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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.

References:

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 https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees [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: https://d2vxd53ymoe6ju.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/20200726161915/trego_poster.jpg

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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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact sylvie.lomer@manchester.ac.uk or jenna.mittelmeier@manchester.ac.uk for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.

References

Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430


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The ‘Holy Grail’ of pedagogical research: the quest to measure learning gain

by Camille Kandiko Howson, Corony Edwards, Alex Forsythe and Carol Evans

Just over a year ago, and learning gain was ‘trending’. Following a presentation at SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2017, the Times Higher Education Supplement trumpeted that ‘Cambridge looks to crack measurement of ‘learning gain’; however, research-informed policy making is a long and winding road.

Learning gain is caught between a rock and a hard place — on the one hand there is a high bar for quality standards in social science research; on the other, there is the reality that policy-makers are using the currently available data to inform decision-making. Should the quest be to develop measures that meet the threshold for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or simply improve on what we have now?

The latest version of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) remains wedded to the possibility of better measures of learning gain, and has been fully adopted by the OfS.  And we do undoubtedly need a better measure than those currently used. An interim evaluation of the learning gain pilot projects concludes: ‘data on satisfaction from the NSS, data from DHLE on employment, and LEO on earnings [are] all … awful proxies for learning gain’. The reduction in value of the NSS to 50% in the most recent TEF process make it no better a predictor of how students learn.  Fifty percent of a poor measure is still poor measurement.  The evaluation report argues that:

“The development of measures of learning gain involves theoretical questions of what to measure, and turning these into practical measures that can be empirically developed and tested. This is in a broader political context of asking ‘why’ measure learning gain and, ‘for what purpose’” (p7).

Given the current political climate, this has been answered by the insidious phrase ‘value for money’. This positioning of learning gain will inevitably result in the measurement of primarily employment data and career-readiness attributes. The sector’s response to this narrow view of HE has given renewed vigour to the debate on the purpose of higher education. Although many experts engage with the philosophical debate, fewer are addressing questions of the robustness of pedagogical research, methodological rigour and ethics.

The article Making Sense of Learning Gain in Higher Education, in a special issue of Higher Education Pedagogies (HEP) highlights these tricky questions. Continue reading