Engaging the curriculum through research – Petia Petrova

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Engaging the curriculum through research

Inspired by our 2017 T&L Conference, I thought about the organising principles behind all the outstanding work that currently take place at Birmingham in relation to research intensive teaching. I was reminded of some of my past thinking on this topic, and considered  – whether I may find there some ideas for the future.

I reflected back on reading two little, but rather influential books – Barnett and Coate’s (2005) book titled ‘Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education’ and Angela Brew’s book (2006) ‘Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide’.

In their book, Barnett and Coate (2005) unpack the concept of engagement. They suggest that there are two types of engagement:

  • Where students are given the opportunity to engage in a range of activities (such that will not be completed without engagement), and
  • Where students are given space within the curricula to engage themselves.

Providing the space for both enables students to become part of a learning community, stimulate creativity and expose them to complexity.  We have done a lot of work on 1) through our focus over the last decade on Enquiry Based Learning. It is the focus on 2) where we may find a direction for the future.

Engagement “means that the student is investing herself in, whatever it is that she’s doing. There is a personal commitment to the task in hand… the task has been internalised. “ (ibid. 128). Here they make a link to identity.  Identity transitions, as we know, are key for successful transitioning into university, into the academic and disciplinary community. Identity transitions out of university are also increasingly recognised as very important for employability, with emphasis here on transitioning into a professional identity.

As Angela Brew (2006, 13) eloquently reminds us, research can play a key part in developing skills worthy of the challenges of today:

“The more complex and important the choices that are facing people daily, the more they need to have developed skills of critical analysis, gathering evidence, making judgement on a rational basis, and reflection on what they are doing and why. These are the skills of inquiry. Inquiry is central to a super-complex society.”

A key concept in her book is developing researcher identities. She makes a direct link into how these enable students to prosper in a super-complex society.

Students need to be fully inducted into the culture and community of researchers. They need to develop a knowledge of what it is to engage in the subject in a research-based way, to understand the key issues and debates in the subject area and know what researchers in the subject do, in general and specifically.” (ibid. , 15).

I believe such full engagement with research communities can inspire personal commitment and create conditions for the students to flourish. Returning to Barnett and Coate’s vision of the characteristic of engaging curriculum – they note that a curriculum for engagement is built around the promotion of knowing, acting and being.

Below I ponder what this may mean in the context of research intensive teaching.

Knowing –  this may refer to developing a sound grasp of the knowledge base and the boundaries of the discipline. This can also refer to the knowledge needed to conduct research. The research methods related knowledge, but also knowledge of the unpredictable nature of research, that it can be messy, frustrating, and can result in both failure and success. Where in our existing curriculum do we develop such knowledge and exposure? How should we structured and scaffold this?

Acting – this may refer to the actual conduct of research. Barnett and Coate (2005) note that knowledge is made meaningful “where it is experienced in different settings, where it becomes a resource for different forms of action”. Indeed at the conference this week we talked about the importance of engaging student with research and research-related tasks from their arrival at university. Acting would require research skills, as well as application of creativity, problem solving, and resilience.

Being – This is where the focus on identity becomes key. Can we allow for research to engage students’ own interests and passions, to reflect their life experiences and values into what they research, and how. As academics, our research interests and backgrounds are often at the core of who we are. How can we enable students to experience research in a way that reflects and shapes who they are and who they become as scholars and professionals?

As a result of a small scale research I conducted some years ago, I think a fourth area may be needed (though it can also be seen as integrated within the three above, to one extent or another). This links to applying – to the application and relevance of research to professional practice, as well as to wider society. This can often be at the core of our own motivations behind our research interests and studies. Do we need to focus specifically on enabling students to recognise these links and empowering them to pursue the applicability of their research to their practice (in whichever shape or form it comes)?

So here it is, a tentative consideration whether we can find inspiration in the works of Barnett, Brew and Coate when planning for the future.

Petia Petrova


  • Barnett, R., & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Maidenhead, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
  • Brew, A. (2006). Research and Teaching: Beyond the divide. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

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