial, and unsettled are more likely to elicit relativistic responses, and for disciplines like mine – philosophy – if it’s not normative, controversial, and unsettled, it’s often not worth talking about. Even if you’re not a philosopher, nearly every discipline faces such questions. We must ask ourselves what the normative implications of agreed-upon facts are, we must interpret evidence that is unclear, and we must choose theoretical lenses through which we interpret our data, and such choices are not always as clear-cut as we would like.

In addition to the above reasons, I argue, students’ naïve skepticism is also the result of our teaching. In other words, many of the otherwise justifiable pedagogical choices we make carry with them the unfortunate consequence of encouraging naïve skepticism in our students. Let me give an example. One common strategy for presenting normative, controversial, and unsettled claims is to “teach the debate,” or present the most plausible views in their best light without explicitly settling on one as clearly preferable. There are many excellent reasons why one might want to teach the debate. The instructor may be trying to develop particular skills (eg metacognition and critical thinking) that may be negatively impacted by declarations of truth by fiat. Epistemic humility may be called for. Teaching the debate may encourage discussion or respect the effect of instructor/student power dynamics. As I said, these are all excellent reasons, but these pedagogical benefits come with a cost. 

When teaching the debate, especially at the introductory level, the emphasis of the course often shifts from one of discovering the truth to being able to demonstrate particular disciplinary skills. For example, suppose I assign a paper asking students to argue for whether or not the mind is a purely physical entity.  If I teach the debate, students will have three broad options to choose from: the view that the mind is purely physical; the view that the mind is purely non-physical; and the view that the mind is made of physical matter, but has certain non-physical properties. If I’m teaching an introductory course, I can expect my students to have only the most rudimentary understanding of these views. They do not, nor should they be expected to, understand complicated versions of each position built upon decades of disciplinary activity. Further, what I’m ultimately interested in is whether my students can demonstrate certain basic philosophical skills, like argument construction and analysis. Thus, the standards on which I am grading my students hew much closer to “show me you can do a thing” than “tell me what the fact of the matter is.” It shouldn’t be surprising in such circumstances, where topics are presented without any indication of which competing view is correct and when assignments assess skill development rather than truth discovery, that students feel comfortable declaring that there simply is no underlying fact.

The question, then, becomes what we should do about this. As I argue in my paper, I don’t think the proper response is to abandon pedagogical techniques like teaching the debate. The pedagogical benefits they bring with them would reduce such a response to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The most common response has been to maintain our pedagogies while directly confronting the naïve skeptic. When a student declares there is no truth, we try to point out why they obviously don’t really think that. But such strategies fall flat. The naïve skeptic may abandon (or feign abandoning) their view for the nonce, but they often quickly return to it after the discomfort of direct confrontation has left them.

Instead, I argue that we should work to overcome naïve skepticism via a reconception of our introductory courses as an extended discussion of metadisciplinary aims and how those aims differ from the particular aims of the course itself. In other words, I suggest undermining the conditions in the course that give rise to naïve skepticism itself by moving students away from the defensive posture that comes with direct confrontation, addressing the prior commitments that students bring with them, and giving students the opportunity to interrogate whether a particular discipline is able to discover truths about the world.  There’s much to say about how the strategy plays out in practice, but space prevents it here.  For a detailed discussion, though, I would encourage you to read the article, which I hope you find useful and thought-provoking.

Jake Wright is a senior lecturer in the Center for Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. His research focuses on the pedagogical and ethical justifications for in-class practices at the introductory level. He can be found on Twitter (@bcnjake), Google Scholar, and PhilPeople.

You can find Jake’s full article (“The truth, but not yet: avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims”) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1544552


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Metrics in higher education: technologies and subjectivities

by Roland Bloch and Catherine O’Connell

The changing shape of higher education and consequent changes in the nature of academic labour, employment conditions and career trajectories were significant Continue reading


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Peer Observation of Teaching – does it know what it is?

by Maureen Bell

What does it feel like to have someone observing you perform in your teaching role? Suppose they tick off a checklist of teaching skills and make a judgement as to your capability, a judgement that the promotions committee then considers in its deliberations on your performance? How does it feel to go back to your department and join the peer who has written the judgement? Peer Observation of Teaching (POT) is increasingly being suggested and used as a tool for the evaluation, rather than collaborative development, of teaching practice.

Can POT for professional development co-exist with and complement POT for evaluation? Or are these diametrically opposed philosophies and activities such that something we might call Peer Evaluation of Teaching (PET) has begun to undermine the essence of POT?

