BILT Student Fellow Emily spoke at the University Education Committee last week. Here, she reflects on the discussion about research-informed teaching and what can be done to improve students’ interaction with research.
Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about research-informed teaching at the University Education Committee. Education Committee, if you haven’t heard of it before, is made up of people high up in Education in the university (think Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellors, Education Directors, etc). So, I was really excited about this opportunity, although a little nervous, because I knew it would be a great chance to get a student’s opinion heard.
The panel were asked to prepare a short talk on what research-informed teaching meant to us, and how we saw research-informed teaching working at Bristol. There was a good mix of people on the panel: James Freeman, the Faculty Education Director of the Arts, Dawn Davies, from the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience (PPN), Helen Della Nave from We The Curious, and me.
So, what is research informed teaching?
By definition, ‘research-informed teaching’ (RIT) simply means the linking of research and teaching in Higher Education. There are various other phrases associated with RIT, including ‘research-led’, ‘research-oriented’, ‘research-tutored’ and ‘research-based’. There’s a good diagram called the Curriculum Design and the Research-Teaching Nexus by Healey (2005), which helps to understand how those different elements work.
What did I say?
I structured my talk around the student experience. To me, research-informed teaching is about helping students to learn by encountering research methods and by understanding their own work as research, which fits with the ‘research-based’ element of the diagram. I see learning as an active process, meaning that we should teach students how to do things, rather than teaching them a set body of knowledge. I used English as an example – English students aren’t required to have read a certain number of books or know a certain number of texts in order to complete an English degree. Instead, we are taught how to analyse a text, how to think critically about a text, how to develop an argument and how to engage in critical discourse. The course is skills focused, not content focused, meaning English students develop a skillset which can be applicable elsewhere. I tried to stress that research-informed teaching, to me, would mean focusing on engaging students in research methods, rather than content-based curricula.
What did everyone else say?
It was interesting to see how everyone else understands research-informed teaching, from their different academic backgrounds and their experiences of teaching.
James Freeman spoke about how he feels the prime function of research is ‘to seek’, as the word once meant, so students are actively involved in seeking answers each year and presenting those answers to their community. He also talked about ‘Arts in the Age of Data’, which means encouraging Arts students to develop data skills in order to answer their questions, putting a research method into practice in the context of their own work.
Dawn Davies discussed how the teaching in PPN is usually ‘research-led’, as staff use research findings and primary literature in their teaching, although this mainly occurs in 3rd and 4th year. These units are intended to link with what the departments are researching, in order to create a link between staff and students and to make use of research expertise. Dawn also raised the issue that there is a big jump to 3rd year, a problem recognised across the faculties, as they found that students didn’t have the skills for designing experiments well. She explained that the problem is that students are taught in a recipe style, they are told exactly how to run a lab and therefore don’t learn how to deal with new problems or designs. One of the ways PPN is working to solve this is by teaching the students the basic lab knowledge, and then getting them to design their own experiment using that equipment, which encourages them to develop their problem-solving skills. In this, they are hoping to increase the research-based aspects of their courses.
Helen from We The Curious, told us about how her role is to get more of the public involved in scientific research. She told us about their rebrand, as some of you might remember We The Curious used to be called @Bristol. Their new name is part of a broader culture change they are aspiring to around science discovery centres, working to promote curiosity and to value people’s questions, rather than functioning as a didactic science museum. Helen told us about how she hopes to change how ‘Public Engagement’ works with researchers, as she often finds that researchers just include the public in their last step of research, dissemination. Instead, she hopes that researchers can work more closely with the public throughout that process, engaging them in the research earlier. This model could also be used with students, to get them more involved in the research of their supervisors, rather than just sharing that research with them once it is completed.
The panel then answered questions and we had a discussion with the rest of the committee. Hillary, the UG Education Officer, made a great point about degree timelines, arguing that we needed to look at how research capability is built throughout a degree programme, rather than just suddenly thrusting it upon students in third year. Another significant issue was raised about how students are ‘inducted’, a lot of thought is put into how students are inducted into the university in general, but how are we inducting them as researchers? How is the transition from A-Level to degree being dealt with? It was clear that we need to consider the degree journey as a whole, rather than overloading 1st years with knowledge and then expecting them to be active researchers in 3rd year.
Reflections on the discussion
I think the panel-speakers all raised some really interesting points about RIT, and they were met positively by the rest of the Education Committee. I think that Dawn’s points about teaching students the basic skills and then encouraging them to design their own lab experiments links well to my own points about the skillsets taught in English, again placing an emphasis on the ‘how to’ rather than the ‘what’.
However, I felt that a lot more questions than answers were raised in the discussion, as many of us could point out issues and flaws in the system, but it was harder to think of solutions. Hillary’s point about degree timelines really resonated with me, as I feel that students need to be engaged with research far earlier in their time at university, in order to consider themselves as researchers and to understand the skill sets that they are building. The fact that Hillary, a recent graduate, made such poignant comments really got me thinking about the student opinion. It is great that this issue was raised at Education Committee, but surely as an issue to integral to the student experience, it is vital to get some student feedback. I am really keen to organise student focus groups, to discuss the Healey Nexus and how they feel research-informed teaching could impact their studies. If you’ve read this blog and have some thoughts about research-informed teaching in your department, especially if you’re a student, please drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
Speaking on the Education Committee has really inspired me to be involved further in developing research-informed teaching at Bristol. It was great to talk with other academics and staff who also feel passionately about engaging their students in research more, and it was encouraging to see how many want to affect change. The next step will be working to see how we can bring research-informed teaching into the curricula and how it can impact and improve students’ experience at university. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it goes!