The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Balancing courage and compassion in research-based learning

by Helen Walkington

This blog was first published by Teaching-Focused in HE: the GEES Network, a teaching-focused network for Geography, Earth and Environmental Science academics, and it is reproduced with their permission. Helen Walkington is co-convenor of the SRHE Academic Practice Network.

In Tuesday’s ‘Environmental Hazard Management’ class, live on Zoom, I did a little experiment with my students. In one hand I held a juggling ball (new lockdown skill) and in the other a very ripe tomato. I said that developing resilience is a key concept in disaster management. I asked “If I squeeze the juggling ball and the tomato, which do you feel would best demonstrate a resilient response?” Of course, in wanting them to engage, I asked if they would like me to enact the thought ‘experiment’ (cereal bowl and kitchen roll under the desk at the ready). Once the juggling ball bounced back and the tomato went almost everywhere except the bowl, I made my point about the longevity of tomato seeds and different, sometimes unexpected types of resilience.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having chosen an academic career, at least in part, because I value autonomy. The freedom to pursue research that I find interesting, to advance a discipline that I feel passionate about, and to help share this journey with my undergraduate students is energising, even if it ends up being quite messy at times. In Higher Education we have a relatively high degree of control over how we provide learning opportunities to our students. When tasked with teaching ‘research methods’ for instance, we can choose whether to do this by providing lectures, or directing students through research projects so they can ‘learn by doing,’ or offering even greater freedom to learn by allowing students to take control of generating research questions, designing and carrying out investigations themselves. We probably deliver all three approaches progressively, as a team, across the course of a Geography, Earth and Environmental Science programme. 

Working with students who are engaged in research, sometimes for the first time as undergraduates, is always going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, offering students the freedom to pose their own research questions, with the associated authenticity of potential failure, might be considered a courageous pedagogy. On the other hand, we have to consider how students might react to having made mistakes, and be compassionate as they grapple with the potential for creating new knowledge (either new to themselves or new to society) through discovery. Learning by doing research requires emotional investment and resilience, an experience which unites staff (faculty in the US) and students. We can perhaps empathise with students because we share this experience with them, even though we are in a different position, ultimately being judged on the way we communicate our research. For me the cognitive involvement, emotional buy-in and desire for students to succeed has shifted my practice of dissertation and independent study supervision into mentoring. I am acknowledging the ‘whole student’ (Hill et al, 2019).

This aligns very much with Thiry and Laursen (2011), who suggested that academic (faculty) mentors to undergraduate researchers perform three supportive roles: professional socialization, intellectual support and personal/emotional support. These complementary supports acknowledge the importance of working with students to explain why they are engaging in research, supporting their cognitive development, but also acknowledging their emotional needs. The need for a balance between courage and compassion in our practice is clear. However, add to this balancing act escalating concerns about declining levels of student wellbeing (IPPR, 2017) and we begin to appreciate the weight of responsibility for successfully maintaining the balance in our own practice between courageous pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy. Can we still judge securely how far we can draw students ‘to the edge of their ability’ (as one expert mentor put it) and challenge them, when they are self-isolating in student accommodation and can’t collect physical data, get onto campus or access the library? (Using a metaphor, maintaining this balance might feel like walking a tight rope, but if you’ve been working on your balance through yoga during lockdown, then let’s say it’s across Niagara gorge, just to make you feel more alive). By providing all three of Thiry and Laursen’s supports as a research mentor, we hope to open a productive, liminal space for contemplation to our student mentees. My hope is that my students will connect their learning and knowledge production to their values, personal sense of meaning, as well as their relationship to the world around them. 

Learning is an emotional journey, particularly in research mode. The research cycle throws up sticking points and challenges at different (usually inconvenient) times in the research process. (perhaps a large knot in the tightrope, or a sudden gust of wind). This doesn’t just impact our student mentees, but us as research mentors as well. While supervising research prioritises research products (eg the student’s dissertation, group report, journal article) and content (new geographical knowledge), mentoring personalises learning and makes it meaningful and important in shaping the learner’s own esteem and identity, which may impact career aspirations and life chances. 

The benefits of undergraduate research are well established for students, including the development of critical thinking, enhanced degree outcomes and student retention, making it a ‘high-impact practice’ (Kuh, 2008). It is not enough to just make students ‘do a dissertation,’ effective mentoring is central to accruing these benefits. Over the last five years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers to try to work out why, exploring specifically which types of mentoring practice are effective. Our large-scale literature review resulted in Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan et al, 2015; and summarised in Table 1) which are effective regardless of national context, type of higher education institution or discipline. We’ve since completed 32 detailed research interviews on what award-winning mentors from around the world actually do, including strategies to engage students in research, retain their interest through appropriate challenge, and celebrate success (Walkington et al, 2020). One example is supporting students in publishing their research findings through, for example, research journals like GEOverse. Importantly, mentored research opportunities at undergraduate level have been found to confer particular benefits on underserved student groups (Finley and McNair, 2013). As they help all students to succeed, I would argue that these undergraduate research opportunities have the potential to enhance student wellbeing. Indeed, since effective mentoring of students involves getting to know them on a deeper level, recognising their work and valuing them as individuals, this knowledge of the ‘whole student’ is a fundamental underpinning of an inclusive approach. 