I used to think the primary purpose of peer observation of teaching (POT) was the enhancement of teaching and learning. I thought it was a promising process for in-depth teaching development. More recently I have been thinking that POT has been hijacked by university quality assurance programs and re-dedicated to the appraisal of teaching by academic promotions committees. The principles and outcomes of POT for appraisal are, after all, quite opposite to those that were placed at the heart of the original POT philosophy and approach – collegial support, reflective practice and experiential learning.

In 1996 I introduced a POT program into my university’s (then) introduction to teaching course for academic staff. Participants were observed by each other, and myself as subject coordinator, and were required to reflect on feedback and plan further action. It wasn’t long before I realised that I could greatly improve participants’ experience by having them work together, experiencing at different times the roles of both observer and observed. I developed the program such that course participants worked in groups to observe each other teach and to share their observations, feedback and reflections. A significant feature of the program was a staged workshop-style introduction to peer observation which involved modelling, discussion and practice. I termed this collegial activity ‘peer observation partnerships’.

The program design was influenced by my earlier experiences of action research in the school system and by the evaluation work of Web and McEnerney (1995) indicating the importance of training sessions, materials, and meetings. Blackwell (1996), too, in Higher Education Quarterly described POT as stimulating reflection on and improvement of teaching. Early results of my program, published in IJAD in 2001, reported POT as promoting the development of skills, knowledge and ideas about teaching, as a vehicle for ongoing change and development, and as a means of building professional relationships and a collegial approach to teaching.

My feeling then was that a collegial POT process would eventually be broadly accepted as a key strategy for teaching development in universities. Surely universities would see POT as a high value, low cost, professional development activity. This motivated me to publish Peer Observation Partnerships in Higher Education through the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA).

Gosling’s model appeared in 2002 in which he posed three categories of POT, in summary: evaluation, development, and fostering collaboration. Until then I had not considered the possibility that POT could be employed as an evaluation tool, mainly because to my mind observers did not need a particular level of teaching expertise. Early career teachers were capable of astute observation, and of discussing the proposed learning outcomes for the class along with the activity observed. I saw evaluation as requiring appropriate expertise to assess teaching quality against a set of reliable and valid criteria. Having been observed by an Inspector of Schools in my career as a secondary school teacher, I had learned from experience the difference between ‘expert observation’ and ‘peer observation’.

Looking back, I discovered that the tension between POT as a development activity rather than an evaluation tool had always existed. POT had been mooted as a form of peer review and as a staff appraisal procedure in Australia since the late eighties and early nineties, when universities were experiencing pressure to introduce procedures for annual staff appraisal. The emphasis at that time was evaluative – a performance management approach seeking efficiency and linking appraisal to external rewards and sanctions. Various researchers and commentators c.1988-1993, including Lonsdale, Abbott, and Cannon, sought an alternative approach which emphasised collegial professional development. At that time action research involving POT was prevalent in the school system using the Action Research Planner of Kemmis and McTaggert. Around this time Jarzabkowski and Bone from The University of Sydney developed a detailed guide for Peer Appraisal of Teaching. They defined the term ‘peer appraisal’ as a method of evaluation, that could both provide feedback on teaching for personal development as well as providing information for institutional or personnel purposes. ‘Observer expertise in the field of teaching and learning’ was a requirement.

In American universities various peer-review-through-observation projects had emerged in the early nineties. A scholarly discussion of peer review of teaching was taking place under the auspices of the American Association for Higher Education Peer Review of Teaching project and the national conference, ‘Making Learning Visible: Peer-review and the Scholarship of Teaching’ (2000), brought together over 200 participants. The work of both Centra and Hutchings in the 90s, and Bernstein and others in the 2000s advocated the use of peer review for teaching evaluation.

In 2002 I was commissioned by what was then the Generic Centre (UK) to report on POT in Australian universities. At that time several universities provided guidelines or checklists for voluntary peer observation, while a number of Australian universities were accepting peer review reports of teaching observations for promotion and appointment. Soon after that I worked on a government funded Peer Review of Teaching project led by the University of Melbourne, again reviewing POT in Australian universities. One of the conclusions of the report was that POT was not a common professional activity. Many universities however listed peer review of teaching as a possible source of evidence for inclusion in staff appraisal and confirmation and promotion applications.

