Exploit your experience

March 31, 2000

WHY

They believe that students benefit by observing how academics study and feed it into their own work

WHAT

Historians at Nottingham Trent University are exposing themselves... and not being arrested. Jennifer Currie reports

Exposing yourself in front of your students may not sound like the ideal way to improve your teaching style, but it has worked wonders for one research group based in Nottingham Trent University's history department.

For "exposing yourself" read "showing students how academics study", as that is exactly what the Forward group has done in an attempt to break down the barriers that traditionally divide staff from their students.

Forward, an acronym for family, order, reform, women, anarchy, rebellion and dissent, represents the main research areas tackled by the group of early modern historians.

Martyn Bennett, a reader in history at Nottingham Trent, says that working with the Forward group has helped to redevelop the department's relationship between teaching and research. "The idea of the group is to share experience as equals. We hope this breaks down the barriers between tutors and students, as well as showing them the way that research informs the teaching we do."

Initially restricted to postgraduate students and staff, interested undergraduates were soon let in on the action after a series of modules based on Forward research areas were introduced into the first and second-year undergraduate teaching programmes.

"Students on those modules were encouraged to attend the Forward sessions given by outside speakers," Bennett recalls. "A natural extension of this was to develop the approach for undergraduate dissertation work."

Although the fortnightly meetings are formally classed as extracurricular in nature, Bennett says that the increasing attendance numbers demonstrate their value as a teaching aid. There are 17 students in the group this year, and more are expected to join next year.

Staff and students alike bring work in various stages of completion along to the sessions for criticism, comments and feedback. Skeletal research proposals, unfinished first drafts and papers in progress are all subject to scrutiny. Despite the group's diverse range of abilities and experience, a second-year's dissertation idea is treated with the same reverence as a finished chapter from a postdoctoral thesis.

As well as introducing students to the perils of constructive feedback, the meetings also highlight the links between research and lecture material. "The level-two modules in particular emphasise this, as the assignment is a piece of work done by students in areas that closely match staff interests, such as witchcraft, civil war or agricultural riots," Bennett says.

If the advent of the student as consumer does bring about a "value for money" mindset as predicted, then academics can look forward to the prospect of justifying the amount of time they spend on unrelated research to their questioning customers. Bennett is convinced that this gap can be bridged if academics bare the bones of their practice to students.

"It is in everyone's best interests to show that we are qualified to teach them. Also, as we are training them to be historians, we should expect them to examine the conduct of other people," he says.

Although academics have always shared experiences and knowledge with their students, Bennett feels that by formalising the discussion process, both staff and students will benefit. "The very nature of the group is that we all have a mutual interest. A number of staff have also said that they share information better in a Forward session than they do in a more traditional teaching situation."

The problems associated with linking teaching to research in a meaningful manner are well documented, and Bennett does not claim to have discovered a revolutionary approach. Instead, he describes it as nothing more than an extension of more traditional methods. "We see it as more of a pool of human resources," he says.

Forward's success has been promoted as an example of good practice throughout Nottingham Trent, and the model is now also used by the modern languages department.

By removing a couple of the ivory towers that lie between students and their tutors, the Forward group has also managed to grasp the difficulties that lie at the heart of the teaching and research debate.

"By exploiting one another's experiences in a formal setting, we find that we can work more efficiently and directly in our subject areas. It gives the students a great chance to find a research area they are interested in and to let them explain what they want to do with it for themselves."

Leanne Ogden, 20, third-year history student at Nottingham Trent University "I think more and more students should be reaping the benefits of Forward research.

"The modules I have done have really consolidated my dissertation work. I am always worried that my work will not make sense to other people, but the Forward meetings give me a lot of confidence, which really helps with the research - especially when you have to write a 15,000-word dissertation.

"We don't just discuss theories. The group can help you to plan your structure or historiography, which is a good base to work from. The interaction between staff and students is great."

WHAT THE STUDENTS SAY

Elizabeth Hillerby, 20, third-year history student at Nottingham Trent University "Research needs to be shared by everybody - there is no point in doing it if no one else can read or discuss it.

"We should all be encouraged to share our work as much as we can. It really helps to discuss what you are doing with other students and to see how their work relates to yours. It is also a real confidence boost when you know they are interested in what you have written, and vice versa.

"You can tell from the group's reaction if your research is going to work or not, and they will give you ideas on developing it.

"Having the staff present means we can ask them where to go for primary source materials."

Liz Hutt, 20, third-year history student at Nottingham Trent University "The module I did last year was my first major piece of research, and Forward taught me a lot. I learned how to approach my dissertation, which meant I was able to go out and do some initial research during the summer vacation.

"The group gives us a lot of support - you really feel that you are not working on your own. You also get the chance to develop a closer relationship with staff, which might not happen otherwise. I feel comfortable approaching my tutors or colleagues if I have a problem with my work because we have all been able to get to know each other better."

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