Pedagogical research needs clearer standards of excellence

Wider take-up by academics requires both relevance to specific disciplines and accessibility across disciplines, says Camille Kandiko Howson

June 25, 2021
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Teaching excellence is a core tenet of higher education. But despite institutions laying claim to it on websites and marketing brochures, there are challenges in how to identify, support and reward it.

The key to identifying it is, of course, pedagogical research. However, such research has problems of its own. It sits uncomfortably between teaching and research; some consider it the pinnacle of excellent teaching, while others dismiss it as the Cinderella of research. Disciplinary and contextual nuances around pedagogy and the language its practitioners use can also hinder academics’ engagement with and adoption of its findings.

The trend for “unbundling” the academic role – separating out research, teaching and service functions – has led to an increase in teaching-focused roles in higher education. Many institutions have developed clear pathways for progression and promotion, including to professorial levels. The highest levels often have national and international impact as criteria, alongside promoting innovation and developing excellence in learning and teaching.

While this recognition is important, many staff struggle to conduct or even recognise high-quality pedagogical research, which is one of the few ways to meet such criteria, because their sense of what constitutes excellent research in their discipline often doesn’t match the outcomes of pedagogical research.

Similar challenges arise when research assessment frameworks evaluate pedagogical research. For instance, pedagogical research is considered differently by the UK’s research excellence framework (REF), Excellence in Research for Australia and the European Union’s composite indicator for scientific and technological research excellence.

For example, the REF allows pedagogical research to be submitted either to the education panel or to the relevant disciplinary panel. The current iteration, for the first time, also allows pedagogical research undertaken in researchers’ home institution to be used for impact case studies.

But for pedagogical research to be truly impactful, it is not enough for its excellence to be recognised by internal promotion committees and disciplinary experts on research excellence panels. It needs to be recognised by the relevant disciplinary community. But these take various approaches to judging research quality, and pedagogical research has suffered from a translation problem, in terms of making itself both relevant to specific disciplines and understandable across disciplines.

In a recent open access article, “What constitutes high quality higher education pedagogical research?”, myself and co-authors Carol Evans, Alex Forsythe and Corony Edwards attempt to address this research-practice gap by identifying key dimensions to judge the quality of pedagogical research.

High-quality pedagogical research shares features of robust disciplinary research, but also has unique aspects. One is the importance of pedagogical clarity, connecting it with the theoretical and conceptual work in the field. It is important for scholars to maintain the ability to step outside of the immediate context to see the relationship of the key idea to the wider field nationally and internationally, as well as within and beyond the discipline. How the research is contributing to knowledge development needs to be explicit, to avoid simply offering a “show and tell” approach.

Methodological transparency is important to facilitate replication. This includes full transparency of analysis and reporting of effect sizes in addition to significance.

Pedagogical researchers from different disciplines often use their standard tools of the trade. But high-quality pedagogical research requires the approach and methods to be aligned to the question being asked. It also demands transferability: an ability to go beyond one’s own discipline via a strong evidence base, accessible findings and clarity about how ideas have been operationalised and what has informed decisions. A key to developing high-impact pedagogical research is to not confuse correlation with causality.

We also suggest ways to support pedagogical research’s use in practice. Setting aside plenty of poor pedagogical research, we found much that was either too “pure” to be relevant to most practitioners or too “popularist”, lacking methodological rigour and robustness. Pragmatic pedagogical research balances these extremes and combines theoretical, methodological and practitioner relevance.

We suggest that the model of the integrated academic can support the development of pedagogical researchers, bridging research methods and pedagogical training. Such figures should be able to review the research and scholarship available, analyse it critically, develop contextually appropriate pedagogies and, through good design, use findings from practice to inform research and vice versa.

Straddling research and practice requires a sound understanding of using disciplinary knowledge in practice. Integrated academics develop pedagogical expertise, designing and progressing theoretically framed learning within their particular discipline. They understand academic practice, the conventions, quality assurance processes and regulations that govern the discipline.

Contextual awareness of the discipline, environment and individual differences is necessary to identify and use pedagogical research that is appropriate to the relevant cohorts and groups of students. After all, if research cannot be applied properly to practice, there is little point doing it in the first place.

We hope our framework enables colleagues to do just that.

Camille Kandiko Howson is associate professor of education at Imperial College London.

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Reader's comments (1)

There are countless journals in the U.S. that publish pedagogical research that are read by faculty in the U.S. The mystery of teaching in the UK is just that, a mystery. But now that we have the TEF I am sure it will all become quite clear layered with a number of administrative bodies to interpret it all.


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