The confusion over whether teaching itself should count towards the RAE

October 1, 1999

The subject panels judging university research have made proposals on assessment, but they are still unsure about how to assess research on teaching their subjects.

Until now research into the teaching of a discipline has not been counted for research assessment exercise purposes, except under the education banner. All that could soon change.

John Rogers, manager of RAE 2001, said in a letter last January: "I expect the criteria for judging research to be published late 1999 will contain a statement by each panel on how they intend to approach the assessment of research into teaching in the discipline concerned."

This could put research into teaching on a par with subject-based research in departments. It would encourage, for example, engineering lecturers to research their teaching, the curriculum and its relationship to society. This would invigorate engineering.

A task group set up to consider teaching or education research, however, missed this opportunity.

Instead it judged academics in the disciplines to be incompetent to assess education research. In April it recommended that research into teaching "should in general be returned to the education panel" rather than be considered in the discipline or by some additional dedicated subject panel. This means that research into teaching would continue to be ineligible for subject departments' RAE returns.

After further reconsideration, the Higher Education Funding Council for England in June appeared to reverse this recommendation and advised panel members of all subject areas to consider their treatment of "the conduct and dissemination of research into the teaching process".

But this still leaves it unclear whether research into teaching of a subject will count in the same way as disciplinary research.

One advantage of a process that has been more open than that of previous RAEs is that uncertainties can be addressed by a wider group of academics. John Rogers has written to me to say there would be further consideration of pedagogical research.

University teachers and researchers can also respond to the panels' criteria. The present academic culture, which drives a wedge between teaching and research, needs to be reformed.

The funding councils are also continuing discussions of the arrangements for their submission and assessment and may yet revise the arrangements.

Such a change would enhance the status of teaching more than all the efforts of the Institute of Learning and Teaching. It would help link teaching to disciplinary insight and view it as central to academia's intellectual life, rather than a second-order practical activity.

The number of journals that address teaching in the disciplines is rising. Many of them draw close relationships between teaching and disciplinary understandings drawn from research.

At many universities there is a wide group of academic staff from all faculties publishing research into teaching and curriculum.

There is thus the expertise to judge its value. If this is not reflected in the subject panels, then this has more to do with the fact that they were selected with little concern for research into teaching than with the availability of qualified academics.

As university teachers gain more experience of researching their teaching, stimulated by courses that the ILT will accredit, so their ability will be further enhanced.

Experience of schooling has shown that teaching is best developed by serious inquiry conducted and judged by teachers themselves.

Education research conducted by outsiders who produce so-called "findings", with the expectation that teachers will apply them, have met with much less success.

Education departments or educational development units should be encouraged to support educational research elsewhere.

But only if such research is owned by the subject-based lecturers themselves, and acknowledged by their departments and RAE units of assessment, will developing new teaching methods be a serious part of the academic's career.

We have an opportunity by responding to the RAE panels' proposals before October 15.

Stephen Rowland is director of Sheffield University's Higher Education Research Centre.

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