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Moving into a Teaching and Scholarship Role through Educational Enquiry

Moving into a Teaching and Scholarship Role through Educational Enquiry  – Dr Chris Armstrong, Chemistry    

I am a chemist by trade and training. That means if someone asks whether a reaction happens by an associative or dissociative mechanism, I can quickly turn questions into solutions, though not necessarily answers. Moving into a Teaching and Scholarship (T&S) role, the questions I’m faced with are significantly different. From the deceptively simple (do students respond better when my face is present on an online video?) to the deep, and very sensitive (what is the mental health impact of our assessment strategy?). More often than not, these stay as questions, and solutions remain elusive.

By the looks of it, I’m not alone. The theme of “So what next?” dominates many educational discussions amongst those wanting to develop in their roles as a scholar of teaching and learning. The Teaching Excellence Academy’s winter symposium offered a range of solutions and answers to this pressing question.

‘That won’t work with my students’ – the role of research evidence in changing practice – Professor Tina Overton, University of Leeds.

Tina Overton is a highly influential Professor of Chemistry Education, achieving that rank and title at Hull several years ago.

Her keynote was on the role that research plays in changing practice. We know that we are dealing with an increasingly diverse and complex environment in higher education – the traditional lecture simply can’t cut it any more for 21st century graduates who need more skills, and better knowledge of applications. Educational enquiry is what is driving the changes we’re seeing. For example research into the role of ‘flipped’ teaching not only show that it works, but shows what subjects it works best for.

What even is pedagogic research, though? For many of us, it usually starts with the same goal: to improve our teaching. But that immediately leads to the idea of being purely evaluative in our methods. Often biased, often flawed, and often subject to novelty effects more than anything. Moving on to more robust methods, then, allows us to be more rigorous, ensure we have the right answers, and – very importantly for some – gain a reputation.

‘Dealing with ethical issues in educational research’– Dr Katharine Hubbard, Biological Sciences.

Katharine Hubbard (recently awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2019) presented a number of ethical conundrums for new pedagogic researchers to think about. Those coming from a pure research background may view it as a purely bureaucratic burden, and several Mentimeter responses from the audience seemed to perceive it as an administrative barrier. This is a myth worth dispelling quickly.

The discussion groups in this workshop identified a range of issues, which Katharine helped us categorise broadly:

  • (Informed) consent – knowing that participants in our research know that they’re involved, and what they will experience, and so can provide consent
  • Impact on students (and the university) – considering whether students become unfairly advantaged/disadvantaged, or whether our findings could harm our institution’s reputation
  • Safeguarding – as we have a duty of care, as an academic community, to do the right thing by anyone involved in research
  • Inclusivity – no-one should feel actively excluded from our research for any reason, particularly as implementing results will still affect everyone
  • Data and confidentiality – GDPR seeming like a complex and scary world, all it really asks us to do is be sensible and careful with identifying and sensitive information

Personally, the most interesting parts of this is where ethical considerations clash: we often have an ethical duty to study certain things, because it’s important to know why and how things happen, but these are often the most difficult things to study ethically.

‘I’ve got a good idea - where next?’ – Professor Peter Draper, Nursing and Dr Dominic Henri, Biological Sciences.

Peter and Dom spent this workshop challenging us to think about where we are as scholars of teaching and learning. Are we private or public? Are we informal, or rigorous? Ideally, we want to be rigorous, and disseminate our findings widely. Peter was quick to point out that even scholarship that remains within a Department or within an individual can foster and fertilise good teaching practices.

They presented us with five questions that we could ask going forward in our research:

  • Effectiveness – does it work?
  • Experience – what is it like?
  • Efficiency – is it worth it?
  • Ethics – should we do it?
  • Engagement – will they do it?

The discussion around this was incredibly important. In what context does all of this work – would research performed on Hull students be applicable to students in Leeds? Is the effectiveness and the experience for students or staff? Especially if we’re asking ‘will they do it?’

‘Developing pedagogic research practices.’ – Mr Lee Falling and Dr Paul Chin, Brynmor Jones Library

Lee and Paul presented us with what the Brynmor Jones Library has to offer in terms of training and resources that can support educational enquiry.

Transferring into a SoTL role can be a challenge for some academics in this respect, especially for those from STEM-related fields who may be used to searching the literature in particular ways. Often, we might just resort to Google Scholar as a quick catch-all. Yet, as Lee pointed out, this search engine is full of quirks, lacks reproducibility, and may not be robust and authoritative – as Google is based around algorithms trying to search out the things it thinks are right, rather than relying on curated databases of reputable journals. EBSCOhost is a good alternative, with some in-depth search features and indexing options – those coming from other fields may be able to adapt quickly to it if they’ve experienced Web of Knowledge or Web of Science in the past.

One thing of note that Lee demonstrated was the SAGE Research Methods database, and its methods map. This online tool allows us to search for any method we might be interested in, how to do something, or even search in a visualised concept map of increasingly specific terms. It’s absolutely worth a visit if you’ve never encountered it before.

‘What next? Developing your educational enhancement project.’ – Professor Graham Scott, Catherine Lillie, Dr Stuart McGugan, Teaching Excellence Academy.

The final section was a more in-depth discussion amongst groups, focusing on what we would do next.

  • What do we want to do?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • How are we going to do it?

Personally, this was a valuable time to reflect on what I will be doing in the next six months, and to discuss the details with colleagues. This was a good end to the day, allowing everyone in the room to take ideas from the previous talk and begin to apply them. Dom and Peter’s questions help piece together the “What?” – Lee and Paul told us about the “Who?” – and Katharine made us think about whether our “How?” is suitable.

I will be starting on my first “proper” education research project in the coming weeks, with some keen undergraduates to assist; and I now think I know where to find some the answers for the new questions I have.

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