Research-led teaching? (Student Discussion in CoSS – Caroline Hetherington)

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At one of our Big Conversation events, we picked out some areas which at Birmingham we think are important to the student experience and asked our students whether that rings true for them. One topic that really got people talking was research-led teaching. As a Birmingham alumna who took a keen interest in the research of my own department, I thought I knew what was coming – but I didn’t.

We asked undergraduate students how they felt about studying at a research-intensive university, and a large number said that they didn’t feel it affected them at all. Some of our students didn’t know the research specialism of their lecturers, and had limited knowledge of their working beyond teaching. At the suggestion that departments teaching in areas of expertise gives students access to cutting-edge research in class, it came across from the students that, to them, cutting-edge teaching is more important that cutting-edge research. Further to this, research is still seen by some students as an obstacle preventing them from getting hold of their lecturers. From our students’ point of view, it was clear that they were concerned with having the best teachers, not the best researchers.

I still believe, as was my own experience, that the experience of being in an academic research environment could be one of the defining characteristics of a Birmingham degree. However, perhaps it’s thinking about ‘research-led teaching’ which is stopping many of our students really feeling the benefits. It suggests exposure to research, rather than contribution. We should be aiming for research-embedded teaching, so that more taught students become members of the research community, rather than just beneficiaries.

10 thoughts on “Research-led teaching? (Student Discussion in CoSS – Caroline Hetherington)”

  1. This is extremely important and extremely worrying feedback. The interplay of research and teaching is what defines us (and the other Russell-group universities) as an institution. It is of existential importance that we develop an effective message towards existing or future students about the beneficial synergy between teaching and research. Without it we will find it hard to differentiate ourselves, in a good way, from post-92 institutions. At worst we run the risk of students perceiving research as an indulgence or luxury which takes resources away from teaching.

  2. I found this fascinating feedback, and agreed entirely with Dan’s comments above. A few years ago, the Health Services Management Centre ran a campaign with a slogan that said ‘you can come on courses with people who’ve read the books, or come on courses with people who wrote the books’ – and then had a photo of all the leading books we’d produced in recent years.

    For me, research-led teaching is crucial (and fundamentally different to teaching that isn’t research-led) – but I’m not sure we’ve done enough collectively to articulate what research-led teaching actually is, why it matters, how we do it in practice and why it adds so much value. It’s an easy thing to say – but do we all know what we mean by it and do we all give similar messages?

  3. I agree this is important and I think Caroline has hit the nail on the head in this comment:.

    “I still believe, as was my own experience, that the experience of being in an academic research environment could be one of the defining characteristics of a Birmingham degree. However, perhaps it’s thinking about ‘research-led teaching’ which is stopping many of our students really feeling the benefits. It suggests exposure to research, rather than contribution”.

    Exposure to research cannot be the only benefit and this pushes us to work harder not only to define what the unique offer at a research-intensive university is – but also to deliver that offer to all students from the day they begin their studies. We have a lot of autonomy over how we teach – perhaps we should take more advantage of that.

  4. Really interesting thread . I sometimes think that research-led teaching, or the idea that research and teaching are not conflicting but complementary is just a reassuring story we tell ourselves. I have worked at different types of university: post-92, Russell Group and Oxbridge and my experience is that the quality of teaching has a strong (not universal) tendency to vary inversely with the ‘research-intensity’ of the university i.e. the quality of teaching is better where the least research is being done – so the students’ perception that the two activities are in conflict is often correct. I also think its entirely possible to have research-led teaching even when the teacher and the researcher are not the same person. Agree it would be highly beneficial to involve students in the research activities of the university, and to involve them in doing more production (rather than just consumption) of research, but is this possible with a department like my own with 400-500 students studying modules with over 100 students enrolled?

