When teaching interrupts the real work

October 3, 1997

Lecturers should not be afraid of educationists. They need to get involved in research into teaching methods, says Paul Orsmond

Not many higher education lecturers will be promoted because of their service to teaching. However the change in attitude is palpable - funding councils are putting up money for projects to enhance teaching.

But one area where little has changed and the debate is still low key is in the area of research directly related to teaching and learning. In this context, the following questions require a more general airing: 1. Why are many higher education lecturers reluctant to carry out research and evaluation into developing new teaching approaches?

2. Should lecturers in specific fields be so willing to leave the research in the hands of "educationists"?

3. If teaching methods have to change, should not the people employing those methods be at the forefront of developments?

The answer to the first question may be largely historical. Nothing more than the ancient chestnut that academic research into a specific discipline is considered a scholarly activity whereas teaching is something that occupies the less than scholarly hours at work. For some teaching seems nothing more than an interruption to their real role as an academic.

It has been claimed that lecturers feel qualified to research into their own field, being trained in that area, but regard themselves as unqualified to research into their own teaching because they have had no training for it. You are on thin ice to claim you are fit to teach, but not to evaluate. As academics we rightly place a high value on critical analysis in our own work but in general are uncritical in our acceptance of the teaching process. Little has changed in the interim. The gap between what we do in teaching as academics and what we do as academic researchers has not been reduced.

Does the presence of an active body of educationists negate the need for practising lecturers to carry out educational research? Many lecturers are concerned and interested in how student learning develops and from a reservoir of knowledge let flow innovations into their teaching.

It is a short step from introducing innovations to developing a research programme. At Staffordshire University, where research into learning and teaching is supported, such programmes have proved helpful to both tutors and students. Two examples from the biology division, where lecturers have no pretensions to be "educationist", nor have they abdicated their role as scientists, illustrate the point.

In a series of questionaires we examined 200 students' views on what makes a good essay. It became increasing clear that the interpretation of the individual assessment marking criterion by tutor and students differed drammatically. Evidently, for students to develop independent and reflective learning strategies agreed criteria were necessary. Feedback from these studies has allowed tutors involved to alter module assessment and got tutors talking to their students about marks. Feedback from the students regarding a common understanding of marking criteria has been mixed. Positive comments include: "In the past we had to second-guess what was meant by certain terms used by the lecturer, now we know what is required, and it helps us plan what we are going to do if we know what is required."

Some of the negative comments, such as "Discussing the criteria confused me. I didn't know what was wanted" may result from poor explanation from the tutor to the student of the reasons for carrying out the process.

The second example relates to studies of students' and lecturers' perceptions on essay writing. In an initial student self-assessment study, more students expressed concern about content and fewer expressed concern about style of the essay relative to the tutor. Not an unexpected result.

However, when students were interviewed individually, the majority felt that the factual content and the structure of the finished essay were of equal importance. A typical student comment was: "Structure is required to enable the reader to understand the content." These observations focus again on the importance of a common understanding of the terminology between the tutor and the student. Is the students' understanding of "content" the same as the tutor's? If it is not, then feedback comments from tutor to student on content may be meaningless and this major means of communication between tutor and student is ineffectual.

In response to the question "What are the reasons for carrying out assessments?" level 1 students often responded "to monitor progress", whereas level 3 students said "to develop skills which are useful for later life". Few students said "to obtain feedback". It is well known that formative assessment is only successful if feedback is provided.

There should not, and must not, be antagonism between the researching lecturer and the educationists. How best could an active partnership be encouraged? A useful analogy might be the relationship that many universities have with industry. Although it is a changing relationship, a sharing partnership can develop with varying degrees of success. Industrial research is predominantly short-term and financially-driven whereas university research can still be regarded as "blue skies".

Does such a relationship exist between practising lecturers and educationists? The educationists could provide the "blue sky" research as a think tank generating theories. The lecturer's role is to put the theories into practice and evaluate them, allowing the practical situation to refine theoretical understanding.

Another important reason why all should not be left to the educationists relates to language. People tolerate and encourage jargon in their own subject but find the jargon of other disciplines threatening. Often the educationists use language that alienates the lecturer. As a lecturer one can often read papers on issues of teaching and learning and be completely lost. It is almost as if educationists are communicating with each other, forgetting the practising lecturer.

Until the educationists and the practising lecturer come to some understanding over language each will remain cosy in their own discipline. It is the duty of the lecturer to articulate clearly about teaching and learning issues. Higher education is changing, but for change to occur successfully, people must see the relevance for that change.

Shoehorning people into change is always problematic. Changes in the way we teach will result for a number of reasons, for example spending restrictions or increasingly diverse intake. Many changes surrounding lecturers are outside their control. One area where they can achieve stability and, from that, some power over their future is by voicing forcefully how they and their students learn.

The role of the lecturer as a professional needs to be reassessed; there is a professional role in education for the university lecturer. In our role as lecturers we must not just receive change, but instigate change. We can do this through research. The reason why the lecturers should be at the forefront of the research process is because research, publishing findings and seeking knowledge is part of the academic's life.

The role of the teacher in higher education today is changing. Still, it hardly seems possible that in 1997 the role of someone teaching in university should be synonymous for so many people with that of someone who has failed in a specific research field.

Is such "ghettoisation" of teaching really to be tolerated? Surely we must soon reach the stage where the debate moves from "research or teaching" to "research into teaching", where to publish in one's own specific field is not considered the only proper area for publication.

Educational research concerns and influences us all in higher education. Therefore, as lecturers we must influence it.

Paul Orsmond is a lecturer in biology at the University of Staffordshire.

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