Teaching research methods

Stop lecturing on what you know and get students to investigate the subject for themselves

January 3, 2008

According to Stephen Rowland, professor of higher education at University College London, it is an all-too-common mistake for lecturers “to think that linking teaching and research for your students is teaching what your research is.” Instead, he insists, 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.”

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 must ensure 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.

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 students. 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’.”

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 theoretical issues and to draw on materials that engage them.

Paul Taylor has been involved in making the organic chemistry unit taught to first-year students at Warwick inquiry based. He 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”. 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.

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 students think about the techniques they are using.”

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 interest both you and your students

References

  • 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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