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Research rich festival reflections

Surrounded by colourful bunting and endless tea and biscuits, the annual Student Research Festival was a bustling display of our talented Bristol students. Back-to-back presentations from across faculties showcased the depth and breadth of research undertaken by undergraduates and postgraduates. Likewise, the panel discussions offered provocative calls to action for our university and for the sector.

For the last two years, I have served as mentor to our dedicate BILT Student Fellows working on the theme of the research-rich curriculum. These students are the ones who determine all aspects of the annual festival from format to themes, to shortlisting. This year was the third time the festival has run, and the first time it’s been delivered in person. Given how fantastic the students are, it was no surprise that the event went off without a hitch and was enjoyed by all.

I was asked to offer a few opening words and it proved a great opportunity to reflect on what research-rich means to me. I shared some of the ways the university thinks about this theme, notably through the Curriculum Framework, under the Intellectually Stimulating section:

Our curriculum will stretch students and take them out of their comfort zones, building their capacity to work at problems without feeling defeated.

Students will be intellectually challenged by troublesome knowledge, while being supported to grow in confidence, resilience and achievement.

Bristol’s research-rich environment will translate into teaching and assessment methods which give students a taste for doing research from day one of their degrees.

Students will be encouraged to be critical consumers and curious producers of knowledge through opportunities to observe, critique, replicate and undertake research.

This echoes the work of noted educationalist Mick Healey, who considers the research-rich curriculum can be expressed in many ways. These include keeping the curriculum up to date informed by research, teachers using their primary research as source material, students learning and applying the methods and theories of research, and students undertaking research directly. For Healey, these spheres of activity form the research-teaching nexus, where students and staff move from passive to active roles in their learning between content-focused and problem-focused emphasis.

Not everyone in academia believes that students should be or can ever be researchers. That’s not something I agree with and in my own teaching, I have students undertaking primary research from first year. It’s a transformative thing to do for their learning and completely changes their perspective on knowledge acquisition, self-directed learning, and their agency within their studies. Unfortunately, it is not always feasible to do this in every subject and in every learning setting. It is, however, important to embrace the idea that students can indeed be researchers and can make contributions to research in small and big ways. These contributions are valid and meaningful and there are, perhaps, more opportunities for students to partake in research than some might expect!

In my own practice, I found that when students are the face of research and engaging with the public, negative tropes about elite ivory tower universities dissipate quickly.

Again, well done to this year’s BILT Student Fellows for designing and delivering the Student Research Festival! Thank you to everyone who presented, to our student and academic judging panels, to the Global Lounge team for hosting and supporting us, and to the wider BILT team who made everything possible.

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