Bin recipe book, let them create

March 30, 2007

If you really want your students to link teaching to research, you need to stop lecturing on what you know and get them to start investigating the subject for themselves, says Harriet Swain.

Linking teaching and research for students? Simple, you might think. Just teach them what you are researching, right? Wrong, says Stephen Rowland, professor of higher education at University College London.

"Perhaps the commonest mistake is to think linking teaching and research is teaching what your research is." You need to teach them about research.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy and vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, says: "The relationship has to be led by student learning interests rather than by academics' learning achievements," he says.

Alan Jenkins, co-author with Mick Healey and Roger Zetter of a booklet for the Higher Education Academy on linking teaching and research, says that you need to help students learn about the research process in their first year, rather than leaving it to their third-year dissertation. The booklet's recommendations include appraising students in ways that mirror research processes - for example having their work assessed by peers according to the house style of a journal before submitting it to you, and providing training in relevant research skills.

According to Brown, the curriculum is key. One way of using it to link research and teaching is to incorporate into it the results of staff's research work. But he prefers to try to make the undergraduate curriculum parallel the research process as much as possible so that the experience students have in learning is the same as the one staff have in researching.

He acknowledges that the way this is done will differ according to different subjects. In physics, for example, the link may be achieved through the process of inquiry and involvement in staff research projects, whereas it may be more possible in a humanities subject for students and staff to make discoveries together.

Rowland says that whatever subject you teach, involving students in conducting some kind of inquiry is the most important aim. "Conceive of your teaching as something in which students have to inquire rather than just open their eyes and ears and listen."

He says that the teacher should set the context and provide expertise, but the inquiry should be one that comes from the students. If they are solving a problem set by the lecturer then they are thinking about the kind of response the lecturer wants, he warns. "There must be some way in which the student has, in some detail, to frame the problem, not just answer it."

Rowland says that however complex or detailed real research is, it often involves the researcher in addressing some kind of fundamental issue, and this is where it is often easiest to engage students.

"Think of your teaching as a research activity," he says. "Instead of saying, 'my aim is to teach this or that chunk of knowledge', say, 'my aim is to find out something'." For example, imagine you are studying social class, he says. Instead of relaying your thoughts to students on the subject, your aim should be to find out what they think about it. In the process of thinking about it, the students will realise the gaps in their knowledge and frame questions about it, which will help them learn, while at the same time you are learning about the students.

Christina Hughes, director of graduate studies in the department of sociology at Warwick University, has developed a research project associated with a third-year undergraduate module that takes this further.

The module has a student steering committee that meets Hughes each term to discuss the module's development. Students are also expected to co-teach the module and to give regular lectures and organise seminars. Hughes says this approach gives students the freedom to find their own examples of particular theoretical issues and to draw on materials that engage them rather than just the lecturer. As this is a pilot, the peer teaching is not assessed, but Hughes recommends that it should be to make sure everyone takes part.

Paul Taylor, who has been involved in making the organic chemistry unit taught to first-year students at Warwick inquiry based, says that rather than introducing new laboratory classes and experiments, which would have been expensive, he tried to adapt existing classes. The aim was "to make sure that while the students were not actually carrying out original research, they were operating in a research frame of mind to solve problems through inquiry". Rather than being told the outcome of an experiment, they were asked to think about possible outcomes and to devise a test to measure it. Safety permitting, staff were prepared to include techniques for which the students were not yet prepared, believing that they would learn through experience.

Some students argued that they were being forced to run before they could walk but, in a blog commenting on his experience of these classes, student Adam Farden wrote that he appreciated the sense of "realism" given by this method of teaching and found it easier to learn techniques when being told why he was doing each step. He wrote: "Learning practical chemistry shouldn't simply be about 'taxing' the student to follow a long and complex recipe. It should be about making the student think about the techniques they are using and why their chosen technique is superior for that compound."

It is also worth remembering that another way of linking teaching and research is to research your teaching. This can kill several birds with one stone, according to Hughes. It is a recognised form of professional development and can produce outcomes in published research form and in developing curricula. It might even manage to interest both you and your students.

Further information

  • Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines and Departments by Alan Jenkins, Mick Healey and Roger Zetter, Higher Education Academy, April 2007
  • Higher Education Academy resources: www.heacademy.ac.uk/850.htm
    The Enquiring University by Stephen Rowland, McGraw Hill, 2006
  • Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, Warwick University: www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinvention

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