The scholarship of teaching and learning is thriving

In response to Richard Arum’s charge that higher education research is failing to sufficiently investigate university teaching, Anne Tierney gives concrete examples of the contrary

July 17, 2018
teaching and learning
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I read with interest Richard Arum’s article “Does research conflict with teaching? It depends what you are researching”, which Times Higher Education published on 5 July. It’s a subject close to my heart, as I’ve spent the past eight years researching how academics engage with the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) to improve both their teaching practice and their students’ learning within a research-driven culture.

There are many things on which Arum and I agree. First, that research drives university culture. This is true in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and beyond. It’s also true that research outputs guarantee an academic a more secure future, although this is changing. And I agree that it is of concern if students are not learning during their time at university. However, I was confused by Arum’s assertion that we, as academics, do not enquire into our own practice or into our students’ learning.

My own research was inspired by my experiences of being a teaching-focused academic. In 2010, I embarked on a research project to investigate what it was like for academics to “engage in scholarship”. It was a small-scale study of 21 teaching-focused academics at UK universities, all working in life sciences. I discovered several things that inform the ongoing debate.

In the UK at least, the research excellence framework dominates everything. That is obvious for research-focused academics who are “in” the REF. But there is also an impact on teaching-focused academics who are not in the REF, in terms of status, promotion prospects, roles and workload. Not being returned in the REF is seen as a failure, but the REF 2014 explicitly prevented pedagogic research done on one’s own students from being submitted, and Debby Cotton, Pauline Kneale and Wendy Miller highlighted in their 2016 Higher Education Academy report that only 9 per cent of education submissions to the REF were higher education-related.

In terms of promotion, boards often consider publications and external grant funding as evidence to support an individual’s case. For research-focused academics, especially in life sciences, not only is this relatively simple to document, but that evidence is biased in their favour. For teaching-focused academics, external funding is more limited, and the impact factors of education journals are lower than those of disciplinary journals, with the result that they are looked down on by promotion committees more used to weighing up papers authored for Nature or Science.

In terms of tasks and workload, teaching-focused academics take on large teaching and administrative roles. This frees research-focused academics to conduct disciplinary research while limiting the amount of time they can themselves devote to scholarship, or pedagogic research.

In addition to these organisational barriers, there are also cognitive ones. The Canadian scholars Niamh Kelly, Susan Nesbit and Carolyn Oliver estimate that it takes 10 years to become an expert in the field of SoTL, but the effort it takes to become an expert in a second field of study is often overlooked by institutions.

My own work in that area – along with my collaboration with Andrea Webb at the University of British Columbia – shows that there are a series of threshold concepts that must be negotiated in order to become an expert in SoTL. These include getting to grips with methodologies outside one’s discipline, the tensions of being a novice in a second discipline, and understanding what it means to be “student-centred” and its implications for practice.

While Arum was delivering his keynote address at THE’s Teaching Excellence Summit in Glasgow last week (“Richard Arum: US undergraduate education is declining and failing”), I was attending an Enhancing Student Learning through Innovation Scholarship event in Bristol. About a hundred UK higher education teachers and students spent two days sharing practice and discussing their research into improving student learning. Before that, I attended the education section of the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference and the 43rd annual Improving University Teaching international conference, where academics from more than 20 nations gathered to talk about their research into teaching and learning in higher education.

Why am I telling you this? I’ve described three meetings, two of which were international, where teachers in higher education come to discuss education. This happens every year. And there are more such events, so many that it’s impossible to attend them all. And yet to a great extent, the contributions made by those of us working on the scholarship of teaching and learning remain unacknowledged because they don’t fit into the present research-dominant culture. But we are here, and we’re working on it.

Anne Tierney is a lecturer in the department of learning and teaching enhancement, Edinburgh Napier University.

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Reader's comments (1)

It may be that the next REF to which almost all academics should be entered, will raise the profile and 'perceived value' of the contributions to research made by SoTL and other pedagogic research devotees. Let's hope so. Greater recognition for these areas is long overdue, as Anne Tierney has pointed out.

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