Defining and Delivering ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Birmingham. (Kathy Armour)

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Defining and delivering ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Birmingham.

On Monday 23rd October 2017, we are reopening the Big Conversation for dialogue across the University on the topic of our distinctive ‘value proposition’ for students.

By any international measure, UK Higher Education is extraordinarily successful. Yet, despite that success on the global stage, we have come under sustained critical scrutiny at home – from politicians, the public and the media. Research-intensive universities have been challenged to prove that ‘research-intensive’ is as much about students as it is about research; and that teaching is valued sufficiently by academics and the institution. More specifically, we have been challenged to be clearer about what we do in our teaching that is unique to research-intensives.

Many of us feel we know the answers to these questions yet – when faced with these challenges – research intensives struggled to articulate a position that convinced the critics. As a result, both the Russell Group and Universitas 21 undertook new work last year to crystallise the benefits of studying in research intensive universities.

We led the U21 work. In societal contexts where funding and ‘value for money’ are increasingly contested, the U21 group thought it was important to ask the question:

  • What is the value proposition for students studying at contemporary research intensive universities?

The outcome of this work is the U21 Position Statement which was signed off by the Presidents/Vice Chancellors at their meeting earlier this year.

The follow-on question we must now ask ourselves is:

  • What is the distinctive value proposition for students studying at the University of Birmingham?

My starting proposition for the Conversation is that I want to drop the term ‘research-led teaching’ because it hasn’t chimed with the public and we are all using it in different ways. Instead of talking about ‘research-led teaching’ I am suggesting that we need to be bolder and focus on conceptualising and delivering the more dynamic concept of ‘research-intensive learningfor students. My thesis is that research intensive learning for students is the necessary outcome of our research-intensive teaching. Moreover, research-intensive learning is the kind of learning that generates the most sought-after and transferable employability skills.

So, in the quest to clarify our value proposition, we need to ask ourselves a number of specific questions:

  • What is research-intensive learning for students at the University of Birmingham?
  • How can we ensure that, through our research-intensive teaching, every student at every level is engaged in research-intensive learning?
  • Do we need to do anything differently to achieve our ambition for research-intensive learning?

Please do add your thoughts to this discussion. The Big Conversation on this topic is open until mid December.

Kathy Armour, PVC-Education


5 thoughts on “Defining and Delivering ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Birmingham. (Kathy Armour)”

  1. Dear Kathy,

    Thank you for asking this important question – what is research-intensive learning for students at the University of Birmingham?

    Research-intensive learning, from my personal experience, is that the university purposely creates an environment that fosters our students as ‘researchers’ who share researchers’ attitudes, values and are equipped with researchers’ skills – to seek knowledge and gain understandings through the learning process.

    It is also about empowering our students to take the initiative to be the ‘owner’ of their own learning.

    It is also about our academics being ‘learning leaders’ who entrust our students and encourage them to pursue knowledge in ways that are connected with them.

    In one line, Research-intensive learning is a form of art – the art of ‘mastery’.

    I look forward to hearing you and colleagues thoughts.

    Best Wishes,

  2. Picking up on Yan’s comments, the focus on mastering research skills is particularly relevant to the work of Library Services. We are currently discussing how the learning outcomes of our various skills development services aimed at taught students might better relate to the learning outcomes of programmes. As part of this discussion we are reviewing how we most appropriately provide scaffolding to students at key stages throughout their programme so that they can become effective independent learners. Our ambition is to equip students so they can confidently undertake and communicate their own research. We already draw on existing skills development frameworks such as ANCIL (A New Curriculum for Information Literacy) which have been created to shape skills support services to taught students. Separately, the Vitae framework has been developed by the sector to inform what makes for an excellent researcher. This framework already underpins a large part of our skills development offer to postgraduates and staff. Helpfully, it also covers the personal qualities as well as transferable skills which Yan mentions. Although not written to inform the design of teaching and learning, perhaps the Vitae framework could, nevertheless, provide a starting point and coherent structure for discussing the kind of ambitious learning outcomes one might expect to see from a research-intensive taught programme?

  3. Dear Christopher,
    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and expertise.
    I cannot agree with you more, the Library Service is indeed an important source of information to our students, colleagues and anyone curious about finding out more.
    Based on my personal experiences, the Library Service at the University is world class – both the physical and intellectual space. It is worth noting that these amazing facilities are there for the ones who ‘quest’. The metaphor of the gym membership is very appropriate: one can be given access to the best equipped gym, receive the best training programmes, yet one needs to do the actual work to get fit. There should be joy in the process of learning, just as there is joy in the process of exercising as the Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If people do not recognize me and it doesn’t bother me, am I not a noble man?” (Analects 1:1). Our library should continue to facilitate the exercising of minds in a productive, positive and enjoyable space.
    I look forward to hearing you and colleagues thoughts.

    Best wishes,

  4. A huge part of research is questioning: not just extending existing knowledge, but questioning it, exploring its scope and its limits. A research-intensive learner will engage with the teaching in this questioning way, exploring the material and embedding it in their own practice in their own way. Such a learner will end up with insight that goes beyond simple knowledge of taught material.
    But I would say it is that insight that distinguishes the 2.1 graduate from the 2.2. After all, the 2.1 level is what we generally take as indicating potential for doing research.
    As long as we accept that we will still produce 2.2 graduates, we also have to accept that not all our students will succeed in research-intensive learning. Hence there is a distinction to be made between research-intensive learning and research-intensive teaching. We cannot choose one or the other based just on public acceptance.
    The research-intensive teaching, which what we can offer as a research-intensive institutions, is providing the opportunity of research-intensive learning to those students who can take it up.

  5. Dear Steve,
    I agree with you – questions are powerful force that helps all of us to inquire and to learn. It is true that students who successfully gained insights beyond simple knowledge of taught material, as a result, obtained a 2.1. It is also true to me that even when our students are not self-aware of such great insights at the time, but simply being persistent, motivated and hardworking, it can also produce the same value of 2.1 or even beyond.
    As a leading research-intensive institution, we should encourage all of our students to find their path to partake the research-intensive learning journey.
    Best wishes,

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