Step out of your comfort zone, try discipline-based educational research

Discipline-based educational research can challenge academics to think about their fields in new ways and can deliver unique benefits to learners, write five scholars

September 22, 2019
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When I, Theresa Mercer, was a few months into my first postdoc in applied environmental chemistry, I was tasked, with another early career colleague, with developing a sustainability-themed game as part of an outreach event to engage primary school pupils in environmental sustainability.

It seemed like an easy undertaking – I had the knowledge in my field but not necessarily the skills and ability to teach it to school children. The more I got into the preparation of the activity, the more I saw that teaching challenges your basic understanding of the fundamentals of your field of research and its wider context.

A PhD doesn’t necessarily prepare you for teaching, and as you delve deeper into understanding and researching such a narrow and detailed field, it is easy to forget the bigger picture and what it means. Through this exercise, I developed my wider skills, and the resulting game successfully encouraged pro-environmental behavioural change among the teachers and pupils.

Fast-forward a couple of years to when I was in my first teaching and research position. I introduced an assessment piece that asked my students to use their knowledge from the course to develop educational games based on sustainability and climate change, and these were eventually delivered to local children. The results of this project and the benefits to the students soon became a research endeavour in its own right, and I realised that stepping out of my comfort zone and engaging in such work has multiple benefits to a variety of actors.

HE students have the academic knowledge in their fields, but there are few avenues for them to use it to make a real difference to society through educating the next generation. Research by one of the authors (Zoe Robinson) into geography students’ perceptions of environmental citizenship suggested that these students felt a responsibility to educate others about environmental issues. However, we rarely provide the opportunities or support to develop the skills to do this.

While most academics must dabble in discipline-based educational research, and in pedagogy more generally, to gain the necessary HE qualification required of tenured academics, the benefits of actively engaging in research in this field are largely unrealised.

We have found discipline-based educational research, outside some of our own fields (ranging from social science and geography, to materials chemistry, and theoretical physics) incredibly relevant to all those who teach in HE and something that delivers lasting benefits at all levels of education and with wider society.

Benefits for academics

As academics conducting this type of research and including it within taught modules as assessment, we can improve our own teaching practices by reflecting on how we relay information and messages to our students. Discipline-based educational research can help develop “competencies” in academics – these are a combination of knowledge, skill and critical thinking that allows the effective application of both knowledge and skill in a specific setting.

We can also enhance our research portfolios without the need for much funding. We have ready-made research partners in our students; and by building educational research into our teaching, we have valuable data at minimal cost that can be used for developing research and the impact of what we do.

Benefits for students

HE students who are involved in this type of discipline-based educational research have the chance to directly educate school pupils (primary and secondary) on pertinent contemporary issues such as climate change and sustainable development. By finding better ways to allow students to construct their own knowledge, learning becomes deeper and longer lasting. They develop reasoning skills and critical thinking (such as analysis and decision-making), and by combining the two, students can become better at experimental and investigative work.

Our research in this area has shown that undergraduate students report improvements in presenting skills, problem-solving, creativity, teamwork and the ability to explain complex concepts. Student participants have told us that they enjoy being involved in student-centred assessments and value the opportunity to work with external organisations. They also appreciate being co-producers of new knowledge because it provides them with ownership of the(ir) research.

Benefits for school pupils, teachers and wider society

For complex and controversial subjects such as climate change and sustainability, teachers often have issues related to capacity and knowledge in such a fast-moving field. This opens up the potential role for HE students to enhance teaching within schools, expose pupils to university life and build strong community links.

For the school pupils, this type of pedagogic approach can engender bottom-up engagement – in this case, a “new civil politics of climate change” (as Andrew Kythreotis has called it) – within their spheres of influence that can catalyse more effective and inclusive social and political change.

School pupils have commented on the accessibility of the material that the students presented, and they are well placed (and have been shown) to deliver messages of sustainability and pro-environmental behaviour to their families and the wider community.

We’re calling on academics to get more involved in discipline-based educational research by taking the plunge and straying outside their usual research fields. While our example focuses on climate change and sustainability and how undergraduates can learn by becoming teachers themselves, this competency approach can be applied across other areas within the university curriculum.

The collaborators in this project research in a number of fields, but we are all deeply interested in advancing pedagogy through evidence-based development. The physicist among us, for example, researches how HE students develop conceptual understanding through mathematical modelling and problem-solving.

Discipline-based educational research is an increasingly expanding area in which we can all be involved. After all, the word “university” derives from the Latin “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”: a community of teachers and scholars. We can (and ought to) ply our trade across both the research and education aspects of our roles.

Theresa Mercer is a senior lecturer in biogeography and planetary health and Andrew Kythreotis is a senior lecturer in social and political geography at the University of Lincoln. Zoe Robinson is a professor of sustainability in higher education and Sharon George is a senior lecturer in green technology and environmental sustainability at Keele University. David Sands is a senior lecturer in physics at the University of Hull.

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