My last serious foray into POT was an intensive departmental program developed with Paul Cooper, then Head of one of our schools in the Engineering Faculty. Along with my earlier work, the outcomes of this program, published in IJAD (2013), confirmed my view that a carefully designed and implemented collegial program could overcome problems such as those reported back in 1998 by Martin in Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 35(2). Meanwhile my own head of department asked me to design a POT program that would provide ‘formal’ peer observation reports to the promotions and tenure committee. I acquiesced, although I was concerned that once POT became formalised for evaluation purposes in this way, the developmental program would be undermined.

Around 2008 my university implemented the formal POT strategy with trained, accredited peer observers and reporting templates. POT is now accepted in the mix of evidence for promotions and is compulsory for tenure applications. In the past year I’ve been involved in a project to review existing peer observation of teaching activities across the institution, which has found little evidence of the use of developmental POT.

The Lonsdale report (see above) proposed a set of principles for peer review of teaching and for the type of evidence that should be used in decisions about promotion and tenure: Fairness such that decisions are objective; openness such that criteria and process are explicit and transparent; and consistency between standards and criteria applied in different parts of the institution and from year to year. It always seemed to me that the question of criteria and standards would prove both difficult and contentious. How does a promotions committee decipher or interpret a POT report? What about validity and reliability? What if the POT reports don’t align with student evaluation data? And what does it mean for the dynamics of promotion when one of your peer’s observations might influence your appraisal?

In 2010 Chamberlain et al reported on a study exploring the relationship between annual peer appraisal of teaching practice and professional development. This quote from a participant in the study stays with me, “… the main weakness as far as I’m concerned is that it doesn’t know what it is. Well, what is its purpose?”

POT for professional development is an activity that is collegial, subjective, and reflective. My view is that POT for professional development can only co-exist with a version of POT for evaluation that is re-named, re-framed and standardised. And let’s call it what it really is – Peer Evaluation of Teaching (PET).

Dr Maureen Bell is Editor of HERDSA NEWS, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia; HERDSA Fellow; Senior Fellow, University of Wollongong Australia.


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Staff Academic Writing

by Amanda Roberts

I joined my current university mid-career. Having begun my teaching career as an English teacher, I ended this phase of my working life 20 years later as a headteacher of a closing school.  I used this formative experience to set up an educational consultancy company, supporting the development of schools in challenging circumstances. Consultancy provided me with the opportunity to put into practice what I had learned as an educational professional. I was secure in my professional identity and felt confident and purposeful. In 2009, on joining a School of Education at the University of Hertfordshire, I was excited by the opportunity to develop my expertise in a new sector.  However, the first year in my new role proved very challenging. I found it difficult to understand how the organisation worked or my role within it. The culture of the university, its language and structures were all alien to me. I was now an ‘academic’ and had no idea what that meant. I felt professionally disempowered and unsure of my way forward.

I was interested to discover that others felt this way too and that for many this alienation stemmed from their feelings about academic writing. Many colleagues appeared to place themselves in one of two camps – Continue reading


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How likely are BTEC students to enter higher education?

By Pallavi Amitava Banerjee

 

Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) qualifications are seen by some as prized qualifications for the labour market which draw on work-based scenarios. Providers claim these career-based qualifications are designed Continue reading


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Boundaries, Buddies, and Benevolent Dictators within the Ecology of Doctoral Study

by Kay Guccione and Søren Bengtsen

In March we co-delivered a seminar at SRHE based on our complementary research studies into doctoral support, supervision, and relationships. In recognition that very many and varied players contribute to supporting doctoral researchers along the way, we spoke to the idea of the ‘Ecology’ of doctoral study. Through both of our research and practice areas, we raise issues of:

Boundaries, for example: Who is responsible for which aspects of doctoral development? Continue reading


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Beware of slogans

by Alex Buckley

Slogans, over time, become part of the furniture. They start life as radical attempts to change how we think, and can end up victims of their own success. Higher education is littered with ex-slogans: ‘student engagement’, ‘graduate attributes’, ‘technology enhanced learning’, ‘student voice’, ‘quality enhancement’, to name just a few. Hiding in particularly plain sight is ‘teaching and learning’ (and ‘learning and teaching’). We may use the phrase on a daily basis without thinking much about it, but what is the point of constantly talking about teaching and learning in the same breath? Continue reading


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A new approach to the assessment of learning outcomes in Japanese Universities

by Toru Hayashi

In recent years Japanese universities have faced unprecedented demands for developing student learning and have rapidly reformed courses to introduce active learning and practical internships. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan (MEXT) states that: ‘Amid the rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad surrounding universities, expectations and demands towards universities, Continue reading