Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Research-based education (1): what is research?

Anyone teaching in a university will have heard a lot about research-based education recently. If you haven't heard about it yet, don't worry, you probably will soon.

It's a concept that's grown out of work done on the relationship between teaching and research in higher education; the key piece of literature is by John Hattie and H.W. Marsh, who asked lecturers about their teaching and research and identified eight different models for how they were thought to be linked. (See the end of this post for a summary of Hattie & Marsh's article).

As student fees become an increasingly large section of university revenue and students' opinions are being given ever more weight, 'research-based education' is being becoming a brand for universities who are keen to show that students will participate directly in the world-class research in which they have invested massively in recent years - sometimes at the cost of the student experience.

There are as many views on these developments as there are researchers and teachers. But in all the hubbub, I haven't heard anyone ask the simple question: what is research?

My favourite example of research-based teaching in humanities is Hasok Chang's third-year course which involved students researching the history of chlorine, and passing their notes and finished work to the following years' group, who built on their findings, with the result that the collected essays were published in 2007 as a monograph, An Element of Controversy.

I want to venture that research-based education is a concept that flies well in some subjects (Medicine, Engineering) but is less clear in others. For humanities subjects the challenge is more about making it visible rather than making it happen at all. What I like about Chang's work is not the fact that the students got to publish their work, but the fact that the students could see that what they were doing was research.

We can define research in three ways: as a verb, a noun, and an adjective.
  • Research as a noun is something you can name and count. It's an outcome, a product, for example an article, or a book; the benchmark for this kind of research is usually that it's original, and contributes to knowledge in the subject. 
  • Research as a verb is something you do; it's an activity, something that occupies space in your diary. Sometimes you bid for money to be able to do it; you probably always find you are bidding for time to do it.  
  • Research as an adjective is something that describes your relationship to the subject as a whole. If you're a 'researcher' then you have an active and questioning relationship to what passes for 'knowledge' in your subject. 
I have a feeling that 'research-based education' is becoming popular because in some subjects it's relatively easy to point to an activity and say 'this is research, it's not teaching ... can we find a way for the students to get involved?'. And the bonus for the student is that they know it's research, not teaching, because it takes place in a different location and involves postdocs and other new faces, and in some cases they even get to see their name on an output.

History of Art is different, because if we say that research can describe your relationship to knowledge, all our students are researchers to a greater or lesser degree, since ours is a subject where (for the most part) there is no body of knowledge to teach and where progress can only be made if students learn to develop and defend their own understanding of topics, themes and issues.

Getting students involved in 'original' research may happen subjects where there are teams of researchers and there's a division of labour. But it's harder to see how that can happen in subjects like History of Art where research is traditionally a solitary activity.

The challenge of research-based education for History of Art is not to bridge the gap between research and teaching, because I suspect there never was such a gap; but instead to make the relationship more visible both to students and to lecturers. There are numerous ways in which this can be done, and in the next few posts on this subject I'll show some of the approaches I've taken with my own students.

Here's a summary of Hattie and Marsh's work:

John Hattie and H.W. Marsh (1996), 'The Relationship between Research and Teaching: a Meta-Analysis', Review of Educational Research, 66:4, 507-542.

Hattie and Marsh look at what lecturers think about the relationship between teaching and research. They identify three models of a negative correlation; two of a positive; and three of a zero correlation.

The models of a negative correlation are that there's competition between time devoted to teaching and to research; that the two activities require different personalities; and that they are rewarded differently.

The most important positive correlation model was the 'conventional wisdom' model, which claims that research activity is crucial to teaching in HE; studies (Halsey 1992, Neumann 1992) show that almost all lecturers believe this to be true.  Fewer believe the opposite to be true, though (ie. that teaching activity is important for one's research).

Arguments about zero relationship suggest that teaching and research are 'different enterprises' (one analogy is the relationship of a soloist to a musical score); and that the personalities of teacher and researcher are not different, but simply unrelated.

Hattie and Marsh's conclusion is that: 'the likelihood that research productivity actually benefits teaching is extremely small [but on the other hand] productivity in research and scholarship does not seem to detract from being an effective teacher' (529). 

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