1.     Do strategic pre-planning in order to be ready to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.
2.     Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.
3.     Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.
4.     Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.
5.     Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.
6.     Dedicate time as well to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring.
7.     Increase student ownership of the research over time.
8.     Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.
9.     Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.
10.      Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.

Table 1: Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring

(Shanahan et al, 2015; Walkington, 2020)

However, the Covid–19 pandemic threatens to challenge the benefits of research-based learning. An undergraduate Geography student, alongside a doctoral student and several faculty members have researched the impact of Covid-19 on access to (and thus the benefits from) undergraduate research opportunities. With data from 18 institutions in the USA, they found that COVID-19 reduced access to research experiences*, reduced student access to technology and specialist research spaces, as well as interrupted face to face mentoring (Trego et al 2020). Clearly significant changes are required in approaches to data collection for it to remain safe for student researchers to continue to engage actively in research under these challenging circumstances. Understandably, in some instances there are topics that universities have declared ‘off limits’ due to their sensitivity. However, it is still possible to mentor students. It is possible to connect to students and provide the three forms of support that Thiry and Laursen outlined. 

To be resilient to unexpected changes, such as Covid-19 has posed, we need to embed research experiences that are inclusive of all students within the curriculum, rather than having selective research opportunities at risk from (hopefully!) short term changes in circumstances. We can democratise engagement with research and make it an entitlement, but to ensure effective learning outcomes for each and every student, we have to demonstrate our pedagogic resilience through a commitment to the ongoing balancing act of courage and compassion.

*In the US research opportunities for undergraduates are sometimes embedded in the curriculum, but are also provided as co-curricular opportunities such as summer projects.

Helen Walkington, PhD, NTF, PFHEAis Professor of Higher Education at Oxford Brookes University, UK where she teaches geography and carries out research into higher education pedagogy. She has written and presented widely on research-based learning strategies and mentoring excellence. Helen is a qualified career development coach and co-convenes the SRHE Academic Practice network.


Finley, A and McNair, T (2013) Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, G,  2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Hill, J, Walkington, H and Dyer, S (2019) ‘Teaching, learning, and assessing in Geography: foundations for the future’, in Walkington, H, Hill, J, and Dyer, S (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2017) “Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities.” Available at [Accessed on 12/05/20]

Shanahan, J, Ackley-Holbrook, E, Hall, E, Stewart, K, and Walkington, H (2015) ‘Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature’ Mentoring and Tutoring 23 (5): 359-376 

Thiry, H, and Laursen, SL (2011) “The role of student–advisor interactions in apprenticing undergraduate researchers into a scientific community of practice’ Journal of Science Education and Technology 20: 771–784

Trego, S, Nadybal, S, Grineski, S, Collins, T and Morales, D (2020) ‘Initial impacts of Covid-19 on Undergraduate researchers at US universities.’ [online] accessed from:

Walkington, H, Griffin, AL, Keys-Mathews, L, Metoyer, SK, Miller, WE, Baker, R, and France, D (2011) ‘Embedding research-based learning early in the undergraduate Geography curriculum’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3): 315-330 Walkington, H, Stewart, K, Hall, E, Ackley, E and Shanahan, JO (2020) ‘Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence’ Studies in Higher Education 45: 1519-1532

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Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes : Continue reading

Alison Le Cornu

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MOOCs: Uncovering the learning experience

By Alison Cornu

There has been an enormous amount of hype around MOOCs since they first entered the UK HE arena roughly five years ago. That tens of thousands of students from around the world could enrol and study simultaneously was something both to marvel at and question.  Two big issues have dominated discussions about the future of MOOCs on the HE landscape: first, what business case can support them; and second, what evidence is there that students learn? Today, with much water under the bridges of both experience and research, we are in a better position to put forward a view of what we think about MOOCs.

At the outset, the notion that so many students from so many backgrounds could all learn together, and learn ‘properly’ and effectively, seemed to some impossible. As a society we have consistently had drilled into us the fact that learning best occurs in small groups. One-to-one is perhaps the crème de la crème, but groups of four to six adults offer an excellent environment for learning one from another, epitomised in the traditional Oxbridge style. Parents are keen to see their children in smaller classes and governments hasten to reassure them that everything is being done to ensure that is a reality. The paradox with MOOCs, of course, is that while at one level thousands learn together, at another, in typical distance learning fashion, each student is a lone individual working away in isolation, miles from any peers whom they don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet.

So are these initial reservations merited? What do we now make of them pedagogically? Continue reading