    1. Prof. Graham Gibbs would agree with you entirely. He has done lots of research and found no link between the quality of research and the quality of teaching …

  5. Thanks all for your thoughts, this is a very interesting thread.

    I think the argument for more research-embedded (rather than just informed) teaching is a very important one. Indeed, exposure to research seems like a very top-down approach to me and we should do more to engage students as researchers themselves.

    This year I introduced (someone could say experimented with!) a very research-informed module so my reflections could be perhaps helpful for the discussion here.

    The module was research-informed in two ways: a) it drew a lot on my research and b) aimed at cultivating research skills of the students. Some ways in which I tried to do that: I spend a whole lecture on myself and my research (it was bizarre to begin with, but eventually made sense to everyone!), just to deal with challenge that is so well explained in this blog, i.e. that we do not allow students to understand the research part of our job, and how it might relate to the teaching they get and the research they can do. Throughout the year, I made an extra effort to focus on challenges/ limitations of my research as well as methods, as important lessons for students’ research itself. I encouraged students to publish their essays after their completion (e.g. in the New Birmingham Review, which, by the way, I think could be strengthened as initiative or indeed expand) and in my last lecture, I revisited our module’s themes by putting together a lecture that drew on the essays students submitted and the ideas they themselves articulated there. I just got my feedback and it is by far the best feedback that a module of mine has received.

    Having said all these, it is worth noting certain conditions that I think allowed me to develop such a module. First, my ideas for this module developed a lot during my training for the PG cert, which took a lot of time and not everyone might be in a position to take. So, I think we actually need training, and time to undertake it. Secondly, the module was a third year one, which in my department (POLSIS) is mostly comprised by more specialised modules in comparison to year 1 or 2, where modules are more introductory/ broader. Related to this is that the module was also of a medium size (60), which I think it helped (I think certain things could have worked even better with smaller numbers and Mark is right to underline this as a challenge). I think the module also worked exactly because it helped me reconcile my teaching and research, rather than having the two working ‘against’ each other. I simply developed my research also because I needed to teach my students about it. So, I think teaching and research can be done in a way that is beneficial to both, but can it really be done for all of our teaching, including bigger modules? Difficult to say. Finally, I completely agree with Kathryn that emphasis on research should start from day one, this will allow students when they reach their final year to be so much more prepared for research-intense learning. But this means the link between research and teaching should be something that will need to be taken into account at the programme level rather just at the level of the module.

    1. Great comments and some practical tips too. Talking about ourselves as researchers – our successes and failures – and learning WITH us – is exactly what students want.

  6. There are so many ways that we can attempt to bring research and teaching closer together (see Ella Mortlock’s piece discussing some of the ideas for the new Collaborative Teaching Laboratory). For me, some of the most interesting ones are those which go beyond the prevailing idea amongst students that research-led teaching means being taught by the experts. For real engagement, we need to aim to give all students an insight to (or an opportunity to participate in) the research life of their department.

    As George has shown, if we can embed not just the outcomes of lecturers’ research, but also the methods, the challenges, and the experiences of researching into the curriculum, then we are engaging our students with what it means to be a researcher. Our students might then recognise more easily what place research really does play in their education.

    1. I was at a presentation yesterday at a UUK event. Julian Rawel was a presenter and he made the comment that where research-led teaching is done badly, it is the worst type of teaching. His reasoning was that the tutor has been immersed in their subject for – perhaps – 30 years. The student might have no more than a couple of months worth of knowledge. If a tutor can’t bridge that gap – it will be terrible teaching.

      Julian was a very engaging speaker and along with leading the Edinburgh University MBA, he also has his own company and the website has a free book to download that might be interesting (even beyond Business Schools)

      1. This is really interesting and chimes with the comments I heard from students during our discussion, particularly first year students. One of the greatest compliments that could be paid was that a tutor was ‘on their level’. It was clear that this meant not only teaching for the students’ current level of knowledge, but also promoting the legitimacy and importance of their knowledge and viewpoints. This meant students felt more comfortable debating and challenging the course material, and were much more likely to engage.

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