'Role split is an attack on identity'

July 25, 2003

Do you really need to do research to be a good tutor? Pat Leon reports

The fury over proposals to create a teaching-only tier of universities is based partly on a belief that students benefit when their tutors are enthusiastic researchers in their subject.

But there is disagreement about whether evidence exists to prove that a research-active tutor is more likely to motivate students or guarantee them higher grades than a non-research-active one. Indeed, the Open University has successfully graduated thousands of students tutored by non-academics.

So why are academics so protectionist about their research interests and keen to point to the teaching spin-off? Richard Blackwell, senior adviser at the Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre, believes it stems from a fear of de-skilling.

"People see the severing of the teaching-research role as an attack on their professionalism and identity. It's like Taylorism applied to the academic role, whereby functions are split to make production more efficient."

Blackwell has spent the past 18 months managing a national project linking research and teaching in the disciplines. Seven LTSN subject centres have taken part, covering a variety of disciplines.

The projects, which finish in September, have looked at course content, teaching methods, student projects and involvement with staff research.

Each centre website has links to case studies, workshop materials and teacher evaluations.

Helen King manages the geography, earth and environmental science (GEES) subject centre. She sees the link between research and learning as stronger than the one between research and teaching. "Everyone has experienced a good teacher who is a bad researcher and vice versa. There is not a causal link," she says.

The GEES project has looked at ways of integrating research into the curriculum rather than making a judgement about teaching quality.

Mick Healey, professor of geography at the University of Gloucester and a national teaching fellow, says that much of the debate about teaching-research links has been oversimplified and based on anecdotal evidence. For him, teaching "is simply the process by which we facilitate student learning".

He says: "There is much research evidence to show little, if any, relationship between research productivity and teaching excellence. But there is growing evidence that students may benefit from research activity, especially if the linkage is managed and explicitly planned. Careful course design can help students learn in high and low research-intensive institutions.

"We found many examples in the LTSN GEES project. Few are about inclusion of research findings in courses, most are about innovative ways of teaching students' research skills."

Maureen Spencer lectures in law at Middlesex University and is a researcher in the fields of evidence and human rights. She believes that although forging research-teaching links invigorates a university's intellectual life, it is not always easy for academics to translate into action.

Part of the problem is the narrow definition of what constitutes research.

Spencer prefers the notion of "scholarship", mentioned in the white paper, whereby academics keep abreast of their subject and apply and integrate it into teaching.

"Educational theory is not just for educationists, but for educators in their disciplines. My teaching materials are full of examples of my research. I teach a module on principles for a fair trial in which my legal aid and witness protection research provides the raw material for students to work on and develop as part of their projects."

Julian Park is a subject specialist for LTSN Bioscience. His project, "Taking Learning into the Field", is a core module at the University of Reading that brings first-year students into contact with research in rural environmental sciences using existing projects and via field trips to local research stations.

He says: "Visits to local institutes also keep my own knowledge of what is going on up to date. It is good for building relationships with younger researchers in the school who may help on some sessions."

One of the most vocal proponents of the research-teaching link is Alan Jenkins, education developer at Oxford Brookes University. He says that postgraduates will benefit more than undergraduates from staff research.

But the more academically motivated an undergraduate, the more likely they will be enthused by teachers' research.

"This does leave uncertain the extent to which all/most/some staff in a department or institution need to be involved in high-level research. Most academics would think that some/most need to be," he says.

Linking research and teaching project details: www.ltsn.ac.uk/genericcentre/index.asp?id=17235

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