Get research to tie the knot

October 1, 1999

WHAT: Jennifer Currie talks to Alan Jenkins about the difficult but necessary task of marrying teaching and research.

WHY: Students need to be given clear information as to why the research is taking place, what the staff are doing and what the benefits are.

HOW: Teaching and research have never been comfortable bedfellows. Teaching always complains if research steals the blankets, while research whinges if teaching takes up more than its fair share of room.

So why do universities persist in lumping the two together? Why not put an end to all the bickering by simply separating the researchers from the teachers?

Perhaps the widespread reluctance to do this is because most universities believe that the two are inextricably linked, with many outrightly declaring the strength of their convictions. Take, for example, Exeter University's mission statement: "The (university's) account argues strongly for the continuing and critical value of the link between teaching and research."

Fine, as far as it goes. But as the Higher Education Quality Council's 1998 audit report on Exeter pointed out: "The audit team found that there was very little systematic reflection within the university about just what was meant by the claimed interdependence of research and teaching."

Alan Jenkins, an education developer at Oxford Brookes University, believes that this criticism could be levied at the many other institutions making the same vacuous claims.

"Mission statements have to go beyond just making motherhood or fatherhood statements," said Jenkins. "We can say 'I am a good father' but what does that mean? Universities have to be able to prove that they know what their mission statements mean and that they can deliver what they promise."

Oxford Brookes pledges to "impart knowledge and learning through the promotion of research and academic inquiry and to enhance the links between research activity and learning and teaching".

Jenkins said: "Research on student perceptions has convinced us that undergraduate students perceived clear benefits from academic research but that they wanted that research to be better organised to ensure that students were stakeholders."

But just as value for money is a concept that sits uncomfortably alongside the traditional model of students as apprentice scholars, the view of students as stakeholders in research is one that might cause consternation.

Jenkins agrees that attitudes will need realigning. "With students and their parents paying directly for more of their education, universities have to link teaching and research to ensure that students are a prime beneficiary."

Yet the reality of price-tagged degrees is that those footing the bill are entitled to ask whether or not students are being shortchanged, while the national crusade for assurances of quality means that just as universities are increasingly asked to account for their actions, university lecturers are now taken to task over theirs.

"Students complain that they do not always know where their lecturers are. They need to be given clear information as to why the research is taking place, what the staff are doing and what the benefits are," said Jenkins. "It must be remembered that the link between teaching and learning is not automatic. Just because a member of staff is carrying out a research project does not necessarily mean that students will benefit from it. The link must be created and emphasised."

Communication between staff researchers and students can be improved by using websites or bulletin boards to deliver information on the latest research developments or the whereabouts of course tutors. Staff should be encouraged to discuss how they are linking their research to their teaching, and Jenkins also suggests that departments should tailor their undergraduate programmes to ensure that students are involved and informed as much as possible.

"Some of the research grants made by the National Science Foundation in the United States are allocated only on the condition that students are taken on as members of the research team," he said. "It's a very exciting development. We need to make changes in assessment and the way disciplines are taught. Students have to be able to experience research through very active methods, so that they are learning as close to the research process as possible. The research element needs to be more than just a dissertation."

There is a fine balance between levels of teaching and research, however, one that several US institutions with high research profiles have yet to find. A 1998 Carnegie Foundation report found that in the US"research universities have often failed and continue to fail their undergraduate populations. Thousands of students graduate without seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research."

Jenkins agrees that this is a problem: "The perception in the US that some institutions are so preoccupied with research that they neglect student learning causes great public anger and concern. It has led to stupid and counter-productive measures to limit staff research and to increase classroom hours. I suppose it is a lesson to learn from," he conceded.

Feedback from a recent conference at Oxford Brookes revealed that many staff felt they were short of time to pursue both research and teaching, but almost all were opposed to the idea of a teacher/researcher separation. It was also found that individual departments address the key problem of linking the two sides in different ways.

"In the sciences the teaching/research connection lies in ensuring courses are based on up-to-date knowledge and on students learning research methodology. In the professional areas the imperative is to ensure students learn evidence-based practice," Jenkins said.

"It also depends on the nature of the discipline and how the department controls the way their staff spend their time. A health-care department will have research staff working in clinical practice, but this wouldn't happen in history, for example. Students need to be aware of the role research plays within their department. This can be done by examining the working relationship between staff research and student learning."

Other conference delegates claimed that they managed to fulfil their research and teaching goals through pedagogic research. "Oxford Brookes values staff who are practitioners, and it has committed funds to develop pedagogic research as a key institutional strategy," Jenkins said. "Some members of staff would like the institution to adopt a broad view of research to include scholarship and the writing of textbooks and software."

Convinced by the "clear evidence" that students should and can benefit from their tutor's research, Jenkins lays the ultimate responsibility for change at a different door.

"The research assessment exercise and present funding systems are leading to a separation of teaching and research. We have one external review for teaching and a different one for research," he said. "All institutions are struggling with the impact of cuts in resources and the bifurcation in funding and external reviews of teaching and research. If we want a higher education system where all or some institutions emphasise teaching linked to research, perhaps the action area is with the funding bodies and the government."

Encouraged by the Economic and Social Research Council's funding of research on teaching and learning, Jenkins hopes that there will soon be a shift towards financially rewarding links between the two fields.

"Research has the kudos and outside interest, while teaching is increasingly seen as a second-class citizen.

"Some heads of department see the connection best achieved through a virtuous circle of getting high research ratings, externally funded research and using this income and reputation to attract high-quality staff and students. But some staff are worried about a potential vicious circle of low ratings and demoralised teaching-only departments," he admitted.

Jenkins says that students will start to see real benefits once there is a change in national funding structure and greater awareness of how to link teaching and research.

"If we really believe in the integration of teaching and research, we need to push for one external review. It is also important to remember that students are not automatically positive about the benefits of research. If they are to be stakeholders in staff research, students need to understand the nature of all the work taking place in their subject area. It is also important that they get excited about it," he concluded. "It won't be easy, but it can be done."

More information can be found at Oxford Brookes's linking teaching and learning website http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/link1/ltr1.html e

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