Intellectually stimulating

Published January 2022

Our curriculum will stretch students and take them out of their comfort zones, building their capacity to work at problems without feeling defeated. They will be intellectually challenged by troublesome knowledge, while being supported to grow in confidence, resilience and achievement. Students will develop a taste for doing research from day one of their degrees. They will become critical consumers and curious producers of knowledge through opportunities to observe, critique, replicate and undertake research.

A foundational way of viewing research in the curriculum is proposed by Mick Healey. In his 2005 paper, Healey presents the benefits of research-rich curricula where staff and students work in partnership to create “communities of inquiry”, with recognition of how this is framed by disciplinary cultures. In what is commonly termed the Healey quadrant, four dimensions of a research-rich curriculum are presented (Fig.1): student, teacher, content, and research-focused. The diagram is helpful in exploring what teaching staff mean by a research-rich, research-based, research-oriented or research-tutored curriculum, as there are diverse assumptions and understandings of these terms.

Diagram of the Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus. The diagram comprises of four quadrants which are produced by combining the four dimensions of a research-rich curriculum. The dimensions are situated around the quadrant as follows, Top dimension, Student-focused (Students as participants), Left dimension, Emphasis on research content, Bottom dimension, teacher-focused (Students as audience), Right dimension, Emphasis on research processes and problems. The quadrants are as follows:
Top left quadrant, Research-tutored, described as, Curriculum emphasises learning focused on students writing and discussing papers or essays. This is produced by combining, Student-focused (Students as participants) with, Emphasis on research content.
Top right quadrant, Research-based, described as, Curriculum emphasises students undertaking inquiry-based learning, which is produced by combining, Student-focused (Students as participants) with, Emphasis on research processes and problems.
Bottom left quadrant, Research-led, described as, Curriculum is structured around teaching subject content. Which is produced by combining Emphasis on research content with, Teacher-focused (Students as audience).
Bottom right quadrant, Research-oriented, described as, Curriculum emphasises teaching processes of knowledge construction in the subject. Which is produced by combining Teacher-focused (Students as audience) with, Emphasis on research processes and problems.
Fig.1: Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus (adapted from Healey 2005).

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Healey also promotes the idea of using inquiry-based learning.  A useful mechanism for this is through Problem-Based Learning (PBL) which is an approach to teaching that supports creative and complex problem-solving. Evidence supports the success of PBL, for example, it enhances long-term knowledge retention and application (Dolmans et al. 2015; Yew & Goh 2016).

What this means for curriculum design

For many, research in the curriculum is surfaced best through the dissertation or final year project. A common critique from students is how they can feel their whole degree experience does not adequately prepare them for this large single point of assessment. This is perhaps the easiest way to identify the benefits of a programmatic approach to the learner journey. The same principle applies to considerations of other forms of the research-rich curriculum. It is recommended that a mix of all four areas of the Healey quadrant should be encountered by students across their programme, preferably in an interrelated manner (Healey & Jenkins 2009: 8).

PBL doesn’t need to be constrained to later years of degree programmes. Indeed, elements of PBL can be introduced early in a degree programme and developed year-on-year to invite a sense of programme cohesion for students who grow through greater levels of PBL complexity as their degree progresses. PBL also succeeds when it is delivered in learning intensive situations, such as one-week “bootcamps”.

Regarding the dissertation, the capstone structure provides a potential alternative to traditional curriculum design in the UK. In capstone projects, students work to synthesise and apply their knowledge and experience from their whole programme. An important facet of capstones is that students reflect on their existing knowledge, rather than on new research materials. Capstones require tailored teaching approaches to facilitate students’ ability to synthesise their learning effectively. Top tips (drawn from Bailey, van Acker and Fyffe 2013) include:

  • Shifting the focus to student-centred activities
  • Interactive lectures, including discussions and debates
  • Guest speaker presentations and prompts
  • Applying existing knowledge in new contexts
  • Practical activities and hands-on workshops that mimic workplace activities
  • Peer to peer learning, such as discussion boards.

Dissertations for Masters students present their own challenges. Toolkits tailored for masters programmes and case studies of good practice are available here: (see also Vos 2013).

What does this look like in practice?

Research-rich teaching case studies

Problem-based/case-based learning case studies

Intellectually stimulating case studies

PBL seeks to address open-ended problems and real-world scenarios that researchers and industry encounter in professional practice. Typically, PBL places the instructor as a facilitator in teaching sessions. It switches the dynamic to student-action, rather than traditional didactic teaching approaches. Students often encounter peer-to-peer evaluation and personal self-reflection during this type of teaching practice. The real-life applicability of PBL enhances students’ appreciation for the relevance of their subject, their learning and their intrinsic motivation. There is a greater sense of authenticity and a better understanding of the practice of their subject through PBL. Students become active learners and engage with their subject at a deeper level in PBL learning environments.

Discipline-specific examples of PBL are available on the BILT blog – Problem-based Learning (PBL)

Capstones can take a variety of forms, including ePortfolios that draw together collected summative, formative and reflective materials that are reviewed regularly by staff. Students then select which elements of these collated materials to rework and submit for their final assessment. This negotiated portfolio of reflections on the students’ programme experience enhances programme cohesion. Students can readily observe the relevance of all aspects of their programme through a capstone. They also benefit from a sense of control over their learning. Assessment on the capstone can include written reports, exams, oral presentations, reflective journals, discussion forums and project planning. Capstone outputs are highly varied, including websites, collated materials, portfolio, performance (presentation), exhibit, video, write ups of various lengths. They can extend to event planning, showcases, service learning or volunteering, internships, developing new resources.


Bailey, J., van Acker, E. & Fyffe, J. 2013. Capstone courses in undergraduate business degrees Final report 2013. Griffith University (Australian Government; Office for Learning and teaching)

Dolmans, D. J. H. M., Loyens, S. M. M., Marcq, H. & Gijbels, D. 2015. Deep and surface learning in problem-based learning: a review of the literature, Advances in Health Sciences Education 21(5) pp:1087–1112

Healey, M. 2005. Linking research and teaching: Exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning. In R. Barnett (Ed), Reshaping the University: New Relationships between Research, Scholarship and Teaching (Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press) pp. 67-78

Healey, M. & Jenkins, A. 2009. Developing undergraduate research and inquiry, HEA

Tierney, A. 2019. When problems create solutions: a problem-based approach to teaching, BILT blog

Tierney, A. 2020. Dissertation Alternatives, BILT blog

Vos, L. 2013 Dissertation study at the postgraduate level: A review of the literature, HEA Yew, E. H. J. & Goh, K. 2016. Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning, Health Professions Education 2(2) pp: 75-79,